Who Stole All the Runs in Major League Baseball?

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Who Stole All the Runs in Major League Baseball?: Was it the batters, the pitchers or someone else entirely?

Last night, Roy Halladay of the Philadelphia Phillies pitched just the second post-season no-hitter in Major League Baseball history. Yes, it’s an amazing feat. And yes, it’s surprising. But if there were ever a season during which this feat might seem a bit less surprising, it’s this year.

Haven’t you heard? It’s the “Year of the Pitcher,” so decreed back in late spring, with a flurry of no-hitters that included two perfect games, one pitched by Halladay. A third perfect game was ruined on the final out by an umpire who later admitted he’d blown the call. So this season witnessed only the 19th, 20th and almost the 21st perfect games in baseball history – in the space of just 23 days.

Moreover, the number of runs scored in the majors this year hit an 18-year-low. There were 1,105 fewer runs than last year. That’s 1,105 guys who, instead of crossing the plate and scoring one more run to tell their grandkids about, instead had to jog back to the dugout, chin down. (On the bright side: that makes 1,105 times when the pitcher didn’t want to kick in the Gatorade cooler.)

Surely, this is all the “Year of the Pitcher” effect, right?

Maybe not. Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast (subscribe at iTunes, get it via RSS feed, read the transcript, or listen live via the box above) asks a simple question: who stole all the runs in major league baseball?

Here’s one likely culprit: steroids. The theory goes like this. Steroids helped turn great baseball players into even greater ones, hitting previously unthinkable numbers of home runs. Then came the scandals, the grand-jury indictments, busted reputations, and new rules that banned performance-enhancing drugs and increased testing.

So it would make sense that players are backing away from steroids – becoming smaller, more human. Which would lead to fewer superhuman hitting stats.

But Steve Levitt isn’t so sure. In the podcast, you’ll hear him talk about his efforts to find steroid cheating in the baseball data (he’s done it with schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers, so you wouldn’t think this would be so hard), but he came up empty. His conclusion: “I ended up finding no evidence that steroids matter.”

Phillies celebrate after Halladay’s no-hitter in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds on October 6, 2010. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Hard to believe. Just about everyone who cares at all about baseball is convinced that the Steroid Era contributed mightily to home runs in particular and runs in general. But here are a few confounding facts to chew on: the year steroids testing began, run scoring actually went up; run scoring is up in the minor leagues this year, even though they too have steroids testing; and in the majors, the recent run decline has come almost exclusively in the American League, even though testing there is the same as in the National League.

So if steroids can’t account for all the missing runs, what else might be happening?

This brings us back to the “Year of the Pitcher” theory. There are simply more pitchers who have gotten better at keeping hitters and runs at bay.

One problem with this theory: according to baseball stat hounds like Mitchel Lichtman and Hayes Davenport, pitchers aren’t gobbling up these runs on their own. Yes, it’s tricky to isolate a pitchers’ performance from the number of runs he gives up. But baseball statisticians these days have lots of tricks for doing that, stats like Fielding-Independent Pitching, Defensive Efficiency and Ultimate Zone Rating. (You can check out some of the numbers here.)

And what do those stats tell us?

That you can go ahead and call it “The Year of the Pitcher” if you really want, and we certainly wouldn’t blame Roy Halladay for saying so. But you should also be calling it “The Year of the Glove.”

In the podcast, you’ll hear from Lichtman along with Bud Black, the manager of the San Diego Padres (whose team, retooled last off-season to focus on defense, nearly made the playoffs this year after finishing next-to-last in 2009); and Doug Glanville, a longtime former major league player who was known for his defense.

Glanville was a great interview, a particularly thoughtful guy (he studied engineering at Penn, and comes from a family with a deep love of learning), who’s now written a very good book (see his excellent Times pieces too), and does some analysis for ESPN. His most interesting story in the podcast is something he calls “Milton’s paradise lost” (not the book), and concerns a moment of personal failure that I was surprised he was willing to talk about.

