A curious early-season trend

I’ve started pulling together my usual Hardball Times graphs for the current season, thanks to data from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference, and I’ve found a most curious thing. Of course, there are always curious things early in the year—fewer games yield more quirks—and I don’t think this is a predictive trend or anything like that. It’s just, well, curious.

It’s this admittedly complicated graph:


The idea behind this graph is that teams score runs by getting runners in scoring position, batting with runners in scoring position and hitting home runs any time. The graph uses circle size to indicate the number of home runs hit, the x axis to show the number of plate appearances with runners in scoring position and the y axis shows batting average with runners in scoring position.

Usually, there is a positive relationship between plate appearances and batting average with runners in scoring position, because teams with high batting averages tend to get runners in scoring position and also tend to hit well when they’re on base. The two things just naturally go together, like horses and carriages. The stories are usually in the exceptions.

Not this year. This year, in fact, the trend is going upside down; the more plate appearances with runners in scoring position, the less well teams have hit. In particular, the Red Sox, A’s and Mariners have been very good at getting runners to second and third early in the inning—only the Royals have been better—but terrible at batting them in, the worst in the league.

It’s all in the timing. The Mariners, for instance, have hit .250, with 31 doubles, with no one on base. They’ve been very good at getting runners into scoring position. Once those runners are in scoring position, however, they’ve hit .205 with just six doubles (in about half as many plate appearances). They’ve stunk in the “clutch.”

At the other extreme, the Orioles have hit .214 with no one on, but .270 with men on and .297 with runners in scoring position. They’ve been clutch gods.

You usually find a couple of teams like this each year. This year, however, the entire league has gone against type. Compelling stories are all over. It won’t last, but it is curious.

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