The Decay of Scoring

Shawn Siegel

1889 was a good year for baseball. The New York Giants won the National League pennant and future hall-of-famer Dan Brouthers led the league with a healthy .373 batting average. Teams averaged 5.84 runs per game, offense was alive and well, the game was beginning to explode.

1889. A year before Cy Young made his major league debut, a decade before the American League was founded, and two decades before Babe Ruth’s home run prowess revolutionized the game.

A common cliché can also be traced to 1889: “Life imitates art.” A phrase that has been misused, misunderstood, and misappropriated for over a century. Its birth can be traced to the famous writer and dramatist Oscar Wilde. In an 1889 essay titled The Decay of Lying, Wilde wrote, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates life.”

Was Wilde’s assertion correct? I don’t know. But as it relates to baseball, I think there was a small semblance of truth to his words. Wilde’s essay could have instead been titled, The Decay of Scoring, because recent seasons have shown that at the very least, baseball imitates art.

Putting 1889 to rest, let’s jump ahead to the late 1970’s. And in place of Oscar Wilde, we’ll substitute another writer and dramatist, Woody Allen. In 1978, Allen won two Academy Awards for Annie Hall. He took home Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay. (He didn’t actually “take home” the Oscars. They would have been delivered since he did not attend the ceremony.)

Allen was part of a new generation of emerging Hollywood stars. Martin Scorsese directed Taxi Driver in 1976 and Raging Bull in 1980. In 1979, Meryl Streep won her first Academy Award for The Deer Hunter. Billy Crystal broke out through the television show Soap. 

This was a period of great change for the entertainment industry, and baseball as well. After a lengthy legal battle, baseball officially entered the free-agency era in December of 1975. Andy Messersmith became baseball’s first free agent signee a few months later. Under George Steinbrenner, the rejuvenated Yankees bought Reggie Jackson from the Athletics and began a mini-dynasty. In 1979, Nolan Ryan would become the first professional athlete to sign a contract that averaged over a million dollars per year. But on the field, one thing was consistent: teams struggled to score runs.

Let’s revisit the history of baseball offense. You’ll remember that way back in 1889, teams in the National League scored 5.84 runs per game. Teams continued to score well over 5 runs per game for the next decade, peaking at a whopping 7.38 in 1894. In that era, batters could be expected to get a hit each game, and although home runs were scarce, the ball was almost always put into play and strikeouts were rare.

Shortly after the century turned, scoring plummeted and the game entered the “dead ball” era. From 1902 to 1920, teams rarely scored over 4 runs per game. Home runs were exceedingly rare, stolen bases were common, and strikeouts became a larger part of pitching arsenals. Ty Cobb dominated this era despite averaging 5 home runs per year for his career. 

Something changed in 1920. At first, Babe Ruth was a one man revolution. When he swatted 54 home runs in 1920, no other player even had 20. In fact, no player had ever hit 20 home runs in the AL’s history until Ruth came along. But besides Ruth, a subtle series of rule changes helped bring about the “live ball” era. Spit balls were outlawed, clean baseballs were used to help batters see pitches, and outfield fences started to creep in.

The “roaring twenties” could simply be a baseball term instead of one describing the era’s culture and economic prosperity. In the 20’s and 30’s, teams routinely scored over 5 runs per game, home runs became the norm, and batting averages surged. In 1930, NL teams batted .303 as a league-wide average, the best by a wide-margin in the 20th century.

While scoring did subside following the shortened World War II seasons, the 40’s and 50’s were solid offensive decades. Teams routinely averaged over 4.5 runs per game, particularly in the NL, which developed a reputation for livelier bats.

But shortly after 1960, something again changed and the offensive switch was flipped off. In 1962, NL teams scored only 3.81 runs per game, the lowest amount since the “dead ball” era back in 1919. Batting averages plummeted, stolen bases once again came back into fashion (think of Maury Wills and Lou Brock), and pitchers ruled the day.

