It started out as a simple question, one I’ve had since reading in The Book that teams scored just under five runs per game from 1999 through 2002 and that generalized run expectancy totals could be gleaned based on that. Many have treated The Book as the definitive tome for sabermetrics since its publication in 2007. Candidly, I was a little irked by its use of run totals from such a peak era of baseball history to suggest normative conditions. It couldn’t be right to suggest teams all through history have averaged five runs a game. Could it?
With the help of Baseball-Reference.com and a willingness to kill a few hours making a spreadsheet, such questions can easily be answered. Going through 139 seasons of data, I found the answer to my question: through baseball history, teams have averaged 4.53 runs per game. There’s more worth saying here, granted. A more detailed, though still admittedly cursory look at what I discovered in my research follows below.
I. Wild West: Before the formation of the American League in 1901
There isn’t much sense in comparing run totals before the formation of the American League in 1901 to today. Baseball in the 19th century was nothing like it is today. Leagues came and went, like the Union Association of 1884 or the Player’s League of 1890 or so many other circuits that no casual fan has ever heard of. Rules that modern fans may take for granted, such as the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate or the right of pitchers to not have their pitches called by opposing batters (seriously, this happened), were established through trial and error in these early seasons.
Don’t get me wrong, though, the run totals in baseball over the first 25 years after the National League was established in 1876 are a lot of fun. Baseball will never see anything like it again. There will never be another season like 1894, where the average team topped seven runs a game, all of baseball hit .309, and the Phillies boasted an all-.400 outfield and still finished fourth. There will never be another pitcher like Jack Wadsworth having a lifetime 6.85 ERA that’s just 5 percent worse than the MLB average for the years he played. The offensive boon of the 1920s/’30s and the steroid years have nothing on this wacky era.
II. Formation of the American League and the first Deadball Era
I wasn’t sure how to group these seasons together. While this time period more or less constitutes the Deadball Era, depending on who is consulted, these 19 seasons are more representative as a patchwork of a few sub-eras.
There’s 1901-03 where run totals are noticeably higher, primarily the result of two things, I’m guessing: 1) Foul tips not being called strikes in both leagues until 1903; and 2) A bit of chaos the first few seasons after the formation of the American League in 1901. These were years players jumped leagues irrespective of contracts, rosters sometimes being raided. The two leagues made peace in 1903, and run totals plummeted the following year.
With the exception of 1911 and 1912, Deadball Era scoring levels remained fairly constant from 1904 through 1919. Not counting 1911-12, teams scored an average of 3.72 runs per game 1904-19. We can exclude 1911 and 1912 as the ball wasn’t dead during those years. As noted in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, both leagues used a cork-centered ball during these years, causing offense to spike. Emerging use of the emery ball in 1913 restored the advantage to pitchers.
III. A Golden Age for offense
A number of changes happened in baseball around 1920. Eight members of the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series, leaving baseball scrambling with its first public relations crisis. Then Babe Ruth started hitting more homers than any player before him, attracting more fans than ever at the same time. In the midst, Ray Chapman became the first major leaguer killed by a pitched ball. For these and perhaps other reasons, Major League Baseball banned the spitball and emery ball in 1921, as noted by Bill James; MLB also elected to keep cleaner balls in play that could be more easily seen by hitters and would be less likely to lose shape late in games.
This led to the first great offensive age of the modern era for baseball, 22 glorious seasons that offered some of the highest RBI totals and batting averages that will ever be seen. There’s a reason Rogers Hornsby’s .424 clip and Hack Wilson’s 191 RBIs have stood as record since these years. While run totals occasionally dipped, such as when less-lively balls were introduced in 1933, scoring stayed high until the majority of big leaguers went to war. I like this kind of baseball, if I’m being candid. It’s a wonder to me there hasn’t been more of it in the modern era.
IV. Second Deadball Era: World War II
Although I haven’t seen it formally recognized as such, I consider World War II the third Deadball Era in baseball’s history, together with the early 20th century and mid-1960s. The run totals are certainly more or less in-line. Like the earliest Deadball Era, this one primarily owed itself to the balls in use. As noted in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:
During wartime, the quality of baseballs used was inferior, as there was something in regular baseballs that was needed to make explosives or O.D. green paint or something, and the balls manufactured were rather lifeless.
I was tempted to group 1946 in as part of the war years as scoring didn’t rebound until 1947. I doubt the caliber of balls was inferior in 1946; I just have this theory that long breaks tend to favor pitchers and that it took hitters a year or so to get back to form after the war ended. Some didn’t recover, such as Cecil Travis, never the same player after four years of combat service. The popular story on Travis was that he suffered frostbite at the Battle of the Bulge. His New York Times obituary quoted him saying the real reason he declined was he lost his timing as a hitter.
V. Post-war years, before strike zone change in January 1963
One of the things I find most interesting about these years is that run totals didn’t change that much, on average, while otherwise baseball was changing tremendously. The majors were integrated. Teams began to relocate for the first time in half a century and four expansion clubs were added. Transcontinental air travel and night games became commonplace. Despite all this, scoring levels remained reasonably constant most of these 17 seasons never quite returning to the stratospheric highs of the ’20s and ’30s or dipping to Deadball levels.
