A Quick Look at MLB Counting Stats

I’ve spent a lot of time and thought into investigating global MLB counting stats, focusing mostly upon homers, stolen bases, and saves – and how those rates dictate how we plan for our fantasy drafts. Now that the regular season is finally concluded, it’s time to look to see what happened in 2018. The last couple of seasons featured such tectonic shifts in favor of more homers and less speed – was it more of the same this year? For now, I just want to identify the results – I need more time to decipher the causes and fantasy implications. Let’s dig in.

Home Runs

Home runs were down overall in 2018, by a significant amount. In 2017, major leaguers hit a record (both in terms of raw totals and on a per-game basis) 6,105 homers, good for a 1.256/game rate. That total declined in 2018 to 5,585, at a 1.148/game rate. That’s more in line with the 2016 total and rate (5,610/1.155).

Let’s distill this another way. I frequently cite the NFBC Main Event as a good baseline for what you need in certain categories to compete. The rule of thumb often is to cash in your individual league, you need to average around the 70th percentile in each category, and around the 80th percentile to cash in the overall Main Event. As it turns out, this year to earn a cash spot in the overall contest (14th/510), you needed to average in the 82nd percentile, and in the 90th percentile to win the whole damn thing.

It took let to hit those home run targets in 2018. Last year one needed a whopping 328 homers to hit the 80th percentile and 321 homers to reach the 70th percentile. This year, those totals dropped to 293 and 286 respectively. Those numbers are actually lower than the 2016 results (309/298) as well. We’re hardly suggesting that baseball is going to revert into 80’s-style astro-turf fueled speed play often featured by the Cardinals, but this is a healthy step backward.

Stolen Bases

Meanwhile, the continued devaluation of the stolen base in the majors hasn’t yet abated, though the global stolen base rate perked up a little bit since I took a look in mid-August. There were 2,474 total stolen bases in the game this year, down from 2,527  last season, good for a .509 per game pace. It only seems as if Aldaberto Mondesi and Jonathan Villar were solely responsible for living that per game rate over .49 per game, but their respective surges alerted me to a possible angle that my smarter competitors likely already realized. Fast players on teams that are well out of the race might be more likely to have a green light and use that skill more often. Both Mondesi and Villar certainly qualified under that broad penumbra. The logic here is that it doesn’t matter to those teams so much if they get caught stealing – chances are they’re going to lose anyhow. They might as well allow them to pile up the stats.

Last year it took 142 stolen bases to hit the NFBC Main Event 80th percentile – this year that level dropped to 136 steals, and just 128 to hit the 70th percentile. The precipitous drops from last year’s two leaders, Dee Gordon (who went from 60 to 30) and Billy Hamilton (59 to 34) fueled the overall drop. This year’s leader was Whit Merrifield, who had 45 swipes.

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Saves

For the second year in a row, it took fewer saves to the 70th and 80th percentiles in the NFBC than it had the previous five years. Our save targets from 2012-2016 had been incredibly stable, with us needing about 82 and 88 saves respectively to hit those marks. Last year those targets dropped to 74 for the 70th percentile and 80 for the 80th. This year was more of the same, finishing at 73 and 79 for each mark.

This happened despite the total number of saves in baseball rising from 1,179 to 1,244. Are we just worse as a collective whole in identifying closers, or has bullpen management started to change with teams to make it more difficult to capture those saves? One could look at the Astros, Brewers and Phillies as three examples where chasing saves became a frustrating exercise for fantasy owners. Another explanation could be the stratification in baseball 2018 – often the closers on the extreme losing teams aren’t used as often in fantasy owners’ lineups, due to a lack of opportunities. How often did you have Mychal Givens or Wily Peralta in your active lineup, after all?

Strikeouts

As has been illustrated by nearly everyone in every context, strikeouts again are on the rise. This year there were 41,207 total strikeouts across baseball, up from 40,104 last year and 38,982 in 2016. As a rate stat, it’s gone from 7.98 strikeouts per nine innings in 2016, 8.34 last year and 8.52 this year. You needed 1,401 strikeouts to hit the 70th percentile and 1,443 K’s to hit the 80th percentile. That translates into 156 per active pitcher slot, just to hit the 70th percentile! That makes it really difficult to hit the mark if you’re using three closers in a given week, and given that our targets are lower in saves anyhow, it’s less necessary to chase those saves.

I’ll spend more time this offseason digging into the root causes and fantasy implications of these totals, but it’s a quick look at what we’re dealing with in trying to hit our targets. Just remember that all of this right now is backwards looking – it’s explaining what happened, and not what’s going to happen next. For instance, with the power numbers, if we conclude that the ball was livelier in 2017 (and there’s plenty of credible evidence that it was), that doesn’t mean it will remain as lively in 2018 (it might not have been!) or that will continue next year. But that’s a part of the continuing challenge of our game.