Remember a few short years ago when baseballs where flying out of ballparks at record paces and every other game was a 10-9 slugfest? Well those days are gone. Offense has been in decline for the past several years but in 2013 it reached lows not seen in two decades. Teams scored just 4.17 runs/game in 2013. The last time scoring was that low was 1992. Hitters in 2013 posted the lowest composite batting average and on base percentage since 1972. Not since 1992 have hitters had a lower composite slugging percentage. Pedro Alvarez and Paul Goldschmidt tied for the NL lead in home runs with 36. Not since Fred McGriff led the NL with 35 homers in 1992 has a league leader had so few. So what has happened to all the offense?
It would be easy to chalk up the decline in offense to the crack down on performance enhancing drugs. The game now has a drug testing policy with some real teeth. There is no doubt the game is cleaner than it was a decade ago. However, it wasn’t just hitters using steroids. Pitchers were getting busted too. The raw power that hitters were displaying during the steroid era appears to now be missing from the game, but the same can’t be said for pitchers. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before. In 2013 there were 3 times as many pitchers averaging 95 mph with their fastballs than in 2007. Pitchers this season fired 100 mph fastballs 469 times. That is 4 times as many as 2008. It isn’t just relief pitchers bringing the heat either. Gerrit Cole topped 100 mph a whopping 22 times in 2013. Andrew Cashner, Danny Salazar, Nathan Eovaldi,and Matt Harvey were other starting pitchers that hit triple digits this season.
Throughout the history of baseball hitting has gone through up and down cycles. But this may be different. 1968 was considered the year of the pitcher. Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA, the lowest ERA of the liveball era. The league batting average in 1968 was just .237 which was the lowest of all time. But pitchers today put way more pitches by hitters. The strike out rate in 1968 was 15.8%. In 2013 hitters whiffed an historic 19.9% of the time. And as if pitchers needed any more help, the fielders behind them are increasing more efficient defensively. The .985 fielding % in 2013 was an all-time high while the 0.57 errors committed per game was an all-time low. Add it all up and it is easy to see the deck is stacked heavily against hitters.
With offense so difficult to come by it begs the question, how much will the cost to acquire it rise? Quality hitters are a scare commodity. There are rumors that Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista are on the trade block. They could certainly fill needs for a team like the Pirates. The Pirates have been kicking the tires on high end bats for quite a while now. The Bucs were linked to trade rumors for Giancarlo Stanton and Trumbo prior to the trade deadline last season but nothing came of it. Sticker shock was the likely culprit. I don’t see that changing soon. Offense is in short supply so teams are going to hoard their premium hitters. Any team that wants to add a legitimate hitter via a trade is going to have to give up an awful lot of talent in return to make it happen.