If Nationals fans were polled on which area of the team needed to improve during the stretch run, most of them would say the offense. It would come as a surprising fact to those fans that the Nationals are third in the National League in runs per game at 4.24, but their answer isn’t the least bit surprising.
With the strike in 1994, baseball lost a good many fans, and in 1998, the home run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire brought in new fans. Those fans that watched baseball in the late 1990s and early 2000s remember a time when the average NL team was scoring 4.60 runs per game as it was in 1998, or 5.0 runs per game in 1999. In 1999, the worst offensive team in the NL was the Florida Marlins, who averaged 4.27 runs per game - more than the 2014 Nationals, who are third in the NL.
The average NL team in 2014 scores 3.99 runs per game. That is down more than a run from 15 years ago in 1999. In fact, in order to find a season in which a league averaged so few runs per game, we have to travel all the way back to 1968, the year before the mound was lowered and the NL expanded into Montreal and San Diego. Scoring was so low in 1968, it was dubbed the year of the pitcher and Bob Gibson set the all-time ERA mark by pitching to a 1.12 ERA in 304 2/3 innings, one of the most remarkable feats in baseball history.
The next season, the mound was lowered and Gibson’s ERA shot all the way up to a robust 2.18 in 314 innings pitched, and while the lowering of the mound didn’t do much to stop Gibson’s dominance, it did increase the number of runs scored. The NL increased from 3.43 runs per game in 1968 to 4.05 in 1969. Expansion likely had as much to do with it as the lowering of the mound as there were suddenly 50 players in the NL who wouldn’t have been on major league rosters the previous season.
Offense in baseball continued to explode with expansion continuing to water down the player pool. The number of night games increased, and the rise in popularity of football shrunk the player pool even more, and then there’s what happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Offense hit its peak at some point and then started to decrease, but it isn’t all due to testing for steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.
The use of relievers has gotten smarter, baseball hasn’t had an expansion team since the Rays and Diamondbacks came into existence in 1998, and strikeouts have increased. That last reason seems an odd one when you consider that in 1968, the average strikeouts per nine innings of a major league pitcher was 5.8, which is lower than the 6.7 it was in 1999, when the average NL team scored an entire additional 1 1/2 runs per game than a team did in 1968. In 2014, the average K/9 is 7.8, which happens to be higher than the career average of Bob Gibson (7.2), the pitcher who dominated the 1968 season.
Strikeouts themselves don’t correlate to run-scoring, but when a batter is striking out at an increased rate, they aren’t getting into good hitting counts, and even a ball in play in a bad hitting count is more than likely not on a belt-high, center-cut fastball. In fact, in 2014 with the pitcher ahead, the average NL hitter is hitting .197/.205/.287, and with two strikes, .174/.240/.260. Compare this to 1999 and with the pitcher ahead that season, the average NL hitter hit .208/.216/.309 and with two strikes, .187/.260/.289. The average NL hitter in 1999 hit about the same in poor hitting counts as the average NL hitter does in 2014. But with more hitters getting into poor hitting counts, there are going to be more poor hitting results, and that is why even with an increase of nearly two strikeouts per game from 1968 to now, the offense in the NL this season is more like that season than it is 1999.
Even though offense is at a low, the attendance figures, TV contracts, and overall money coming into the game are higher than in 1999, which tells us this decrease in offense may not be the problem some think it is. Throughout the history of baseball, there have been high and low run-scoring environments and currently this is a low run-scoring environment. The Nationals rank third in the NL with a runs per game number that would’ve had them last in 1999. But the Nationals don’t play in 1999, and for 2014, they’re perfectly fine.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.