Swing and a Miss - Analyzing MLB’s Declining Balls in Play

I was looking through my Twitter timeline last week and I came across this tweet by Jayson Stark from The Athletic.

Swing and a Miss - Analyzing MLB’s Declining Balls in Play

10,000 less baseballs in play? Yikes! How can that be? I went to baseball reference.com to find the data. I grabbed the team hitting data from 2009 through Monday night’s games. I created a Qlik Sense app and I used the following expression to calculate baseballs in play:

Baseballs in play = (At-Bats + Sacrifice Flies + Sacrifice Hits) – (Homeruns + Strikeouts)

** for the 2018 season, I multiplied the number by 4 as we currently 25% through the season. **

Here is what the data told me:

Baseballs in Play by Season
In the 2009 season, batters put 130,217 balls in play. In subsequent seasons, the number has dropped between 1k-2k per season and this year is projected see only 120,320 baseballs put into play. The math shows a difference of 9,897 (-7.6%) less baseballs put into play. When you look at the numbers on a per game basis, we can see that in 2009, the number of baseballs in play per game was 26.79 baseballs needed to be fielded defensively. In 2018, the projected number of baseballs in play per game drops to 24.86. That is a drop-off of almost 2 less per game. So, what does that decline really mean? Are homeruns increasing/declining? What about strikeouts? Let’s take a look.


When you look at the numbers on a per game basis, we can see that in 2009, the number of baseballs in play per game was 26.79 baseballs needed to be fielded defensively. In 2018, the projected number of baseballs in play per game drops to 24.86. That is a drop-off of almost 2 less per game. So, what does that decline really mean? Are homeruns increasing/declining? What about strikeouts? Let’s take a look.



Homeruns per Season

In 2009, hitters deposited 5,042 baseballs into the seats for homeruns, 2018 projects to see 5,568. For an increase of 526 homeruns (+10.4%). This is good for baseball.


Strikeouts per Season

In 2009, hitters struck out 33,591 times. 2018 projects to see 42,076 batters strike out. For an increase of 8,485 (+25.3%) strikeouts. This is not good for baseball.


The data shows that strikeouts are the main reason for the decrease in batted baseballs in play. In my opinion, the main reason for this is analytics. In today’s game the starting pitcher may last into the 5th or 6th inning (or 2 times through the batting order). In the subsequent innings, every pitcher vs. hitter match-up is analyzed. Managers are always looking to the numbers to find the advantage for their pitcher. This means bringing pitchers into the game to face a hitter based on categories such as past results, lefty vs lefty, righty vs righty, ground ball pitcher as opposed to a flyball pitcher, etc. There are more pitching changes in today’s games than ever before and most pitchers who come into the game are throwing 95-100 mph. This puts hitters at a distinct disadvantage. Thus, the increased number of strikeouts.

But are more strikeouts good for the game? I don’t believe so. Most casual fans want action during the game. In baseball the action is hits and runs scored, not strikeouts and defensive strategy. Casual fans are not interested in seeing pitching changes.

Major League baseball has tried to address the pace of play recently, but I think they are looking at the wrong problem. They need to figure out a way to limit the number of pitching changes. Some ideas that others have suggested are to require pitchers to pitch to at least 3 batters before they can be replaced and/or limiting the total number of pitching changes in a game, etc.

Baseball needs to figure this out quickly because younger sports fans are migrating away from playing baseball due to its slow and boring nature. Instead, they are moving towards action-packed sports which could put the game of baseball on the path of extinction.

What can baseball do to save itself from extinction? Chuck Bannon uses analytics to craft a solution!

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