Who Stole All the Runs in Major League Baseball? (Ep. 8)
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.”
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.