And best of all, you’ll hear Steve Levitt tell you why his hometown Chicago White Sox didn’t want to hire him to steal signs from opposing teams. But it’s okay. Levitt is still hoping to sell his larcenous methodology to another team.


frankenduf

umm- pitchers use steroids too, ya know

Owen

No evidence for steroid use? You mean besides the wacky statistics?

Ben D

I'm not a big fan of using verbatim excerpts from the podcast in the post. Don't you work with a lot of academics? I believe they would call that "self-plagiarism."

hapinoregon

The thing about steroids in baseball is the increase in speed and power. Say, for example, a batter can increase his bat speed and swing power by 10%. A 370 ft. fly ball then becomes a >400 ft. fly ball, which is home run in many ball parks. A 400 ft. fly ball becomes 440 ft. which is a home run in almost any ball park.

A pitcher who can throw 90 mph can now reach 99 mph and, theoretically, recover more quickly between starts.

No, steroids doesn't increase had-eye coordination or allow a batter to more quickly and accurately determine fastball or slider. But, by being pros, especially at the major league level, hand-eye coordination and pitch identification are already at a very high level. Steroids simply enhance the results.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Perhaps the drop off in hits and home runs is due to the sudden ABSCENCE of batters juicing, not pitchers using steroids.

Low hit rates may be the natural equilibrium of the game. Be prepared for Soccer type score results of 0-0, 1-0, 0-1 games. Hey MLB will save on having to replace balls hit into the stands! And baseball will retreat into the Age of Boredom comparable to a Golf match. ANd sports fans will migrate tothe excitement of football and basketball.

--Unless we are prepared to embrace performance enhancement, like we embrace plastic surgery enhancement.

Ulysses

Baseball like all things is subject to random variations and fluctuations that could be explained by a number of factors (really, never being adequately explained).

One thing you've seen in the past few years is a decrease in the top performing hitters. Bautista in Toronto hit his 50-something in 2010, but other than that the top performers' lines these days have looked more like those from the late 80s and early 90s (when the likes of Ryne Sandberg could lead his league in home runs with only 40).

Better defense though any baseball fan can agree makes for a better quality of game. You see less games lost because of failures and more games won because of successes. Thankfully gone are the days of Manny and Ortiz and company roiding and slugging their way to a World Series.

As a White Sox fan, I have suggested they hire Levitt as a consultant to come up with a dynamic pricing scheme, since the White Sox are a bit notorious for pricing their "blue-collar" fans out of games, have (I believe) higher parking fees than anyone but San Francisco, which I'm sure you could market-adjust and give the title to us.

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Kevin

@frankenduf

steroids/hgh are going to help everyday players more than pitchers, they experience more wear and tear and need more muscle mass to succeed. pitchers are probably better off without PED's.

Richard Simon

There have been a number of studies that have indicated that the link between steroids and performance are not as direct as conventional wisdom would have it (see JC Bradbury, for instance). For instance, there have been eight major studies on thr effects of HGH on performance and not one has shown any direct link!

But what does fly under the radar is that one of the the primary benefits of steroids is that they substantially aid in recovery time from physical injuries. So, for example, if a player on steroids is injured, he might be out, say, one week; with steroids, that injury might keep him out for two-three weeks. Instead of a substitute playing for those two weeks, the first-stringer is in. Iit is not hard to imagine this accounting for an amount equal to half of those "missing" runs

di

Steven Jay Gould wrote an article some twenty years ago asking why there were no more 0.400 hitters, and decided that it was, in part, due to better fielding.

Peter Principle

Three theories:

It's just statistical noise -- a random off year for big-leage batters, which no doubt will be followed in due time by an equally random off year for big league pitchers.

It's an evolutionary feedback process, in which a period of power hitting leads to a frantic search (and big salaries) for a generation of outstanding pitchers, which ushers in an era of dead ball, which in turn leads to a frantic search (and big salaries) for hitters, etc.

It really WAS the steroids, but the effects were lagged -- i.e. it took awhile for a generation of juiced hitters (Bonds, Mark McGwire) to reach their prime (if that's the right word) and likewise took a couple of years after the onset of testing for a new generation of non-chemically enhanced hitters to replace them.

