The surprise culprit behind baseball's drop in offense

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Home runs, slugging percentages and other baseball power numbers are plummeting, and have been on the decline for the last eight years.

In 2006, the average slugging percentage in the majors was .432 with a total of 5,386 home runs hit that year. Those numbers have tumbled with just 4,661 home runs hit in the 2013 season, off 14% since 2006, with a league slugging percentage of .396, down 8% since 2006.

What is the cause of the lackluster offense? Is it the normal peaks and valleys that occur in the game? Is it caused by the end of the steroid era? Or is it the influx of superior pitching?

Pitch F/X

According to a recent edition of The Atlantic magazine, one cause is neither the harsher drug testing, nor the increase in quality pitchers. Instead, it is a piece of technology called Pitch F/X, a pitch-tracking camera, which has been singled out as a surprise culprit for the league’s boring offense. Back in the 2006 American League Championship Series between the Detroit Tigers and the Oakland Athletics, Pitch F/X debuted to help the umpires call more accurate balls and strikes. Since then these pitch-tracking cameras have been installed in every single stadium across the league. Pitch F/X is not used in real time, but rather as an audit for the umpires and the league to judge their game calling ability.

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The pressure has been on the umpires to improve their accuracy. Three senior umps were fired after the 2009 season due to mistakes in calling games. Umpires that have had superior accuracy, earn promotions and salaries of up to $400,000. This technology has lead to a more uniform strike zone. According to The Atlantic article, the number of strikes called accurately has gone up slowly from 83 percent in 2007 to 88 percent in 2013. This number will continue to go up as umpires are trained by this technology to call a more uniform strike zone.

Lower strike zone

So what is really happening? Strikes in the lower portion of the zone are called more often. For example, the number of called third strikes in the lower portion of the strike zone (defined as 18-24 inches above home plate) has jumped from less than 1,500 in 2008, to over 2,000 in 2013. Pitchers have taken full advantage of this lower strike zone. In 2007 the percentage of pitches thrown low (18-24 inches above the plate) was just 17%. That number sky rocketed to 43% in 2013. Pitchers are also throwing more sinkers, a fastball with downward movement as it gets closer to the plate. The pitch accounted for 35% of all strikes in 2007, and is now 38% of all strikes. Hitters have caught on to the lower strike zone and have swung at a higher rate of low pitches. But, the amount of swinging strikeouts on low pitches has also risen in that period. In 2008 the amount of strikeouts on low pitches was around 4,500 while in 2013 it was at 5,000.

There are many reasons why offense is down across the league. Managers are getting smarter about hitter’s tendencies, shifting the defense to the best position for each batter. Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs have been banned across the league, and better pitchers have entered the league in an effort to counter the big sluggers from the Steroid Era. It really seems this is a part of the regular back and forth between hitters and pitchers.

Major League Baseball would only be going backwards if this technology were to be removed. The onus falls on the hitters to not only become more patient at the plate, but also learn the new strike zone that has been set by the umpires and the league. This will take time. It’s not an answer fans want to hear, as national viewership has declined each year since 2007, but it’s the answer that makes the most sense.

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