The Year in Review II - Snakes and Ladders

Tuesday, October 11 2011 @ 05:00 AM EDT

Contributed by: Magpie

First we'll play a little Snakes and Ladders, before looking at some matters relating to The Great Game Itself.

Snakes and Ladders is a board game from my distant youth, which was roughly about when I heard Mott the Hoople use it as a metaphor for their own ups and downs ("In '72 we were born to lose/ we slipped down snakes into yesterday's news..."). I use it to identify those teams that improved by 10 games (climbing the ladder) or declined by 10 (slipping down the snakes.) This was a much more typical season in the majors on the Snakes and Ladders front: five teams slipped down the snakes, while six of them were climbing the ladders. That  doesn't match the utter insanity of 2009 (eight teams climbed the Ladders, ten teams slipped down the Snakes), and which may in its turn have had something to do with 2010 being rather quiet on this front (three teams down the Snakes, four teams climbed the Ladders.)


Minnesota -31
The greatest one year collapse by any major league team since the Florida Marlins broke up their 1997 WS champion and went from 92 wins to 54. The Twins fell apart in every way you could imagine. They scored 162 fewer runs than they had the previous season, while allowing 133 more. Neither of these accomplishments is unprecedented, but the combination - losing a total of 295 runs - is both deadly and unusual.  Only twelve teams in history have suffered such a monumental disaster, and all but one of them played a long, long time ago. Prior to this year's Twins, the 2004 Diamondbacks were the only team to manage this dubious feat since the 1921 White Sox , and you know about those guys - that's the team whose best players had all been banned from baseball that off-season. It's never a good sign when your team's collapse is being compared to events that are genuinely unique in the game's history. The Twins weren't breaking up their division winner, they didn't have a roster loaded with crooks. They just fell off a cliff. Mauer and Morneau were a shadow of their former selves, and those two men had always accounted for a perhaps dangerously large proportion of the team's offense. And pretty well every pitcher on the team had a bad year.

Houston -20
We discussed much of what happened to the Astros yesterday - the bulk of their troubles was a simple Pythagorean Swing. After over-achieving by nine games in 2010, they underachieved by five games this year. They were genuinely a little worse this season, and it was entirely on the pitcher's mound, as they actually scored a few more runs this season (despite clearing out two starting outfielders in mid-season.)  Their offense was still terrible, mind you. But the pitching was a disaster, as only two major league teams, both of whom were in the DH league, gave up more runs. You can't blame it all on the absence of Roy Oswalt, who left midway through the previous season anyway. Pitching coach Brad Arnsberg paid the price for this failure, as he was fired in mid-season. There are two things that marked Arnsberg's coaching career, at every stop: the tendency for his pitchers to get hurt, something which may simply have been bad luck, but which has followed him from team to team. The other thing is Arnsberg's well documented habit of treating the pitching staff as his own little fiefdom, a team within the team. This begins with his quite impressive ability to gain the support of the pitchers he's worked with, but wouldn't actually be possible without the indulgence of the managers he worked with, especially Jeff Torborg and John Gibbons. Such an arrangement was never going to work with Cito Gaston, who holds to the quaint belief that the manager is the guy in charge, and the two men... let us just say they clashed.

San Diego -19
The Padres lost their best player, Adrian Gonzalez, before the season began. In a not entirely unrelated event, they scored 72 fewer runs than they had the previous season. Combined with them allowing 30 more (a still quite stingy 611 on the season), they should have lost about 10 wins, and finished near .500. What really went wrong for the Padres was that that old demon Bad Luck, which got them in its sway. They went a frightful 20-31 in one-run games.

Cincinnati -12

Dusty Baker's men were hit by the Pythagorean Swing - they weren't really as good as they looked in winning the division in 2010, nor were they quite as mediocre as they looked this season. They were roughly an 87 win team in 2010, but fortune smiled on them and gave them 91 wins; they were about an 82 win team this season, but were unlucky enough to finish 79-83. There were a number of problems with this year's crew, however. The success of 2010 was built on a dramatically improved offense, which increased its output by a whopping 117 runs from 2009 to 2010. That proved to be unsustainable - while Joey Votto and Jay Bruce kept up the good fight, and Brandon Phillips had the best year of his career, the rest of the bats dried up and disappeared. Scott Rolen missed 97 games. Drew Stubbs took a big step backward. Paul Janish was as bad a hitter as could be found in the majors. Meanwhile, two of their young pitchers took a step backward (Wood and Leake) and Bronson Arroyo was pretty bad. The only good news was Johnny Cueto, who was sensational. Unfortunately, he missed most of the first two months of the season.

