Why Major League Baseball players can't hit anymore


Major League Baseball’s regular season ended on a fitting note Sunday, when Washington Nationals righty Jordan Zimmermann pitched a no-hitter against the Miami Marlins.

The no-hitter serves as a summary of this season: pitchers dominating a hapless group of hitters. Baseball’s batting average hit its lowest point in over four decades this season, and observers of the game are searching for an explanation for the offensive decline.

Take, for example, the batting title, which goes to the player with the best season-long average—the number of hits divided by the number of at bats.

This year, there isn’t much to cheer about. In the American League, Houston’s Jose Altuve won the batting title by hitting .341—mundane among modern batting champions. The National League is particularly unexceptional: Colorado’s Justin Moreau topped his peers batting just .319, the lowest average for a batting champion since 1991.

Some perspective: first of all, maintaining a batting average of .300 or greater is quite an accomplishment. As baseball legend Ted Williams once said, “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

The bar has been lowered lately, however. The league-wide batting average is .251, according to the stat-tracking website FanGraphs. That’s the lowest average since 1972, one year before the American League introduced the designated hitter.

Here are some reasons why:

1. Performance-enhancing drugs

If you’re a casual baseball fan, you might cite the obvious: steroids. Many offensive stars from recent decades, from Mark McGwire to Alex Rodriguez, have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball is more vigilant these days and recently reached an agreement with the players union to toughen penalties around the use of banned drugs, so you might assume that’s dampened offensive stats.

Ron Shandler, sabermetrics guru and founder of Baseball Forecaster and BaseballHQ.com, says it’s not so clear cut.

“Because we really don’t know who has and who hasn’t taken, it’s really tough to draw any conclusions,” he told Fusion. “But I think that the intuitive, logical way to look at it is that it has clearly had some sort of impact, but we don’t know if it impacts on the batting side or on the pitching side, because actually more pitchers in the mid-2000s were being caught for steroid use than batters were.”

While the use of performance-enhancing drugs likely had some impact in offensive firepower, it’s not easily quantified and there are lots of other culprits.

2. Defensive shifts

Follow the numbers. MLB teams are rapidly adopting a data-driven approach to the game, including how to position fielders defensively.

One of the biggest changes is an aggressive use of “shifts” on power hitters. This means managers move fielders to a certain part of the field where the batter is most likely to hit the ball. The move was born back in the 1940s to take away knocks from Ted Williams, widely considered the greatest hitter in Major League Baseball history.

The defensive alignments that teams used in the ’40s and ’50s against Williams were “something based on an educated guess, but not a ton of data,” according to Christina Kahrl, one of the co-founders of Baseball Prospectus and a writer for ESPN. “Today they have that data for every player, on every pitch.”

Armed with heaps of statistics, teams can determine where a certain player is likely to hit the ball and then move fielders into that area. Kahrl said the proliferation of data analysis, combined with other factors, makes hitting “more difficult today than it ever was before.”

3. Power pitching

Pitchers are bringing the heat. The number of pitchers who throw their fastball at an average of 95 miles per hour or more has increased by 150 percent since 2007, going from 41 players to 103, according to FanGraphs. The league’s hardest thrower, Aroldis Chapman, regularly tops 100 m.p.h.

As velocities have gone up, batting averages have dropped.

The falloff isn’t just because of power pitching, though. In recent years, umpires have adopted a taller strike zone, which further advantages pitchers. Rob Arthur, a baseball writer and consultant, explained the phenomenon in a recent piece for FOX Sports. “A bigger strike zone gives the pitcher more territory to use, and the hitter more space to worry about,” he wrote. “On balance, the larger zone favors the pitcher substantially.”

4. Acceptance of strikeouts

Back in 2001, the founding father of baseball data analysis, Bill James, made a series of predictions about what the game will look like in 2015.

“That the trend toward more strikeouts and more homers from the top of the order to the bottom will also end soon,” he wrote in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

He was wrong. Strikeouts have continued to rise across the league, as more players concede strikeouts in a tradeoff for more power. “It’s become a game where contact, simply making contact and getting the ball in play, is a much smaller factor,” said ESPN’s Kahrl.

Veteran player Adam Dunn is the most extreme example of this phenomenon. Roughly half the times he came to bat over his 14-year career, he struck out, walked or hit a home run.

While strikeouts can be frustrating for fans, teams and players don’t always mind them, as long as hitters are productive otherwise.

“I care,” said Dunn, then an outfielder with the Washington Nationals was quoted saying in 2009. “But it depends on when you’re striking out. If you strike out with two outs and nobody on, who gives a [expletive]?”

Yahoo Sports crunched a decade’s worth of stats a few years ago and found no correlation between a team’s strikeouts and runs scored. In other words, it didn’t matter.

But the evolution of baseball into a game of strikeouts, walks and home runs isn’t great for the fan experience, according to Kahrl. It’s not something you want to watch for nine innings,” she said. “It’s soccer without the tension.”

How can Major League Baseball improve hitting?

Good pitching isn’t inherently boring. There have been five no-hitters pitched this year and it’s hard to deny the excitement of watching Aroldis Chapman’s stupified batters with his fastball.

But for those that would like to see more hitting, there is hope. To begin with, Major League Baseball could simply juice the ball. MLB has a history of introducing livier baseball when offensive performance begins to dip.

A more organic solution is possible, too. Players could adapt.

Chas Pippitt, founder of North Carolina-based hitting academy Baseball Rebellion, believes that big leaguers are suffering from mechanical problems with their swing. Too many players are being taught a conservative hitting approach that he says limits hard contact.

“They’re being taught stuff that even they know for a fact doesn’t work,” said Pippitt, who has clients in 40 U.S. states, including college and professional players.

If coaches instruct players to use more a more explosive, athletic technique, strikeouts could remain high, but it could also lead to an offensive resurgence, according to Pippitt.

“Power and batting average don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” he said. “You have to hit the ball hard.”

Hitters could also learn new techniques to beat defensive shifts when they are employed.

“All it will take is a few of these pull hitters figuring out that they can hit the ball to the opposite field and increase their batting average 10 or 15 points,” said stat expert Ron Shandler. “But they’re so into the way they normally do things, so it’s tough for them to readjust.”

Shandler believes it’s only a matter of time before teams start developing players who are better suited to hitting in today’s environment, similar to how the Oakland Athletics revolutionized personnel evaluation by seeking out certain types of undervalued players.

“That same type of mindset will eventually offset some of these change,” he said.

Graphics by Victor Abarca; David Quiñones contributed reporting

Jordan Fabian is Fusion’s politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he’s not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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