In one of his recent thrillers, ‘Origin’, published this year, Dan Brown, author of ‘The Da Vinci Code’, has a character that says ‘ ..the meek were supposed to inherit the earth, but instead it has gone to the young – the technically inclined, those who stare into video screens rather than into their own souls.’
I’ll bet a lot of my readers are wondering what that quote is doing in a column entitled Baseball World. It was the phrase ‘the technically inclined’ that caught my baseball eye.
In baseball, probably more so than in any other sport, ‘those who stare into video screens’ have changed the game more in the first few years of this century than it had changed in the previous hundred plus years.
Granted there were a few changes in the game before computers began to take over our world.
Until the Williams Shift was invented by Cleveland Indians’ Player Manager Lou Boudreau on July 14, 1946, infielders and outfielders generally stayed within their assigned traditional areas. There had been some minor shifts in players’ positions based upon the tendency of hitters to pull the ball, notably Babe Ruth and Cy Williams, a notorious pull hitter, but none so radical as the one Boudreau employed after Ted drove in eight runs in the first game of a doubleheader against the Indians that day.
In Boudreau’s version, the first baseman played directly behind the first base bag on the line, the shortstop, in this case Boudreau himself, moved to the normal second base position, the second baseman played on the outfield grass 30-50 feet beyond the infield, the third baseman stayed in almost his normal position and the center fielder moved into right center and the right fielder played almost at the wall in right field.
In the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Red Sox that year, Cardinal Manager Eddie Dyer used modifications of the shift against Ted. Ted went only 5 for 25 in the World Series against the shift after batting .342 during the season, but obviously that’s a very small sample. ( It is interesting to note that, against the shift, in Game 3, Ted bunted to third for a base hit with the infield shifted. )
Over the years, the shift has been utilized more and more as Managers began to rely on statistical analysis in making their moves. This trend is not just in fielding positions but also in the selection of relief pitchers based upon their record against specific batters. Where the Manager traditionally took into account the fact that a left handed hitter generally didn’t do as well against a left handed pitcher as a right hander and vice versa when deciding what reliever or pinch hitter to use, now there are statistics available showing what each batter has done against each individual pitcher and how that performance differs from situation to situation.
Cubs Manager, Joe Maddon, when he was at Tampa Bay, probably did more to popularize the shift as a regular tool than any other manager until today when some type of shift is used against almost every batter.
Baseball has changed dramatically in response to the advances in technology. Statisticians, particularly those with the Society of American Baseball Research, have done studies that indicate that the bunt is a waste of an out and, as a consequence it has almost disappeared from the game, even as a sacrifice to get a runner in scoring position. For example, in 2000, the average American League team sacrifice bunted 40 times and, by 2017, the average was down to 18 times.
Between the elimination of the bunt and the emphasis on hitting the ball over the shifted fielders for home runs, the average team in baseball hit a home run in 2017, the year of the homer, every 26 at bats compared to just every 31 at bats in 2000. In 2000, the average American League team hit 192 home runs and that number increased to 211 by 2017, a 10% increase.
Last year, despite the largest number of homers ever recorded in a single year, American League teams averaged just 763 runs scored and in all of baseball the average was 753. In 2000, the average American League team scored 857 runs and in all of baseball the teams average 832 runs. From 2000 until 2017, the average number of runs scored per team in the American League increased by 11%.
As far as batting averages are concerned, the average American League team’s average fell from .276 in 2000 to .256 in 2017, a decrease of 7%.
With home runs increasing and batting averages decreasing over the eighteen year period, teams were still scoring 11% more runs in 2000 than they are today.
It would appear that the shift and the emphasis on statistics is working because batting averages are going down, however, there is no way to calculate the effect the emphasis on home runs has had on decreasing the average. Sluggers like Baltimore’s Chris Davis, for example, hit 85 home runs from 2015-2016 but struck out 427 times and batted a poor .241.
Of course, on the other side, all the statistical experts have their formulas to determine which pitcher should pitch to which batter, what he should throw in what situation and that effects the ups and downs of hitting and scoring as well.
Unfortunately, while baseball is trying to figure out how to shorten the length of the game to increase fan interest, no one is concerned that the thing that brings the most fans into the ball game, not the home run, but the action that occurs when the runner makes his way around the bases and crosses the plate is happening less and less frequently.
No one has or will ever prove that, in the totality of a baseball game, shifting the fielders all over the field and relying on statistics, which merely reflect past performance, makes a better team or a better game. As the people who try to sell us on buying their recommended stocks say in their disclaimers ‘ past performance is no guarantee of future success ‘ and that is nowhere truer than on the baseball field, as every Red Sox fan is painfully aware.