Scoring hit a low point in 1968, the original “year of the pitcher.” AL teams scored an all-time low of 3.41 runs per game, and NL teams were barely better with 3.43. St Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson had an obscenely good 1.12 ERA, while the Detroit Tigers’ Denny McLain won 31 games with a 1.96 ERA. Besides winning their respective leagues CY Young awards, hitting was so scarce that they were also named MVPs.

After 1968, baseball decided to enact rule changes to help bring offense back into the game. Besides tinkering with the size of the strike zone, the biggest change was lowering the pitching mound to give hitters a better chance. Sports Illustrated’s William Leggett reported, “The mound was lowered to try to help return hitting to baseball, since 1968 was completely owned by the pitchers.” Writing early on in 1969, Leggett seemed pleased with the change, “The games might not be any faster this year, but they certainly are more interesting.”

While scoring didn’t explode like it did in the early 20’s, the rule changes helped stop the decline and offenses remained steady throughout the 70’s and 80’s. NL teams averaged about 4 runs per game during those decades. The AL, due to the adoption of the designated hitter in 1973, averaged about 10% more runs during the same period. But even with the artificial DH boost, AL teams were only scoring the same amount of runs as they did in the 50’s and a run per game less than they did in the 30’s while still struggled to hit home runs. In three of the four years after the DH was adopted, it only took 32 home runs to lead the league.

Fast forward to the late 90’s. Woody Allen was forgotten, Billy Crystal was washed up (My Giant anyone?), Meryl Streep was in a rut (1999’s Music of the Heart is just one mediocre example), and Martin Scorsese’s Bringing out the Dead was a box office flop. And unlike the 70’s, 32 home runs wouldn’t even place you in the AL or NL Top 10. Teams were scoring 5 runs per game just like they did back in the 30’s, home runs were flying out of the park, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were breaking records, and pitching was an afterthought. It was like a complete reversal of the 70’s.

What had happened?

The most obvious answer is steroids. But that would be an oversimplification of a series of events of that led to baseball’s second “live ball” era beginning in the early 1990’s. Here are some of the many reasons offenses thrived:

Expansion. In 1993, Colorado and Florida (now Miami) joined the National League. Arizona and Tampa Bay joined the fray in 1998. Colorado in particular was the greatest hitters park in baseball history (due to thin air and mediocre dimensions), single-handedly causing total offensive numbers to climb. Further, the accepted story is that expansion diluted an already weak pitching pool, which enabled hitters to thrive. (This seems like false logic to me since the hitting pool would also have been diluted.)

The strike zone. Subtle changes to the size of the strike zone have drastically impacted scoring in baseball’s long history. An enlarged strike zone in 1963 helped bring about pitching dominance in the late 60’s and an ever-shrinking strike zone helped batters in the late 90’s. Beginning in 2001, it began to grow again due to rule changes and new umpire testing mechanisms, such as QuesTec, that enforced the rules by the book. This helped stem the tide of power that got a bit out of control in the late 90’s.

New stadiums. Besides Coors field in Colorado and stadiums for the expansion teams, there was an influx of new stadiums with rather small dimensions. Stadiums in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Texas were all more power-friendly than their predecessors.

A different baseball. Often overlooked is that small changes to the baseball itself can severely alter the game. 1987 is an oft-overlooked year in baseball history. Scoring spiked dramatically in 1987 compared to previous years, foreshadowing the 1990’s and 2000’s. While baseball never admitted it, many people believe the ball was “juiced” in 1987. In 1989, St Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog told Sports Illustrated, "They told us the balls weren't juiced up, it was a joke." According to respected writer Peter Gammons, “All told, 171 players hit 10 or more homers in 1987, and 94 of them had their career highs. Seventy-four of those players haven't hit as many in 1988 and '89 combined as they hit that season.” Many have speculated that a similarly “juiced” ball was used beginning in the 1990’s to spur interest in the game.

Steroids. Yes, steroids. The story has been beaten to death by congress and the media, but there is little doubt that steroid use was prevalent in baseball in the 90’s and early 00’s. We’ll never know precisely how much this impacted the game or how much of an advantage it gave batters considering that pitchers were widely using them as well.

