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Has Major League Baseball changed since Phillies fans last paid attention?

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MLB is always changing, but what’s different now, and how different?

When we last looked

2012 was still a time of high hopes and expectations at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies were coming off a season in which they set a franchise record with 102 wins. Concerns about the contention window were starting to gather, and Ryan Howard’s achilles injury and Chase Utley’s knees were exacerbating those, but both players were due back by May-June. And the team still boasted some of the best starting pitchers in the game: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels had all finished among the top five vote getters for the NL Cy Young award the year before.

As the team struggled out of the gate, attendance started to falter, and the 257-game streak of consecutive sellouts at CBP finally came to an end on August 6th. But there were still 62 sold out games in 2012, and in fact the average attendance for the season was more than the seating capacity: 44,021 paid attendance vs. capacity of 43,647.

The team’s fortunes continued to decline in the following years and bottomed out, losing as many as 99 games in 2015 before the rebuild started to bear fruit in 2017. Over that time attendance fell to just about half of what it had been, as the band wagoners jumped off to pursue other activities with their entertainment dollars, leaving only the die hards.

The Phillies Resurface

And then comes 2018: they had a soft schedule to start the season but they beat the teams they needed to beat and won 24 of the first 40. They had a much tougher 2nd quarter, 42 games against some of the best teams in the NL, plus the vaunted New York Yankees, but they held their own, splitting those games to reach July 1st with a 45-37 record. With the schedule getting easier again, they should be able to stay in contention at least into late July.

Many fans still aren’t sure whether to buy in yet. After all, the 2016 team started the season playing very well before wilting in May and June. The lack of improvement in their attendance this year became especially (and embarrassingly) apparent when the Yankees visited CBP in June and their fans seemingly took over the park. This lack of an immediate jump in attendance is really not a big surprise though if we look back at past attendance trends. As David S. Cohen showed in May, there is a clear lag between team performance and attendance. Both when a team is declining, as the still very strong 2012-13 attendance figures showed, but also as a team begins to improve.

Nevertheless, interest in the team is slowly growing among fans, and they are making their presence felt on sports talk shows. After five years of wall-to-wall coverage of Chip Kelly, Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz, Doug Pederson, and the historic 2017 season and Super Bowl LII (and lately Joel Embiid and The Process), the media is just now waking to a summer in which baseball in Philly is relevant again, and they are expected to be able to carry on an intelligent conversation about the team’s chances, their strengths and their areas of need.

Alas, many are much more comfortable touching briefly on how well the Phillies are doing, and then making the topic of the day not the decisions facing the team, but why attendance hasn’t picked up yet, or why “baseball is boring”, and how to “fix it”. It doesn’t help that the MLB office seems intent on maintaining a spotlight on that issue by trotting out one hair brained idea after another to speed up the game.

So many fans, especially those who have been preoccupied with other sports or other activities over the last six years, must be wondering whether it’s worth their time to even re-engage and invest any time at all in this team.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

There are certainly on-going trends in how the game is played, resulting from many interrelated factors: the wide acceptance of analytics in front offices and dugouts, the continued improvement in pitching, and the response among many hitters to sacrifice some contact ability for a higher launch angle and more extra base hits.

The tables below compare the number of events in an average MLB game (totaling 76 PAs for both teams), in 2012, and this year.

The key takeaways in the first table below are that:

  • In an average game, 112 - 2 outs that were previously ground outs or fly outs, have been replaced by strikeouts.
  • In addition, 0.7 hits have been replaced by 0.4 walks.

There are also fewer sacrifice hits, especially among position players, continuing a long-trending decline:

In short, since 2012 about 212 balls in play in an average game (including HRs) have been replaced by walks and strikeouts:

With HRs also up (0.2 per game, about 12%), the Three True Outcomes (walk, K, homer), have gone up 11% since 2012.

Average Game Time has increased from exactly 3:00 in 2012, to 3:04 in 2018. That’s despite MLB’s effort’s to speed up games, including reducing the breaks between half innings in 2016 from 2:25 to 2:05. Factoring that into account and excluding the breaks, the number of balls in play have gone from 23.4 per hour of play, to 20.9, a reduction of 11%.

Or, for another way of looking at it, in 2012 on average there were 2 minutes and 34 seconds between balls in play. Today that has gone up, on average, by 18 seconds.

Offense is fairly comparable between 2012 and this year. Scoring went up briefly in the interim, but is back down in 2018. OPS is the same in the two years, with 2 points of OBP traded for 2 points of SLG.

Within that OBP, walks are up, as we saw above, while batting average is down 9 points, or 4%.

Looking at the hits in more detail, the first thing to note is that (as the small change in Slugging percentage might indicate), Total Bases are essentially unchanged.

Triples are down, but that is most likely a fluke, given that doubles are unchanged.

The key takeaway here is that within Total Bases there has been a trade off between singles (down 0.9 per game), and home runs (up 0.2 per game):

Looking at walks in more detail, Intentional Walks are down, as managers have been less willing to give away outs. And so while all walks are up 7%, non-intentional walks are actually up 9%.

We also see the reduction in stealing here — 25% fewer attempts in 2018 than in 2012, presumably because managers on the whole have become less willing to risk giving away an out on the bases.

The trend towards more Three True Outcomes is nothing new, and has been happening since the 1980s, driven primarily by the strikeout rate.

However that trend has accelerated the last few years, and this year’s Phillies are the poster child for the phenomenon.

They are last in the NL in balls in play (63.5%), and lead in Three True Outcomes (38.6%). (Note HRs are counted in both numbers.)

So yes, the game has changed, though it does appear that the extent of this sometimes gets blown out of proportion — 212 at bats per game don’t seem like much.

And the game will almost certainly continue evolving, as it always has, probably in ways we can’t foresee. The game we grew up with was different from the game our parents and grandparents grew up with.

The only constant is change.