More than any other post I’ve written in recent memory, this post was inspired directly by a moment in today’s Nationals - Braves game (crushing, by the way). In the telecast, one of the commentators mentioned that batters are hitting fewer singles today than ever before. “Is that really true?” I wondered to myself on the couch…
Luckily for me, baseball being baseball, there’s almost always an easy way to answer these kinds of questions, and next thing I knew, I was down a Baseball Reference rabbithole of historical hitting data. What I ended up finding was a fascinating picture of baseball’s evolution, crystallized into just a few charts that help answer our singles question, show just how significant the recent eruption in home runs has been, chronicle the growth of the “Three True Outcomes”, and finally, show the demise of small-ball in the modern game.
Turns out our man was right! Hitters today are hitting fewer singles per game than at any other point in recorded history. While much of the dip on a max-to-min basis comes from very high numbers in the early 1900s, I think it’s worthwhile to focus on the fact that there has been such a substantial downtick since roughly 2005.
While the number of singles per game continues to decline, home runs exhibit the opposite effect, with a substantial increase since the early 1900s, and a noted uptick since 2011 or so.
Three True Outcomes
The price of that rise in home runs? Strikeouts, it looks like. The rise in Three True Outcomes has been much documented, so I won’t bore you all with the history of exactly what has happened across the league, but it is clear that hitters focusing on elevating the ball and hitting for power has had serious consequences for both home run and strikeout rates, and is slowly transforming baseball into something much different than in the early 20th century.
Another way of seeing modern baseball’s pivot away from core aspects of “old baseball” is significantly decreased usage of the sacrifice bunt and stolen base. These tools, which I think a lot of baseball fans would refer to as important elements of playing “small ball”, have been increasingly marginalized as baseball shows that the sacrifice of an out for a base, or risk getting thrown out at the bases, isn’t worth the trade-off.
I know that none of these takeaways are particularly groundbreaking, but it was fun to quantify some of these trends that I’ve heard discussed and debated in the past (particularly the rise of home runs and TTO), and actually put them in a simple historical frame of reference. Clearly, the game of baseball today is much different than it was 100 years ago, or even 30 years ago - which is a fascinating theme for a game that is so resistant to change in many other ways.