Three True Outcomes too common?

Baseball, in its modern form, was developed in the mid 1800s, played initially under rules written by Alexander Cartwright who is heralded by many as the father of modern baseball. Cartwright’s guidelines, called the “Knickerbocker Rules,” standardized what had previously been a series of variations of the same game. These new rules catapulted the game into mainstream culture and, by the 1850s, the game was being called the “national pastime.” But that game looked very different from the baseball of today.

One of the most notable differences between the game played under Cartwright’s rules and today’s game is the role of the pitcher. The position got its name because the job of the player was to toss the ball underhand, or “pitch” the ball toward the batter. The pitcher’s role was minimal; competition was between the batter and the fielders, which, as you can imagine, made for a very exciting game.

Then, in 1884 (the same year that the last African-American player was allowed to play in American professional baseball until Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947), a major rule change occurred. As a result, pitchers were allowed to throw pitches overhand. With this, a new component was added to the competition: the battle between the pitcher and the batter.

Now here we are, more than a century later, and that one alteration has changed everything about our game. Pitching is now the most analyzed aspect of baseball, while fielding remains the most overlooked. And not only did the change transform the way the game is examined, it also changed the way the game is played.

Before the rule change, the only result of an at-bat in which no fielders were involved was a home run. But with the introduction of the battle between hitters and pitchers, two more possible outcomes were created: strikeouts and walks. These three results of an at-bat that do not involve any fielders are called the Three True Outcomes (TTO).

The Three True Outcomes began being recorded in 1910, and the frequency of one of the TTOs occurring was about 13 percent. Then, the frequency at which the TTOs occur has increased at a rate of about one percent every seven years. This rate of increase has accelerated in the modern era, with the frequency of TTOs increasing about one percent every five years since 1980.

In 2012, the frequency of TTOs surpassed 30 percent for the first time. The 2012 season featured pitchers such as Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel, whose frequency of TTOs were 48.5 percent and an incredible 56.3 per cent, respectively.

So far in 2013, the trend has continued, with the frequency of the TTOs at an all-time high of 31 percent. With the rise in the use of baseball analysis in front offices and clubhouses, this trend will continue at a faster pace. Experts are now appreciating the value of walks, which has been underestimated, as well as recognizing that the detriment of striking out has been exaggerated. With these realizations, we won’t see a slowdown in the increase of TTOs.

Why does this matter? Because a high incidence of plays that do not involve the fielders results in unexciting baseball. If the trend continues so that every pitcher is at the level of Chapman and Kimbrel, then major league baseball might be looking at a serious viewer and attendance shortage. That type of baseball simply wouldn’t be exciting for nine innings every day. Serious rule changes would need to be considered to shift the focus of the game away from the pitcher and hitter and back to a contest between the hitter and fielders, the way Cartwright originally envisioned the game.

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Comments

  1. Bruce Markusen said...

    There are way too many strikeouts for my liking in today’s game. What drives me crazy are the number of hitters today who take called third strikes, often on pitches that are fastballs and obvious strikes. I mean, how do you get fooled on a two-strike fastball?

    I’d like to see a different two-strike approach from most of today’s hitters.

  2. Northern Rebel said...

    Both Ian, and Alex have a point. However tinkering with the rules almost always produces unintended consequences. also, it seems that umpires have more influence than is necessary, as far as implementing said rules.
    In 1950, a rule enacted stated, “Strike zone to include only the area from the batter’s armpits, to the top of the knee.
    Is that the strike zone we see today?
    It seems like the zone most umpires enact, is 2 inches above the ankle to the batter’s belt.
    It was the umpire’s perception of the strike zone that produced the 60’s dead ball era, and forced MLB to lower the pitcher’s mound.
    Today’s umpire’s are arrogant and seem to be unaccountable. They should be held to the same standards as the players: If you can’t call strikes in the zone the rules stipulate, you’re gone!
    I’m sick of hearing how this ump’s zone is wider, or this one calls the high strike, etc.
    The players play and perform within a strict set of rules. Shouldn’t the umpires?
    If we adhered to the 1950 version of the strike zone, I believe that Ian and Alex would both be satisfied by the results.

  3. Marc Schneider said...

    Strikeouts and walks may not be unexciting in themselves but they lead to long periods of inaction.  Personally, I don’t consider endless foul balls to be dramatic.

  4. Ian R. said...

    @Mark – Foul balls may not be the most dramatic things that happen in any game (though I continue to love the extended stand-off between a patient hitter and a great pitcher), but they’re no more interesting than routine outs.

