Cubs: The long, slow death of the everyday big league hitter

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images) /

To paraphrase an old Buffalo Springfield song, “There’s something happening here” and what “it” is actually has been pretty clear.  As Cubs fans and baseball fans have suspected, the art of hitting is dying.

Lost amidst all the talk about launch angle, OPS, wOBA and all the other sabermetric gobbledygook is the fact that hitting, the art of actually making contact with the ball, has been in decline for over two decades.

Cubs: Hitters aren’t hitting, and they haven’t been for a long time.

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To be clear, this hitting decline began at the height of the PED era in Major League Baseball and has been in persistent and consistent decline since 1999.  This happened in spite of the PED use throughout the mid-2000s. It continues today despite all the high-tech batting instrumentation and video reviewing going on today.

By the end of the 2019 season, league batting average, walk rate, extra-base hits, RBI, OBP, even OPS, were at or near 20-year lows.  In 2021 batters are hitting .232, the lowest in MLB history.  That’s right, the league batting average so far in 2021 is lower than even during the dead-ball era.

Yet not every offensive metric has declined.  Home runs are at an all-time high. The 2019 HR rate was 1.39 per game, higher than at any time during the PED era.  Guess what other metric is up?  Strikeouts.  The K rate in 2019 was 8.81 the highest in MLB history, and so far in 2021, the K rate stands at 9.16.

There are some expert observers who want to place the blame for this hitting failure on the dominance of present-day pitching, especially increased fastball velocity.

However, this assessment ignores that the decline in hitting began a full decade before fastball velocity began to increase.

According to FanGraphs, league-average fastball velocity in 2010 stood at 91.75 MPH.  By 2016 it had peaked at just under 93 MPH and has leveled out since then.  What did increase between 2010 and 2016 was league fastballs thrown at 95+ MPH, up from about 14 to 22 percent.

That might explain some hitting decline after 2010, and may account for some after 2016, but what accounts for the hitting decline from 1999 to 2009?  More importantly, is the other question, why haven’t hitters adjusted to fastball usage and velocity?

I think the answer to that question is that they can’t. Not easily anyway.  Two whole generations of baseball players, from Little League to middle school to high school to travel ball to college are being told and coached to hit HRs.

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We have killed the art of hitting the baseball.  Somewhere Ted Williams is really pissed.  All the talk about checking baseballs for substances and moving the mound back a foot won’t fix a thing. We need to fix the hitters.