The Simple Technology That Accidentally Ruined Baseball

To illustrate this point, consider the Florida Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton, the MLB-leader in home runs and RBIs. Here are his numbers on each count and after each count:

  • 1-1: 34 at-bats; .529 average; 1.176 slugging
  • 2-1: 38 at-bats; .385 average; .692 slugging
  • 1-2: 91 at-bats; .176 average; .297 slugging
     
  • After 1-1: 218 at-bats; .257 average; .459 slugging
  • After 2-1: 119 at-bats; .261 average; .445 slugging
  • After 1-2: 155 at-bats; .187 average; .297 slugging

Going from a 2-1 count to a 1-2 count has a staggering effect on Stanton's offense. On a 2-1 count, Stanton hits like Albert Pujols. On a 1-2 count, his slugging is worse than Ichiro Suzuki.

The upshot? When you add up the cumulative effects of a lower strike zone—more low pitches yielding worse hits, more strikes yielding worse counts for hitters, and more strike outs—they explain one-third of the offensive decrease over the last five years, Roegele found. Mills's research suggests that the figure is even higher: "As much as 40 percent of the decline in run scoring may be directly attributed to the increases in called strikes."

Why Baseball's Going Down

A bigger, lower strike zone might be the most important factor in baseball's offensive cold streak. That would not make it the only factor. For example:

  • In the last decade, managers have gotten smarter about defense, and many runs have potentially disappeared into the maw of improved defenders and advanced fielding.
  • The strategic deployment of hard-throwing middle relievers has blunted offensive power. The number of relief appearances since 1987 has doubled according to Joe Sheehan's newsletter, while the number of pitchers averaging a 95-mph fastball has increased from 11 to 25 since 2002.*
  • There are reports that temporary inconsistencies in baseball manufacturing in the 1990s created a bounty of "juiced balls," which traveled further than ordinary baseballs. Jay Jaffe produced interesting anecdotal evidence of the juiced-ball theory.
  • It's possible that baseball is going through a brief dry spell in home-run-hitting talent, or an extraordinary moment in pitching quality.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the harsh 2006 rules against performance-enhancing drugs offer a compelling explanation for baseball's dearth of power—although it's odd that baseball's minor leagues haven't seen a similar decline in offensive performance since their own steroid policy was implemented.  

But none of this rules out the astonishing impact that camera-technology and performance standards for umpires have had on baseball's hitters.

The irony is that MLB did everything that an economist or corporate guru would have advised. Baseball embraced emerging technology rather than banish it. It used analytics to improve the work of its elite employees. It used reviews to encourage exceptional performance among umpires. And the league got exactly what they wanted: a more-perfect strike zone.

But is that really baseball's highest goal? A perfect strike zone, at the expense of steadily evaporating offense?

Baseball has done all the right little things while perhaps ignoring the big thing: It needs hitters. It needs home runs. Sports thrive and grow when national stars thrive on national television as marketing ambassadors of the game. Today, baseball is a national pastime without a truly national star. Mike Trout, the historic and absurdly young center fielder for the league-leading Los Angeles Angels, has one-third the name recognition of Derek Jeter, a telegenic veteran that even this Yankees fan named Derek will acknowledge was never half as good as Trout.

So the league has pitched itself into a corner. Its own rules have destroyed the offensive power surge that had captured America's attention in the late-'90s and early aughts. Umpires, empowered and/or cowered by technology, are better than ever. As a direct result, baseball has become a grind for fans who prefer sports with scoring.


*Update: Thanks to Conor Sen for the data.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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