My bet's on the first explanation -- but then I may be biased from 20 years of working in the asset management business, where just about ANY statistical evidence of outperformance usually ends up being a random walk.

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MRB

I think the SABR-Metrics has a lot to do with it. Once teams realized how many runs they were losing with shoddy glovework, started looking for pitchers that got groundballs, didn't walk guys, and struck guys out (basically minimizing homeruns, making sure any balls that were hit, the defense had an opportunity to turn into an out). That alone could account for the run differences.

In the NL, due to tradition and the requirement that pitchers hit, has always had more defensive specialists in the game than the AL.

WHB

Anyone who thinks steroids don't help athletes just doesn't have a clue. I'm tired of trying to help educate people...One thing about this season, and I find it amazing it hasn't been talked about more: an incredibly high strike has been called by the umpires all season. I think that has affected batting averages - though not necessarily power numers - as much as anything.

mary browning

You got no idea about the major issue in the major leagues. The bottom line, as they say these days, is who is paying for the building of the stadiums and who is actually benefiting financially and who is paying big money to attend and park at these stadiums Corporations have the big boxes. Families with young persons can't get there at all. Does public transportation reach these stadiums? Not often.

Far too often (Miami Dade County, Florida, for example) the property tax payers in the county are paying for the construction bond issue. The franchise owners are racking in the money, the players are being paid, the public has higher ticket and parking fees because the place is "New and improved".

Does it smell? Pretty bad.

Nasty.
I have been here and seen that. No way could the voters get to vote on this give away.

Mary, in Miami Beach.

Mbh

I agree with MRB. The drop off in runs in the AL may have something to do with the fact that they use designated hitters. Just an average player would have an advantage over the comparable pitcher hitting in the NL, but desiginated hitters would have even more impact because they are just that: players known for their offensive contributions even though they may not still be able to play the field.

RT

@WHB

In the American League, where the drop in scoring has taken place, strikeouts per nine innings have gone down from last year.

David

#11: Typically, the pitchers considered good by sabermetricians are considered good in any case, while the same is not true of the batters. Sabermetric evaluation favors on-base percentage much more than conventional wisdom does, and devalues stolen bases. Therefore, if we had more sabermetrics in team decisions, I'd expect the number of runs to go up, not down.

#12: Your observation might be true of many athletic pursuits, but baseball is something of an oddball here. There's reasons for John Kruk's "I ain't an athlete, lady. I'm a baseball player." Baseball relies considerably less on muscle mass and determination than most sports.

sharon rutman

What I want to know is why the playoffs are being held so late in the year and why the games start and end so late at night? Baseball is a summer game and it's supposed to be played during the day. What do I know? I'm a purist I guess.

One of these days in the not too distant future Game 7 of the World Series and the Super Bowl are going to be played on the same day!

Wm Wilson

I have some disagreement with the points as described here. But I have greater objection to process: What IS it with the serial references to the podcast? Why not just print a transcript, instead of being coy about it? For people who pride themselves on adhering to empiricism, don't they GET that listening to information takes a whole lot longer? Why not just print it out, so the reader can absorb it in either way - print or audio? This phony "teaser" approach is exactly what you behavioral economists should strenuously object to, much less participate in.

Marcus

Is Runs the correct stat to be looking at? Um, no!

Why did Jose Canseco (or replace Jose with your favorite steroid user) take steroids? Not to score runs, but to hit Home Runs. Period.

I look at this example in my intro stats class almost every time I teach it -- there was a statistically significant increase in Home Runs per team in the Steroid Era (late 90's-2001) vs the Testing Era (2005+), or any pre-steroid era.

It is completely clear that steroid use was widespread among hitters, and it caused a statistically significant increase in home runs -- and anyone who deserves to pass an introductory stats course should be able to prove it.

DanC

The American League has a DH. DH's are often older players who can hit but little else. These tend to be players toward the end of their careers, players who get the biggest gain from steroids.

So did steroids have the biggest affect on DH hitters? And did a decline at this position lead to a reduction in runs.