Colorado -10
The Rockies were underachievers in 2011, missing their Pythag Expectation by 6 wins, largely because of a lousy record in one-run games. The team did show some real slippage, mostly on the pitcher's mound. Ubaldo Jimenez, who had been a legitimate Cy Young candidate the year before, was merely ordinary for three months before being traded away. Jhoulys Chacin had a fine season, just not as good as his performance in 2010.  The offense was a little more balanced this season - Tulowitzki and Gonzalez had very fine years, if not quite as brilliant as the year before. They received a little more help from their teammates this season. The Rockies lost 35 runs of offense, which in the context of the falling offensive levels in the NL amounted to breaking even, more or less.


Washington +11
The Nationals have been improving steadily for the past three years, but it wasn't all that obvious because in both 2009 and 2010 Pythagoras gave them a raw deal,  and they lost 7 or 8 games more they could have been expected. This year, they continued improving at the same steady pace, but they caught a break this time by actually winning as many times as their runs scored and allowed would lead you to expect. The Nationals keep scoring fewer runs than they had the previous season, which is not a good sign (although in the NL context, it's not that big a deal). We can see some reasons for this to happen.  Ryan Zimmerman, their best player (and one of the finest young players in the game) missed 61 games, and Jayson Werth looked like he was just trying to justify his contract with every at bat. I assume both men will be more like themselves next season.  The key to Washington's improvement has come on the pitcher's mound, where they've been steadily reducing their runs allowed dramatically - from 874 in 2009 to 742 in 2010 to just 643 this past season. It's impossible to imagine them keeping that up, but on the other hand... Stephen Strasburg, people! Hopefully for a whole season! It's about time, no?

Cleveland +11
As we noted the other day, a good part of Cleveland's improvement was built on the unsteady foundation of Pythagoras being friendly to them. What real improvement the Indians made was made entirely by the offence - they allowed 752 runs a year ago, they allowed 760 runs this year. The offence, however, increased its output by 58 runs. This gained back only half of the disastrous dropoff from 2009 to 2010 (minus 127 runs of offense), but it's a start. Good health from Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner was the biggest factor for the Indians this season, along with Asdrubal Cabrera's very impressive development as a hitter. Now if LaPorta would just take a step forward, and Sizemore could regain his old form...

Detroit +14

Detroit was better, and they were luckier, which is always an excellent combination. We covered their good fortune the other day - it padded their W-L record by some five or six wins. The actual improvements on the field were fairly modest, and divided quite evenly between the offense (36 runs better) and the defense (32 runs better.) Verlander's sensational season really only accounts for about half of that, and it's completely cancelled out by Scherzer's season. But the bullpen was considerably improved, Doug Fister was great, and Dontrelle Willis and Andrew Oliver weren't allowed to do the damage they did last season. And while Magglio Ordonez went off the cliff (or something), Alex Avila and Victor Martinez more than made up for it. And Miguel Cabrera, once again, was as good a hitter as can be found in the major leagues.

Pittsburgh +15
The Pirates improvement had little to do with luck, and it happened almost entirely on the pitcher's mound. Their offense, which is pretty unimpressive, improved marginally (23 runs better), but they reduced their Runs Allowed by a quite extraordinary 154. This was almost entirely the work of three starting pitchers - Karstens, Mahol, and Morton. None of them were great or anything, they were all league average or a little better. But to have even one league average starter was a big improvement for the Pirates. They didn't have any such creatures in 2010. And to have three of them? Good times, at least by Pittsburgh's standards.

Milwaukee +19
Our final two teams both made big improvements on the field, and got a big helping hand from the Random Hand of Old Pythagoras. The Brewers improvement came entirely on the pitcher's mound. Despite the best efforts of Braun and Fielder, Milwaukee's offense declined in 2011, as they scored 29 fewer runs than in 2010. But they cut the opposition's Runs Scored by a remarkable 166. Obviously, plugging Zack Greinke and Shain Marcum into the rotation had a lot to do with that - they were a large upgrade on David Bush and Chris Narveson. The bullpen was much improved as well - in 2010, Axford and Loe were the only decent relievers. This year, those two got plenty of help from Rodriguez, Hawkins, and Saito.