    Many of the really interesting plays happen on well-hit balls – a diving stop on a hard grounder, an outfielder racing for a fly ball in the gap. The current style of play reduces the number of balls hit in play, true, but it also encourages hitters to wait for hittable pitches that they can really drive. I’d guess that the overall impact on those plays is pretty limited.

  5. Ian R. said...

    Interesting take, but I’m not sure the rise of the three true outcomes is making baseball less interesting to watch. Consider:

    * One of those outcomes is the home run. I don’t think many people consider home runs unexciting.

    * Strikeouts may not be terribly interesting individually, but home fans love to watch a dominant starter rack up Ks.

    * Even walks are not necessarily boring. They often involve a long battle between pitcher and hitter, with fouling off pitches, close calls and plenty of drama.

    * It’s not as though every ball hit in play results in an exciting play. Do fans really love routine 6-3 groundouts more than strikeouts? Really?

    Furthermore, while the TTOs have historically risen from year to year, I wonder if we’ll start seeing that rise slow down in the near future. Hitters right now are testing the limits of how much they can strike out while still being productive, and with the increased appreciation of the value of the walk, pitchers are also being taught to limit walks.

  6. Northern Rebel said...

    John, I kinda agree with you, regarding the horozontal strike zone. However, after the dead ball 60’s, They resumed the 1950 strike zone in 1969, giving baseball one of it’s more memorable decades.
    The offensive side of the game improved, without stripping the pitchers, especially the great ones, of normal statistical success. I don’t think having a league ERA of 4.60 is in the best interests of baseball, anymore than I think a league batting average of .240 is a good idea.
    We can’t change the fact that players are bigger, and stronger, unless we start tinkering with the size of the ballparks.
    That’s like raising the basketball hoop to 11’, because players are taller, and can jump higher.

  7. Marc Schneider said...

    @Ian,

    The problem I have is that too many games today have no pace.  They are just an endless series of long at-bats, long counts, and fouls.  Plus, this leads to using more pitchers, and overall longer games.  I like offense and I don’t want all 1-0 games, but I prefer crisp, quick games to these interminable Yankee-Red Sox games.  Yesterday, my Braves beat the Pirates 5-0, in a game in which Pittsburgh had 1 hit and the Braves had 7.  Yet the game lasted almost three hours.  I find that inexplicable.

  8. John Walsh said...

    @Northern: The strike zone rule has been rewritten several times since 1950. Currently the upper limit of the strike zone is “the mid-point between the belt and the shoulder”, or something along those lines.

    There have been numerous studies using pitch f/x data (some of them done by yours truly), comparing the rule book strike zone with the zone actually called by the umpires. What I and others have found is that the vertical strike zone is called pretty well by the umps, the horizontal zone, not so much. You will find lots of info with a few simple google searches.

  9. Sabertooth said...

    “Experts are now appreciating the value of walks, which has been underestimated, as well as recognizing that the detriment of striking out has been exaggerated.”

    I think this comment merits a couple of counterpoints:

    1. For the 40+ years I’ve followed baseball, I recall that losing managers have always been willing to say “Our (pitchers’) walks killed us today,” but never, even now do they say “We killed them with our (batters’) walks today. The negative value of pitchers walks has always been understood, sabermetrics or not, but batters’ walks not so much until the last two decades or so. It’s a strange incongruity.

    2. If the detriment of batters’ strikeouts has been exaggerated (not that I disagree), how do we square that with the increased sense of the value of pitchers’ strikeouts, the most saber-friendly of the traditional pitching stats?

  10. John Walsh said...

    “Experts are now appreciating the value of walks, which has been underestimated…”

    This seems to make sense, but in fact if you check the data, you find that walk rates have been pretty constant since about 1930. The increase in TTO rate is driven by K rate and HR rate. (Of course, the HR rate quite small compared to the K rate, so it’s really the latter that is driving high TTO).

  11. Ian R. said...

    @Sabertooth – To respond to your second point, a lot of it is correlative. Pitchers who rack up a lot of strikeouts tend to get plenty of outs, period, which is obviously a very good thing. On the other hand, hitters who strike out a lot are often patient hitters, leading to more walks and stronger contact when they do hit the ball, and they’re usually guys with at least some power.

    Obviously if a hitter could cut his strikeouts substantially while keeping the rest of his peripherals the same, that would be a very good thing, but often strikeouts are a byproduct of an otherwise effective approach.

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