Run totals for this period, 4.43 runs per game were as close to the average for baseball history, 4.53 runs per game of any of the periods listed here. I assume the balance between hitting and pitching was also as close as it’s been for any sustained period. It was certainly better than it is now.
VI. Third Deadball Era: After strike zone change in January 1963
Sandy Koufax entered spring training in 1961 boasting a 36-40 lifetime record with a 4.10 ERA. He had nearly as many strikeouts for innings pitched at that point of his career, though the young lefty was also averaging more than five walks every nine innings. Famously, Koufax’s catcher Norm Sherry told him to throw less hard, and Koufax proceeded to go 32-20 with a 3.11 ERA over the next two seasons.
Then, on January 26, 1963, as recounted by Bill James in the historical abstract, the Baseball Rules Committee expanded the strike zone, stating that it went from the shoulders to the bottom of the knee. Now blessed as well with the best pitcher’s park of the 1960s, Dodgers Stadium, Koufax went on one of the finest runs a pitcher’s ever had. Over the ensuing four seasons before his arm gave out, Koufax went 97-27 with a 1.86 ERA (with an unreal 1.97 cumulative FIP), three Cy Young awards, and a National League MVP.
VII. End of an era? After pitching mound was lowered
Following the offensive nadir that was 1968, when teams averaged their lowest runs per game in 60 years, Major League Baseball lowered the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. They did it to help hitters, ostensibly, though it didn’t cause run totals to change that much. In fact, certain pitchers got better while others continued to dominate. There are perhaps a few reasons the lower mound didn’t produce the desired effect.
First, as Jim Bouton wrote during spring training in 1969 in Ball Four:
[Seattle Pilots teammate] Mike Marshall is a righthanded pitcher who was 15-9 in the Tiger organization last season. He’s got a master’s degree from Michigan State. He majored in phys. ed, with a minor in mathematics. He’s a cocky kid with a subtle sense of humor. He’s been telling everybody that the new lower mound, which was supposed to help the hitters, actually shortens the distance the pitcher has to throw the ball. Has to do with the hypotenuse of a right triangle decreasing as either side of the triangle decreases. Therefore, says Marshall, any psychological advantage the hitters gain if the pitcher doesn’t stand tall out there will be offset by the pitchers knowing that they are now closer to the plate.
I recently interviewed former Houston Astros pitcher Larry Dierker, who enjoyed a career year in ’69, going 20-13 with a 2.33 ERA and 8.6 WAR. Assuming the lower mound favored hitters, I asked Dierker how he compensated. He told me he hadn’t even noticed. Dierker said:
What I noticed, when I’m on any mound, is whether it feels comfortable or not. But my arm position was around three-quarters, and I think the higher, steeper mound is really the mound that gives a tall, straight overhand pitcher like Jim Palmer a better advantage. Randy Johnson, when he was with us, the Phillies for some reason or another– I know it wasn’t legal– they had a high, steep mound just like they used to have in Dodger Stadium, and that was the only game that he didn’t pitch well for us. He was complaining about the mound from the first inning on. But he was kind of low three-quarters with his arm position, and I think he preferred a little bit more gentle slope.
Jim Palmer, for his part, averaged 19 wins and a 2.47 ERA from 1969 through 1972, twice finishing in the top five for American League Cy Young voting.
VIII. First 20 seasons after the implementation of the DH
There’s this myth veteran sportswriters repeat around Hall of Fame voting time that the implementation of the designated hitter rule in 1973 created a greater offensive era. The myth is used to justify Jack Morris’s 3.90 ERA, among other things. The next time someone trots out the myth, please, show them the chart above. Maybe tell them also that for the years Morris pitched in the majors, 1977 through 1994, teams scored an average of 4.34 runs a game. (So we’re clear, I don’t take much issue with Morris being a future Veterans Committee selection for the Hall of Fame; I just am leery of hyperbole.)
With the exception of a few outlying seasons, notably 1987 where a rabbit ball may have been in use, run totals after the 1960s didn’t rise to major heights until the mid-1990s. Scoring rose slightly, granted, but was below the average for baseball history of 4.53 runs per game. The 1970s and ’80s weren’t an era that favored offense. It was more or less average, with pitchers enjoying a slight edge and small ball an oft-used strategy of the day. The sooner this is better understood, the more that players like Dwight Evans, Dave Parker, and Dale Murphy may get recognition from Cooperstown.
IX. The offensive explosion
There still isn’t consensus about what caused run totals to increase so much in the mid-1990s and early-2000s, and I don’t know if there will ever be. It’s a controversial, polarizing subject, and I don’t know if all the variables from the era will ever fully come to light. The common suggested culprits for the spike in offense, I think, are steroids, expansion, weaker pitching and a livelier ball. It’s somewhat of a cop-out, I’ll admit, to say I suspect that a combination of these and other factors engendered the greatest offensive era in baseball since the 1930s. Strictly speaking, though, there’s no quick explanation for the era. There generally isn’t in baseball history. I’m reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
X. What’s going on?
Something’s been happening in baseball over the past five seasons, causing run totals to trend down. I don’t know what the reason is, but we’re clearly in an age for pitchers. It’s why Clayton Kershaw is having the best season of any hurler in 15 years, why Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright and others aren’t far off. We’re heading toward the fourth Deadball Era if this trend doesn’t reverse. And if that happens, fans can bet on more rule changes from Major League Baseball to liven the game.