Arizona +29
Same old story. Arizona was a whole lot better, a whole lot luckier, and it was improvements on the pitcher's mound that made almost the entire difference. The D'Backs improved their offense by just 18 runs, but they reduced the opposition's offense by no less than 174 runs. That's a pretty impressive accomplishment, and it was really a group effort. Ian Kennedy was the obvious star, but in truth everybody on the staff - the four main starters, the four top relievers - pitched well. Many of those responsible were newcomers of one sort or another - Putz, Collmenter, Owings, Hernandez were in their first season in the desert, Saunders and Hudson only arrived in the middle of the previous season. In fact, by the end of this season, the D'Backs had replaced almost the entire pitching staff that had opened the previous season.

Finally - anything new in the Game?

Well, the second great age of offense continues to be over. This was the fifth consecutive year that scoring dropped in the NL. Since 2006, Runs/Game in the National League has declined steadily, going from 4.76 to 4.71 to 4.54 to 4.43 to 4.33 to this year's 4.13, which is the lowest level of offense since NL teams averaged 3.88 Runs/Game in 1992.  There have now been 119 NL seasons since they moved the pitcher's mound back to 60 feet in 1893, and this year's campaign ranks 79th in Runs/Game. The two seasons closest to 2011 in total offensive output could hardly be more different. The season above it, in 78th place, was 1975, the year of the Big Red Machine and a classic World Series;  the season below it, in 80th place, was 1905. Which also had a famous World Series, but one that is actually remembered by no one now alive. Here is how those three seasons generated those runs, and I would especially direct your attention to the final three colums which give you the percentages of homers, strikeouts and walks per plate appearance:

       R/G    G     PA     AB      R     H     2B    3B   HR    RBI    SB    CS   BB     SO   BAVG    OBP    SLG    OPS  OPS+    TB    GDP  HBP   SH   HR/PA    K/PA    BB/PA

1975 4.13  1942  74817  66102   8014  17002  2781  458  1233   7409  1176  558  6730   9793  .257   .327   .369   .696    93  24398  1509  367  1082  1.65%  13.09%   9.00%
2011 4.13  2590  98744  88119  10691 22263  4394  487  2281  10159  1679  642  8032  18900  .253   .319   .391   .710    95  34474  1802  816  1137  2.31%  19.14%   8.13%
1905 4.10  1240  46016  41219   5089  10515  1327  641   182   4169  1601    3207   4493  .255   .315   .332   .647    92  13670      421  1169   0.40%   9.76%   6.97%

 Offense in the AL basically remained at the same level this year as it had - it actually increased in 2011, but ever so slightly from 4.45 Runs/Game in 2010 to 4.46 Runs/Game this season. From 1994 through 2009, AL scoring had always been at least 4.7 runs per game, before falling off in 2010.  The American League has now played 111 seasons, and in terms of Runs/Game the 2011 seasons ranks 59th. Here are this year's numbers alongside the two seasons closest to it in total offensive output - the season that ranks 58th and the season that ranks 60th: 1953 and 1912, respectively. Here are the league numbers for those three seasons:

       R/G    G     PA     AB      R     H      2B   3B    HR   RBI    SB    CS    BB      SO   BAVG    OBP    SLG    OPS   OPS+   TB   GDP   HBP    SH  HR/PA   K/PA   BB/PA
1953 4.46  1236  47754  42358  5512  11117  1816  331   879  5189   326    302  4462   4906   .262   .336   .383   .720    93  16232  1043  263   671  1.84%  10.27%  9.34%
2011 4.46  2268  86474  77586  10117  20004  4005  411  2271  9645  1600    619  6986  15588   .258   .323   .408   .730    99  31644  1721  738   530  2.63%  18.03%  8.08%
1912 4.45  1238  46471  40886   5506  10825  1591  671   156  4486  1822   1340  3794   5157   .265   .333   .348   .681    94  14226     388  1403  0.34%  11.46%  8.16%

I think it's absolutely fascinating that just as many runs were being scored in the AL in 1912 and the NL in 1905 as were scored in those leagues this year. There were 156 HRs hit by the entire American League in 1912, less than the average for a single team in 2011. There was an enormous investment in one-run strategies - in 1912, in roughly half the games, there were more stolen bases and almost three times as many sac hits. We don't have CS data for the AL in 1912, but we can be pretty sure that the cost was high - what limited data we have from the early 20th century suggests that teams were stealing successfully just 55-60% percent of the time.  You will notice a slight edge in OBP for the 1912 AL over this year's model. But what none of these numbers show is the real key to scoring runs 100 years ago - reaching base on an error. In 2011, the average AL team had 61 men reach base on an error. That figure was likely three times higher 100 years ago (teams were certainly making three times as many errors.) That's a lot of extra base runners.