Beginning in 2008, the plot changed once again and scoring began to subside. By 2010, scoring hit its lowest point since 1992. In the NL, pitching staffs averaged 7.37 strikeouts per game, the highest number in baseball history and in 2011 AL batters hit under .260 for the first time since 1992.

The scoring decay continued this year, and suddenly 2012 looks a lot like 1978, or even 1968. NL teams are hovering right around the 4 run per game mark, just where they were in the late 70’s. Hitters in the NL are struggling to even hit .250, an average that would make Bob Gibson and pitchers of the late 60’s proud. Slugger Albert Pujols, fresh off a $240 million contract, didn’t even hit a single home run through the first month of the season.

There are all types of theories about why scoring has suddenly dropped. Mets manager Terry Collins told ESPN, "The pendulum is switching, pitchers are throwing harder. Guys are throwing 94 to 98 (mph). Bullpen. Rotation. Years ago, 92 was a hard fastball. Now it's an average fastball.”

Angels’ outfield Torii Hunter told the LA Times his theories. “The game has definitely changed. The strike zone has changed; everything's changed," he said. "You can't [put] a finger on one thing. Look at how many pitches there are now. Scouting reports. You've got hot-cold zones. You've got everything."

And wouldn’t you know it. Now that baseball has reverted to a 70’s look, Hollywood has too. Remember Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, Meryl Streep, and Martin Scorsese? All seemingly washed up a decade ago? Suddenly they’re back in fashion just like stolen bases, low scoring games, and sacrifice bunts.

The 2012 Oscars were a throwback to the 70’s. Scorsese was nominated for Best Director, and Hugo was nominated for Best Picture. Crystal came out of retirement (or so it seemed) to host the awards. Streep won Best Actress for her performance in The Iron Lady, her first Oscar win since 1983. 1983 was also the first of Cal Ripken’s two MVP awards. Ripken has long since retired, but the “Iron Lady” has even outlasted the “Iron Man.”

And Woody Allen scored big with Midnight in Paris. Not only was it his first box office success in years, it was actually his highest grossing movie of all-time (not taking inflation into account). He was nominated for Best Director and won the Academy Award for best screenplay. It was his first Oscar in 25 years, and just his 2nd since his Annie Hall success. And just like in 1978, Allen was nowhere to be seen at the ceremony.

Whether it’s art imitating baseball, or baseball imitating art, Hollywood and baseball have come full circle.

Is the 70’s feel good for baseball and movies? As it relates to movies, not everyone was so happy with the throwback feel of the Oscars. Critic Tim Goodman of Hollywood Reporter called them a "safe, unfunny, retro-disaster.” But as it relates to baseball, many are happy with the change. Less runs equals an increased focus on defense, base-running, and fundamentals. Seattle Manager Eric Wedge told the Seattle Times, “It's going to be more of a throwback game,” and he added, “It's a purer brand of baseball, and I like that.”

This brings us back to Woody Allen one last time. Midnight in Paris, once you strip away all of the obscure historical references and anxiety-ridden characters, is really a rather simple allegory. The main character Gil, played by Owen Wilson, travels back in time to the 1920’s, an era that he idealizes and calls “a golden age.” At first, his time spent in the 20’s live up to his high expectations. He meets his heroes, revels in the culture, and falls in love with Adriana, a woman who typifies the 20’s. But just as Gil relishes the 20’s, Adriana relishes the Belle Époque, the 1890’s, which she calls “the most beautiful era Paris has ever known.”

Gil realizes that people in every era idealize an older age. Gil theorizes that artists in the Belle Époque longed for the Renaissance, and that Renaissance painters “probably imagine[d] life was better when Kubla Khan was around.” Gil returns to the present with a renewed sense of vigor and joy. Gil says, “I’ve got to get rid of my illusions..that I’d be happier in the past.”

And so it is with baseball. Wedge’s assertion that baseball is “purer” today than it was a decade ago is false. Baseball history has always been cyclical. Sometimes the batters rule, other times it is the pitchers. Baseball is no purer today than it was a decade ago, nor was 70’s baseball purer or better than the 50’s. Each era is simply different, no more golden than the rest.