(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)
Offense has been down across the majors this season, continuing a trend that began at the start of the decade and accelerated last season.
In the National League, the per-team average has been 4.13 runs, which would be the lowest output since 3.88 runs in 1992. Meanwhile, if the American League’s current average output of 4.26 runs per team remains constant over the rest of the year, it will be the junior circuit’s lowest offensive display since the strike-shortened season of 1981.
One of the main factors that seems to be driving this downward offensive trend is a similar decline in the number of home runs. In 2000, when run production in the major leagues reached 5.14 per team, 3% of all plate appearances culminated in a homer. This year, the homerun rate has fallen all the way to 2.3%. During that span, runs per game has almost correlated in lock step with the homerun rate (R =0.896), so there can be no denying that fewer balls over the fence have meant fewer runners crossing the plate.
The connection between homeruns and run production is an easy one, but what is at that root cause of the decline in long ball power? Countless theories abound, but most center on the gradual increase in testing for both steroids and amphetamines. Although part of the overall trend could be attributable to that dynamic, it seems likely that many other variables have also played a role.
On ESPN’s recent Sunday Night Baseball telecast, Bobby Valentine relayed a conversation with Chipper Jones in which the future Hall of Famer lamented the increased use of cutter. According to Jones, the refinement and proliferation of the pitch has been a key factor in swinging the balance back in favor of the pitcher.
Cutter Above: Pitchers Who Most Rely on the Cutter, 2011
|Scott Atchison||Red Sox||56.7%||85.5|
Note: CT%=percentage of pitches that are cutters; CTv=average velocity of cutter.
Although it would be incredibly difficult to verify Jones’ claim, the increasing popularity of the cutter is undeniable. According to fangraphs.com, in 2006, only 25 pitchers threw the cutter at least 15% of time. This year, that number has jumped all the way to 64. In total, the percentage of cutters thrown in the majors has increased by almost 100% since 2006. While it’s true that the pitch/FX data used to make pitch classifications is not infallible, such an exponential increase should easily mitigate any potential margin for error.
More than anyone else, Mariano Rivera has become synonymous with the cutter. Considering his incredible success, which has largely been built on the pitch, it’s not surprising that many others would seek to follow his lead. However, just because more people are throwing the cutter doesn’t necessarily mean they have been as successful doing it.
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough reliable data upon which to base a definitive conclusion about the relationship between the cutter and the current offensive malaise. However, there are a few hints floating around. One of the pioneers in developing benchmarks for pitch types has been The Hardball Times’ Harry Pavlidis, and as luck would have it, he recently published data updated through the end of the last week. Using Pavlidis’ benchmarks, it’s possible to examine Chipper Jones’ theory a little further.
Pitch Type Benchmarks
Note: Click on source link for an explanation of data and related abbreviations.
Source: Harry Pavlidis/www.hardballtimes.com
The ratio that practically jumps out of the chart above is the homerun percentage for fly balls hit off the cutter. Although more of a contact pitch than the curve ball and slider, the cutter ranks as the most effective breaking pitch when it comes to keeping a batted ball in the park. Without having access to more granular data, we can’t say that the cutter actually results in fewer homeruns per times thrown (especially compared to the curve, change and slider), but it does seem to be superior to the fastball in this regard. Considering that much of the cutter’s growth has come at the expense of the fastball, it’s probably safe to assume the pitch has played at least a small role in the lower homerun totals.
Exactly how much influence has the cutter had on offensive output? With more data, we should be able to answer that question. Until then, it might be best to defer to Chipper Jones.