MLB Power Outage: 5 Signs of a New Dead Ball Era in 2014

Remember 1977? It was the year Jimmy Carter held court in the White House, the Soviet threat was legitimate, and Major League Baseball players hit an average of 0.87 home runs per game. It was the last time such a low number of round-trippers left MLB parks — prior to this season. Unfortunately for anyone who loves an old-fashioned (ca. 2000) slugfest, that’s only the beginning of the story in what is a lost season for hitters in 2014. Here are five signs this MLB season’s power outage is of historic levels and approaching the Dead Ball Era. Beware: references to the nineteenth century are ahead.

Stats were sourced from Baseballreference.com and are current as of August 22, 2014.

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1. Batting averages and OBP are at 50-year lows

Whatever happened to a base hit? Since MLB teams are deploying dramatic defensive shifts for batters these days, there are countless singles and doubles waiting for a hitter who taps a ball to the infield holes. Yet hitters rarely take the hit waiting for them on the other side of the diamond. Arguing it will “mess up” their (dead-pull) swing, many hitters say they are paid to hit the ball into the seats and not on the ground. (As shown above, they’re not fulfilling their home run promise, either.)

Hitters may even believe they are following the approach of Ted Williams. The Splendid Splinter, the last mortal to hit .400 for a full baseball season (.406 in 1941), began facing dramatic defensive shifts in 1949. They didn’t stop him from putting up slow-pitch softball numbers for the rest of his career. But there was only one Teddy Ballgame.

Today’s hitters politely decline to hit against the shift for a strategy that isn’t working. The collective .251 batting average in 2014 has not been seen since 1964 (and 1915), when batters hit .250 for the season. To believers in advanced statistics who say batting average is not essential, the on-base percentage should fortify this point. MLB hitters have a .313 OBP in 2014. The last time the number was that low? Again, it was 1964. Before that, the next lowest mark was set in the first year of recorded statistics: batters had a .312 OBP in 1871.

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2. MLB hitters are slugging at 1896 levels

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Irish immigrants had barely staked their place in the United States when a new threat to societal fabric was arriving: Italians. Yes, they were different times in 1896, but MLB hitters slugged .387 that season, which wasn’t bad for the start of the Dead Ball Era (batters slugged .347 in 1898) and is basically match for today’s power production.

In 2014, the 30 MLB teams have combined for a .388 slugging percentage, which hasn’t been seen since 1980 (or 1960 before that). But that’s only if hitters can keep their pace through the end of the marathon 2014 season. Any slip in their power numbers and it’s back to a time mostly forgotten in American history. Benchmark: hitters slugged .384 in 1871, the first year of recorded statistics. That mark is currently in sight.

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3. The 1-0 pitcher’s duel is back with a vengeance

In 1968, Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA in 34 starts for St. Louis in his Cy Young/MVP campaign. How did he have a record of 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA and 13 complete-game shutouts? Well, he lost three games 1-0 in epic pitcher’s duels worthy of the era. Those days are coming back for Major League Baseball.

During an August 21 duel between Tyson Ross (MLB’s most unhittable pitcher) and Clayton Kershaw (the MLB WAR leader in 2014), Vin Scully casually mentioned that there had already been 48 games decided by the score of 1-0 in 2014, which was the equivalent of the entire 2013 season. Kershaw got the benefit of two runs later in the game (it was 1-0 when Scully noted the stat) and won 2-1, but the return of the picher’s duel is complete. Fans who love offense will not welcome more of these taut battles.

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4. Runs per game are at World War II levels

In 1942, ballplayers were getting called to fight in World War II (Ted Williams missed 1943, 1944, and 1945 to the war) and whoever was left scored an average of 4.08 runs per game. That was the last time runs per game were below 4.09, where they stand with a month yet to play in the 2014 season. If hitters start putting more points on the board, they may eclipse the 1978 mark of 4.10 runs per game.

Otherwise, historic lows of 4.07 runs per game (1969) from a great pitcher’s era or 4.04  runs per game (1913) from the Dead Ball Era are now within the sights of MLB offenses.

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5. MLB teams are contending with dismal offensive numbers

In a sign of the widespread MLB power outage in 2014, several teams in the hunt for playoff spots are doing so with historically bad offensive numbers. ESPN’s Jayson Stark pointed out how the Kansas City Royals might become the third American League team in history to make the playoffs without hitting 100 home runs in 162 games. (The other two were Royals teams from the 1970s.) Competing in the AL has never been possible without hitting long balls, but the Royals are trying to get the most out of their offense this year.

Another number Stark noted highlights the viability of weak offenses in today’s game. The Seattle Mariners, in the midst of their playoff push, have a .303 on-base percentage through 126 games. Only one AL team has made the playoffs with an OBP worse than that. You proboably guessed it: we’re going back once again to the Dead Ball Era, when the 1906 White Sox went to the World Series with a .301 OBP. Somehow, that is playing in 2014.

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