In 1992 the league average K/9 was 5.6, in 2002 it was 6.4, and in 2012 so far it is 7.5. That is an increase of almost two strikeouts a game over a 20 year span, and the big thing is offensive output hasn’t changed much. In 1992 a league average team scored 4.12 runs a game and in 2012 the league average runs per game is 4.30. It is a slight increase in offense but not that much.
It is expected that in 20 years time the game would change somewhat and fluctuate a bit. In order to understand the increase in strikeouts there are two important factors. The first might be that nearly every team has a rotation that is multiple pitchers deep and the back end of bullpens are better and better used than ever. Nearly every team has that bullpen Ace they can call on to get a much needed strikeout late in the game, and for batters the strikeout has become just another way of making an out with the reward of a big swing much greater than the risk.
In 1992 a league average batter hit .256/.322/.377 and this season a league average hitter is hitting .253/.319/.403. The hitting for average and the on base numbers are about the same, but the power is up .026 points. Even though a lot of people claim the power game of baseball isn’t what it once was and the game is returning to what it was in the early 90’s the power levels are still higher than they were then. In 2002 at the height of baseball’s power surge a league average hitter was hitting .261/.331/.417. The big difference in the drop off in runs scored between 2002 and 2012 might not have as much to do with the high strikeouts and the lower slugging as it does with the drop off in on base percentage.
In 2002 the average team score 4.62 runs a game and the reason they were able to do that might be as simple as they had more opportunity to do so. The power of course helps in scoring, but not as much as sending more men to the plate, extending innings, and simply getting more opportunities to hit. Now some might argue that the higher strikeout rates lead to less productive outs and less runners being driven in from third with less than two outs, and they would be correct, but only marginally so. In 1992 a runner on third with less than two outs scored 52% of the time and the same was true in 2002, but so far in 2012 that runner has scored 50% of the time.
Again this brings us full circle to the entire point about opportunities. In 1992 a league average team had 350 chances to drive in a runner from third with less than two outs and 346 chances in 2002, but in 2012 a league average team is on pace to have that chance only 321 times. With that runner scoring around 50% of the time in every year it is obvious that the number of chances to be driven in are just as important as being driven in.
The lower offense that we are seeing around baseball isn’t a fluke, but it looks to be less tied to strikeouts and slugging than it does simple on base numbers. Of course the increase in strikeouts might add something because on average a team is having to field two less balls a game and it is unknown if those two balls in play would become hits, errors, or something else that leads to one or two addition runners reaching base in a game, but most balls in play aren’t hits. At the league average BABIP of .295 those two addition balls in play over a 162 game season would lead to roughly 95 additional base runners.
I am not good enough at math to figure out how much 95 additional base runners would help a team, but it has to be imagined they wouldn’t hurt, and for every additional base runner that is also an additional at bat. So perhaps putting the ball in play more often could help increase the scoring in baseball, and if I realize this I am sure there are people in front offices who can do math who have also realized it as well.