JANUARY 22, 2004
The Comeback of Defense in Baseball
By Steve Lombardi, NetShrine.com

Beginning in 1994, homeruns started flying out of major league ballparks at a record pace.  The period of 1994 to date (through the 2003 season) is truly the "Long Ball Era" in baseball history:

Time Period HR/G
1876-1900 0.5
1901-1919 0.3
1920-1941 1.0
1942-1960 1.4
1961-1976 1.5
1977-1993 1.6
1994-2003 2.2

Coinciding with the long ball explosion over the baseball timeline, the number of strikeouts per game has increased as well:

Time Period K/G HR/G
1876-1900 6.2 0.5
1901-1919 7.3 0.3
1920-1941 6.2 1.0
1942-1960 8.1 1.4
1961-1976 11.0 1.5
1977-1993 10.7 1.6
1994-2003 12.9 2.2

The increase in strikeouts per game meshes nicely with the current "in vogue" notion among certain baseball scholars that the importance of defense (these days) is overrated.  Check the statistics:  On average, from 1876 to 1941, only 3 of your 27 outs needed on defensive came via the strikeout.  From 1942 to 1960, on average, this number was 4 (out of 27).  From 1961 to 1993, on average, the number was five.  However, starting in 1994, on average, 6 of your 27 outs needed on defense would come via the strikeout.  

Think of it this way:  From 1876 through 1993, ballpark (as in a rough average), as a pitcher, you needed your defense to "touch the ball" in order to register about 85% of your outs.  Starting in 1994, this percentage fell from 85% to 78%.

This is a huge swing.  It means, from 1994, (again) on average, that 22% of the time, you (the pitcher) could be playing with no one behind you - and you would still get an out.  No wonder so many claim today that defense is overly glorified.

(Here it comes - you know there always has to be one, right? - OK, on your mark, get set, go!)  

But, within these trends is a sub-development that is forming.  It is extremely subtle, yet, it is intriguing.  While, over the last 10 seasons, the HR/G rate has been relatively steady at 2+ per game, over the last three years, the K/G rate has been falling - albeit ever so slender:

Season K/G
1996 12.9
1997 13.2
1998 13.1
1999 12.8
2000 12.9
2001 13.3
2002 12.9
2003 12.7

The 2004 baseball season will be extremely crucial to watch with respect to strikeouts per game.  If the rate continues to fall, we just may be on the periphery of an era in baseball where the importance of defense resurfaces.  Granted, at the rate of deceleration for K/G so far, it may take another 5 or 10 seasons for the importance of defense to reemerge.  Still, every mile traveled on the baseball timeline has to begin with a simple step.  

Current major league G.M.s and Scouting  and Player Personnel Directors may want to keep this in consideration when drafting High School players this summer.  By the time they make the big leagues, their ability to play the field may be more critical than currently anticipated - according to the scrawling on this scorecard.

Steve Lombardi is the Creator & Curator of NetShrine.com.  Scrawling On The Scorecard appears regularly during the baseball season and sporadically during the off-season.  Steve can be contacted at sots@netshrine.com

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