Small ball fading away: Bunts, steals and singles on the decline
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As the frequency of the three true outcomes in baseball continues to rise, other parts of the game are declining.
Home runs, walks and strikeouts are known as the true outcomes because they are pitcher-vs.-hitter results with defense not a factor. Homers (1.26 per team per game) and strikeouts (8.42) are on record paces, and walks (3.27) are at their highest level since 3.42 in 2009.
Something has to give, and some of what has given are ways to advance one base at a time.
Successful sacrifices increase the chance of scoring one run but decrease scoring overall because of fewer multiple-run innings. That knowledge has made an impact, and sacrifice bunts are on a record-low pace.
So far in 2017, there have been 0.19 sacrifices per team per game. The first time sacrifices dropped below 0.4 was 1983 (0.37), and it took 30 years to dip below 0.3 (0.28 in 2013). Last season brought a record-low 0.21.
With the Rockies leading with 37 sacrifices and the Cubs eighth with 22, 14 of the top 15 bunting teams are in the National League.
The White Sox are the exception. Their 18 sacrifice bunts, all by non-pitchers, are tied for 12th in the majors. The Sox lead the majors in sacrifices by non-pitchers, with the Indians next at 14.
At 0.53 steals per game, teams are right in line with the 0.52 in 2015 and 2016. That’s not a historic low. The 0.26 per game in 1950 was the low after deep erosion throughout the live-ball era, which began in 1920.
Steals rose anew starting in the 1970s and reached a live-ball high of 0.87 per game in 1987. But steals have gone into remission with increased power, with every season since 2013 at 0.57 or below.
There’s a break-even point on stolen bases, changing slightly from year to year, of about 70 percent. Teams that run into a greater proportion of outs cost themselves runs by trying to steal. In 2017, 70.4 percent of attempts have been successful.
The White Sox, who rank 24th in the majors with 29 steals, are at 58 percent; the Cubs, who rank 28th with 25 steals, are at 65.8 percent.
Major-league hitters are batting .255 this season. After batting averages held in the .260s from 2000 to 2009, they’ve ranged from .251 to .257 since 2010.
Fewer hits these days are singles. Teams are averaging 8.7 hits per game, including 5.56 singles. Teams averaged 8.71 hits last season, 5.67 of which were singles. From 2004 to 2008, the average ranged from 6.02 to 6.15 singles per game.
With occasional exceptions, the norm has been above six throughout major-league history, even jumping above seven in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The Cubs are at 7.98 hits (4.78 singles) and the Sox at 8.88 hits (six singles) per game.
A singles total that is low even for this era puts the Cubs on the extreme, but it’s also a sign of the times. As it’s played today, baseball has become less of one-base game.
Follow me on Twitter @GrochowskiJ.