Since the end of the steroid era we’ve seen a lot of changes in the fantasy landscape. Home run power is down across the board, and pitching is now the dominant force that rules the landscape. There has been a few other changes though; something as fantasy owners we rarely talk or think about – mostly because it doesn’t fall into our 5×5 world, but in reality it plays a big part. Walks and strikeouts.
If you look at the data going back to 2001 you’ll see steady numbers right up through 2008. There is some fluctuation in between, highs and lows, but overall what you saw in 2001 is what you got in 2008. Hitters had 477 more strikeouts in 2008 than they did in 2001, and at first glance this could be cast off as an anomaly since we saw 760 fewer strikeouts in 2005, but it is actually the beginning of the trend.
As you’ll see below, strikeouts surpassed 33,000 in 2009 – its highest point in 9 years, but things don’t end there. We get totals in the 34,000 range from 2010 to 2011; there is a huge spike up to the 36,000 range from 2012 to 2013 and finally up at 37,000+ in 2014 and 2015.
It took walks an additional year to catch up as they continued to trend upward in 2009, but things fell off in 2010 and snowballed downhill from that point on.
Things looked like they had leveled off after 2013, that is until the Biogenesis scandal broke naming several big stars including Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz, and most notably Alex Rodriguez. Maybe this is just a coincidence; regardless, both numbers continue to regress.
From 2001 to 2015 there was about a 40% drop in intentional walks (approximately 20 per team); this isn’t surprising since home runs fell after the steroid era and there were no more Bonds/McGwire types to fear. In theory this could account for a small portion of the drop in walks if it weren’t for the fact that Total Plate Appearances were down about 100 per team. The lower plate appearance are more concerning when you consider the strikeouts; over 5,000 more total strikeouts from 2001 to 2015 with 3,000 fewer plate appearances.
Some of you may find this information interesting, but the rest of you are probably wondering what the hell this has to do with fantasy baseball? Who cares how much a guy walks or strikes out, as long as he delivers the counting stats with an acceptable batting average everyone is happy, right? Well, not so fast.
Walks and strikeouts play a big part in those 5×5 categories we use in fantasy; first and foremost in batting average, or OBP for those who have made the leap into the modern-day way of doing things. You get a zero batting average for each strikeout, and for each walk you don’t draw that’s a point that isn’t going into your OBP – simple math here. Since the BB/K data was stable through 2008, I took a look at league batting average and OBP from this point on. Just like walks and strikeouts, we see a downward trend.
From 2009 to 2011 there is a significant 8 point drop. We lose a few more points in the following years, but in 2015 we are back up at 2011 levels which leads me to believe things have leveled off for now. There is a 15 point drop in OBP from 2009 to 2013; a five-year downward trend, and while things dip even further in 2014 the numbers come back up in 2015. Again, this leads me to believe things have leveled off.
Seeing the league average is nice, but lets break things down even further and look at those averages broken down into groups so we can see where the drop-off is. Just like above, I’ll focus on the same years using qualified hitters from 2009 to 2015.
On average: The number of .300 hitters has been cut in half, we lost 9 hitters the past three seasons in the .280-.299 range, and there is an increase of 12 players the past three seasons in the .260-.280 range. The number of hitters in the .290-.299 range was up in 2015, but players in the .280-.289 rage were down a similar amount negating the rise in batters in the overall .280-.299 range.
Grouping the players that hit .280 and above together we see a total loss of 30 hitters. That adds a new level of value on to guys like Buster Posey, Jose Altuve, Joey Votto and Ben Revere; players that consistently deliver a high batting average year after year are just as rare as those that deliver high home run totals. In 2015 there were 20 players who hit .300+ and there were 20 players that hit 30 or more home runs. There were 23 players that hit between .280 and .299 and there were 21 batters that hit between 25 and 29 home runs.
Most owners when selecting player consider power and speed first, followed by RBI and then runs. Batting average is usually one of the final considerations, and a lower average is usually accepted if that player meets the demands in at least three of the other four categories. There is nothing wrong with that, but considering the number of high batting average guys maybe we need to adjust our strategy a little and put a little more weight into the value of those high batting average guys.
Enough about average, let’s move on to OBP using the same years and qualifying players.
Just like with batting average, the elite OBP guys were cut in half. Even the number of players in the .350-.374 range have been cut down. Overall we went from 86 players with an OBP of .350+ in 2009 down to an average of 41 the past two seasons. With the exception of 2015 the numbers are up in the .300-.349 range. From the 2009 season the average rise in this range the past two seasons is 18. Sticking with the average for the past two seasons, there were 27 fewer players with an OBP of .300 or higher than in 2009. That’s equal to two full rounds of players in a 12 team league.
For those of you who play in an OBP league; you may want to pay closer attention to those high OBP guys — A few .350 and above players can make or break a season in this category. Obvious players for OBP leagues are Anthony Rizzo and Matt Carpenter, but players like Carlos Santana, Adam Eaton and Ben Zobrist are often overlooked or downgraded for a variety of reasons despite the fact they have had strong OBP numbers the past few seasons. The advise I gave with batting average applies here as well; start placing a higher priority on high OBP guys in the draft.
With lower walks, OBP and batting average, it only seems natural to assume that runs would be down as well, and you would be correct. If you can’t hit the ball and you can’t draw a walk then you can’t score runs; it’s that simple.
Teams scored 85 fewer runs between 2001 and 2015. If not for the spike in 2015 that number would be over 100. From 2009 to 2014 there was a loss of 89 runs — just to show the drop wasn’t over a 15 year period. I stated earlier that total plate appearances were down approximately 100 per team so the loss of a few runs could be expected, but again, not this many.
Where have all the 100+ run scorers gone? Just like batting average and OBP, the elite have been cut in half. Just like batting average there was a spike in the top two categories so maybe things have turned around — at the very least maybe they have hit a plateau. There was no real increase in the lower run totals either; they either dropped as well or stayed the same. I attempted to find date that would show how many runs are scored on average from walks, but after several days I came up empty — maybe one day we’ll have the finances to put together a database to calculate these things, but that’s another story.
I assumed that stolen bases would be down as well since we’ve seen a decline in big steal players, but they aren’t; they are just spread out among more players making those guys who steal 25+ annually that much more important.
So what is behind all these drops. While they did all start when major league baseball began more stringent testing along with increased suspension times, we can’t blame PEDs on everything. Maybe it is the influx of new players in the league, a good number of whom have made their debut earlier and younger than anticipated. A good number of these young players are fireball pitchers with blazing fastballs and no fear; this could explain the increase in strikeouts. The younger hitters have not had the benefit of years of minor league experience, and some have spent minimal time or even jumped a level on their way to the majors.
Is their inexperience to blame, or do we blame the major league coaches who have allowed them to disregard the fundamentals? It’s possible that coaches have just accepted the decline in walks and increase in strikeouts as part of the game now. I considered the problem might be in the minor league system, at least as it pertains to hitters. The problem is, the players I did see issues with were whisked off to the majors despite obvious flaws in their swing and or approach. Maybe there is too much new blood and not enough veterans to go around as mentors to help the coaches develop these young players. I could go on and on theorizing what is to blame, but the reality is it could be all of these factors and a number of others.
There were a number of categories that saw a positive turn in 2015 so maybe this is the end of the decline? Will things turn around as new crop of hitters mature and acclimate themselves to pitchers in the majors, or will their bad habits continue and influence the next crop of kiddies? We’ll find out at the end of the 2016 and 2017 season.
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