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The Changing Game: Two key stats fall to new lows

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With sabermetrics increasingly influencing how the game is played, two stats have been declining.

The game of baseball has never stood still for long. The skills and physical attributes that players possess evolve over time, and styles of play change as aspects of the game that were the focus in one generation fall out of favor in the next.

The advent of sabermetrics has meant a growing understanding of the importance of baserunners, and of outs as a precious commodity that is not to be squandered lightly. That has in turn led to taking fewer risks when stealing bases.

Fewer than 1,000 Caught Stealing for first time in 49 years

In 2017, there were 934 runners caught stealing across MLB. The last time that the CS total could be written with just three digits was 49 years ago, in 1968. What else was happening in 1968? The average new house cost $14,950, a new car averaged $2,822, and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr were assassinated. And later that year, the mouse and many other fundamentals of modern computing were presented for the first time in The Mother of All Demos.

Included in those 49 years were four strike-shortened seasons, including two, in 1981 and 1994, when only about 23 of the games were played, and even those stoppages weren’t enough to drag the total number below 1,000:

That this finally happened in 2017 is a result of two trends in recent years:

- Teams had been reducing how much they ran since the advent of the PED era, when it became more and more costly to lose baserunners to outs on the bases.

- Since they are running less, teams and players have been more selective in when they run, and so the stolen base success rate has been rising, sporadically but inexorably:

Stolen base attempts were steadily around 3% of all plate appearances from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. They then declined until the early 2000s, leveled off, and even saw a brief resurgence in 2011-12, before resuming their decline since then.

Between the improved success rate and fewer attempts (something not likely to change soon given the focus on baserunners and recent jump in offense), it appears sub-1000 CS totals will be the new normal for a while.

Fewer than 1,000 Sacrifice Bunts for the first time since 1900

The growing recognition of outs as a precious commodity has meant that, coincidentally, one other stat also fell below the 1,000 threshold for the first time in a very long time, with only 925 Sacrifice Hits. We haven’t seen a 3-digit total in that category since 1900, when there were only eight major league teams:

As a percentage of all PAs, sacrifice bunts have been on a steady decline since around 1930. However we’ve seen a sharp acceleration in that decline in just the past few years:

And as we can all probably guess, the decline has been due to non-pitchers bunting less. Looking back to the start of the DH era in 1973, bunting by pitchers has actually increased over time (although it also has dipped in the past three years).

Sacrifice bunts by non-pitchers, on the other hand, declined steadily until around 2000, had remained fairly steady for about 15 years, but then plummeted again over the last three years:

By the way, one other stat that is being impacted is Intentional Walks, which have been below 1,000 in each year since 2014. That was the first non-strike season with fewer than 1,000 IBB’s in over 50 years, (since 1963, when there were 33% fewer teams).

As with the Caught Stealing numbers, I would expect sacrifices (and IBBs) to remain low for the foreseeable future.

Source: Baseball Reference — MLB totals by year