Something else that really caught my attention this year - strikeouts. AL batters struck out 15,588 times in 86,474 plate appearances. In other words, 18.03% of all plate appearances result in the batter striking out. This is the first time the AL has cracked the 18% level. The National League first reached that level in 2001, they've been there each of the four years, and the K rate in the NL has been over 19% the last two seasons. As I'm sure you realize, strikeouts are slightly more frequent in the NL. This is partially because of pitchers hitting, as you would expect - it's also because relief pitchers work a greater share of innings in the NL, and relief pitchers strike out more hitters than starters (they also issue more walks and give up fewer hits.)

At this rate, it may not be long before one in five plate appearances results in a strike out. And I'm not at all sure that's a good thing. One out of every five plate appearances? Fourteen or fifteen times a game - would anything happen more often? I'm not all that wild about the prospect. I think it's got a chance to be a little boring, to tell you the truth.

The number of walks issued by pitchers has remained fairly stable for more than a century. In the National League, the highest frequency ever seen of walks being issued was in 1893 - which was the very first year when pitchers were required to work from the new distance of 60 feet. By the turn of century, pitchers had adjusted sufficiently that they were walking hitters less than 7% of the time. In the 110 years since, NL pitchers have generally walked 7-8% of the batters they've faced. It's occasionally dipped below 7% (lowest was 6.21% in 1921); it's occasionally climbed above 9% (highest ever since Year One was 9.62% in 2000.) But those are outliers, are rather modest they are. NL hitters walked in 8.13% of their plate appearances this season, which is pretty unremarkable.

Walks in the AL have generally followed the same pattern. The AL didn't start up until 1901, so they missed the adjustment period of the new pitching distance. Walks issued did go up rather significantly in the late 1930s AL, and for no apparent reason. The best answer I can come up with is that the AL simply happened to be the league where the great sluggers who drew a ton of walks were playing. The original for this type of player was Babe Ruth, who was gone by this time, but Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg, and a youngster named Ted Williams were all cut from that same cloth. The NL really had no one like those guys - Mel Ott came closest. It may also be relevant that, along with the most patient (and dangerous) hitters, the AL also had the wildest pitchers, most notably Bob Feller and Bobo Newsom. In a small league, with just eight teams, enough truly distinctive individuals really can have a league-wide impact. In addition, the NL (and only the NL) actually deadened their baseballs after the offensive explosion of 1930, which was yet another reason run scoring was much lower in the NL during the rest of the 1930s.

Still, such temporary blips aside, walks have been generally stable. AL hitters walked in 8.08% of their plate appearances this past season. That's almost exactly the same rate they were walking at in 1912. And 1928. And 1963.

Strikeouts have a more complicated history. They started out at a very low level in the old NL, as the pitchers struggled with the new distance. Strikeouts got a big boost at the beginning of the twentieth struggle with of the last of the truly defining rule changes that formed the modern game - foul balls were now counted as strikes (previously, they had effectively been no-pitches.) The rule was introduced in the NL in 1901, and strikeouts increased by 50%; the Al adopted the rule in 1903, and strikeouts increased at a similar rate. They started declining in both leagues around 1917-18, and by the early 1920s had decreased to the point where they were occurring in just  7% of all plate appearances.

But strikeouts started rising in the early 1920s and they've been rising ever since. All the movement has been in the same direction - the rate of increase has slowed, sometimes to a crawl, sometimes for a decade or more - but it has kept increasing. It's never fallen back along the way (save when the DH came into the AL). By the 1960s, strikeout frequency in each league had basically doubled; they were now accounting for about 15% of all plate appearances. Strikeouts would remain around that level for the next 30 years. The AL K rate dropped with the advent of the DH to a level about 2% below the NL's, but going forward would remain just as stable at this new level.

Until the last 20 years, which have seen strikeout frequency increasing slowly but steadily, one incremental step at a time, until we reached the all-time highs posted this year in the AL (18.03%)  and last year (19.32%) in the NL.

Gosh! Where will it all end?