In the year 2000, 26 players hit for both power and average to reach the Triple Crown milestones of 30 home runs, 100 RBI and a batting average of .300. In 2013, only three players reached all three milestones and in mid-season in 2014, three were on target for all three and six more were close. With three weeks to go in the 2014 season, only two players are on target and no others are close.
At mid-season, I raised the question, “Where have all the hitters gone?” We have some answers now.
One place they have gone is the disabled list. At mid-season, there were four National League hitters contending for top offensive honors, Troy Tulowitzki, Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton.
Tulowitzki and Goldschmidt suffered season-ending injuries before they had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. McCutchen also spent time on the disabled list but has come back and is playing hurt. Stanton was the last man standing until this week when he was struck in the face by a pitch which likely will end his season.
Consequently, no National League hitters will reach the triple milestones of 30 home runs, 100 RBI and a batting average of .300 this year.
In the American League, two players are headed for triple milestones, Victor Martinez and Jose Abreu. Six others have 30+ home runs but have batting averages south of .290. Even Mike Trout, considered by many to be the best player in the game, has been unable to keep his batting average above .300 after being at .313 at mid-season. Two National League players also have 30+ home runs with batting averages under .290.
A comparison of offensive figures over the last 15 years is revealing:
All of the measures are trending in the direction of reducing offensive production. The rate stats (BAVG, OBP and SLG) are all down as are the runs per team per game and walks per nine innings while the strikeout rate is up sharply. The trend appears to be accelerating and if it continues next year, we will see batting average dropping below .250 and runs per game dropping below 4.00 in 2015.
A number of reasons can be advanced for the decline. Stronger prohibitions against performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) are likely a factor, but not one that can be measured. The pitching is stronger with the advent of pitches like the cutter. Every team appears to have a stable of fire-balling relievers with 95+ mph fastballs. Hitters are generally swinging for the fences and disdaining a two-strike approach to make contact to avoid striking out. Pitchers appear to be more aware of the negative effect of issuing walks and have sharpened their control.
While batting average is not the best measure of offensive performance, it is the most recognizable since it is the most widely reported. With batting average dropping by 20 points since 2000, a batter must hit 49 points better than average rather than 29 points above average to be a .300 hitter.
If the trend continues next year, Major League Baseball will likely search for changes in an effort to restore “balance” as was done in 1969 by lowering the pitching mound and in 1973 by introducing the designated hitter in the American League.
Bill Gilbert is a baseball analyst and writer and member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).