Is it time to covet the slugger over the ace?
With offense continuing downward trend, teams should shift focus to bats at Deadline
Tony Gwynn probably would've figured this out.
If he could master the concept of scooting base hits through the "5.5 hole" between short and third to the tune of a .338 career batting average, surely Gwynn could have handled the dramatic defensive shifts, the ample advanced data and the multitude of high-velocity hurlers and bullpen weapons that now pervade the game and create a nightmare for hitters.
Sadly, Gwynn is gone, and so, too, is the notion of anybody actually threatening the vaunted .400 mark for a full season, as he once did. There are people in the game today who swear it has never been harder to get a hit, and while that's probably a slight exaggeration, the emotion behind the sentiment is understandable.
Because even in a season in which we've lost some extremely talented pitchers (Jose Fernandez, Matt Moore, Kris Medlen, Jarrod Parker, Patrick Corbin, Martin Perez, to name but a few) to a surge in Tommy John surgeries, the arms clearly still have the upper hand, and this seems at least as much systematic as it is tied to specific pitching personnel.
Offense trending down
The 2014 season fits right in line with the statistical progression we've seen the past decade (see chart).
That puts us on pace for the lowest league-wide average and on-base percentage since 1972, the lowest slugging percentage since '92 and the highest strikeout rate of all-time (all of which should sound familiar, because last year it was the exact same thing).
And it leads you to wonder whether a viable run-producing bat could soon be considered greater currency than a reliable innings-eating arm.
"After a year like this, I believe you'll see a recalibration in the industry," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Because the numbers are going to continue to go the way they're going until our hitters reacquire the barrel and hit the ball hard where it's pitched. The defensive shifting is just killing batting averages."
And, ergo, run production. The average runs per game is 4.15, two ticks behind last year's 4.17 mark, which was the lowest since 1992.
Remember when 800 runs was seen as the standard for postseason entry? A decade ago, in 2004, 14 teams reached that total. Last year? Just one -- the Red Sox. This year, only the A's, with 5.16 runs per game, are on such a pace.
Breaking things down individually, consider this: Even within the context of a not-quite-half-season sample that is bound to lend itself to some inflated figures, there are only 15 guys right now with an OPS of .900 or above. Again, compare that to a decade ago, when 28 players finished the full season with such a mark.
On the flip side, the average Major League starter a decade ago had an ERA of 4.62, while the average reliever was at 4.17. This year, those numbers are 3.89 and 3.61, respectively. While we still have a long way to go, there are 27 qualified guys right now with ERAs under 3.00, and two (Masahiro Tanaka and Johnny Cueto) under 2.00.
None of this is expected to impact the targets of the Trade Deadline, which is a mere 41 days away with a wealth of teams very much in the hunt. The buyer's market will still gravitate primarily toward the top of the pitching crop, and this year that could include an established ace like David Price, a burgeoning one like Jeff Samardzija and a less glamorous but statistically substantive option in Jason Hammel.
"The reality is that, this time of year, with teams that have positioned themselves as contenders, pitching always rules the day," one executive said. "None of us are built perfectly offensively. You might have four or five guys going good, three or four not so good, and you just hope to scrape it together."
What remains to be seen, though, is if the ongoing offensive environment impacts the return sellers seek in the upcoming trades. Because right now, there's a strong argument for seeking out power bats, given the obvious short supply at the Major League level.
Has the downturn in hits and runs scored augmented the value of players who can provide what was once considered pedestrian production?
"I think it's going to take more than a couple years," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "In the '90s, there was no doubt that the markers moved, because of the explosion of home runs and production. But I don't think we're there yet. I think the ability of a team to manufacture runs and be creative outside the batter's box is always important, and it's even more important if you have a team in an era when runs are harder to come by."
Here in 2014, the hits and runs are even harder to come by than they were a year ago. It makes you appreciate Tony Gwynn's output all the more.