By the Numbers: Just getting to first hasn’t been that easy

Greg Jayne: By the Numbers

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor

Published:

 

Here’s one from the “Wow, I never would have guessed” file.

I wanted to write a By the Numbers column about the inverse relationship between home runs and stolen bases. When home runs go up, stolen bases go down, and vice versa.

This makes sense. When home runs are harder to come by — say, because of steroids testing or something like that — then station-to-station baseball becomes less prevalent. Teams are less likely to sit and wait for a homer, and are more inclined to employ strategy to manufacture runs.

Take 1912, for example, when the typical major-league team hit 28 homers — that’s the entire team, in the entire season — but stole 212 bases. The National League didn’t keep track of caught stealing in those days, but the average AL club was caught 168 times. That’s more than Tim Raines was caught in his career.

Anyway, so I’m looking up some numbers, and I discover this remarkable fact: There have been fewer runners on first base this season than in any year since 1968. Not necessarily fewer baserunners, but fewer runners on first. That’s the part I never would have guessed.

Here’s how that happens:

Batting averages are at their lowest point since 1989. Walks are less frequent than at any time since 1988. And batters are getting hit by pitches less than in any season since 1996. Add those together and subtract extra-base hits (an average of 2.79 per team per game, still higher than the historical norm), and you have the typical team putting 9.27 runners on first base every game, not counting errors.

In 1968, when Bob Gibson was compiling a 1.12 ERA and Don Drysdale was throwing 58 consecutive scoreless innings and Denny McLain was winning 31 games, there were an average of 8.96 runners on first base per team per game.

But every year since then, the number has been higher than this season’s 9.27.

All of which makes this year’s stolen-base numbers that much more intriguing. The average team is attempting 0.95 steals per game. Just six years ago, when home runs were so cheap that Morgan Ensberg hit 36 of them, teams averaged 0.75 stolen-base attempts per game.

That might not seem like much of a difference, but it means an extra 30 or so attempts per team over the course of a season.

Here’s another way of looking at it: In 2011, there are 9.76 runners on first base for every stolen-base attempt; in 2005, there were 12.43 for every attempt. Despite fewer baserunners, teams are running more frequently than they did a couple years ago, and that’s a direct result of diminishing power in the game.

Some baseball purists might suggest that the sport is back in balance, that home runs had become too easy and that the game had strayed too far from its roots. But the statistics always have been subject to changing conditions, and I’ve never understood the notion that there is a “correct” number of home runs or runs or hits in a baseball game.

That said, there is a statistical anomaly that has come into play in recent years. While there are fewer home runs and more stolen bases, there has been a stunning increase in strikeouts.

Last year, the typical team struck out 7.06 times per game, the highest number in major-league history. This year, the average team has 7.00 Ks per game. In fact, the 18 most prolific strikeout seasons in history have been the past 18 years, and the top four seasons have been the past four.

Even now, with home runs down 20 percent from where they were five years ago, it seems that there are plenty of players who hit like Reggie Willits but swing like Reggie Jackson.

That could become a huge problem for the sport. It’s one thing to have a lot of strikeouts when there also are a lot of home runs. It’s quite another to have 65 percent more strikeouts than runs, like we have had this year.

With home runs down from the artificially pumped-up numbers of a decade ago, it seems that teams should recognize there is a place in the lineup for contact hitters, for guys who might hit two home runs a year but consistently put the ball in play.

Because while chicks might dig the longball, there’s also some value in having a runner on first base once in awhile.

Question or comment for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531 or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To “Like” his Facebook page, search for “Greg Jayne – The Columbian.”

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