Major-league baseball has reached the All-Star break with a .240 batting average. Comparisons to 1968 roll easy off the keyboard.
There are major differences, but to start with the similarities, MLB’s 1968 BA was a record-low .237. The 2021 BA is the lowest since and the fourth-lowest of all-time. You have to reach back to the 19th century (.239 in 1888) and the dead-ball era (.239 in 1908) to find the second- and third-lowest.
In 1968, Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA set a record low. In 2021, the Mets’ Jacob deGrom is challenging Gibson at 1.08.
The state of offense worried the lords of baseball in 1968, as it does now. In 1968, they responded by shrinking the strike zone and lowering the mound.
This year, we’ve seen a partial ban on sticky substances that help pitchers increase spin rates, and there’s discussion about lowering the mound again, moving the mound back and making the bases bigger.
But this is not a carbon copy of 1968.
In the 1968 Year of the Pitcher, scoring plummeted to 3.42 runs per team per game. Only 1908 was lower at 3.38.
In 2021, the average is 4.47, more than a run higher than 1968. It’s lower than the 4.65 last year and 4.83 in 2019, but about on par with the 4.45 in 2018. Of the 20 seasons from 2001 to 2020, 13 were higher-scoring than 2021, seven were lower-scoring.
Scoring is being kept at normal levels largely because of home runs. In 1968, teams averaged .61 home runs per game. The 2021 average is nearly double that at 1.19.
MLB’s .403 slugging percentage is 63 points higher than that of 1968. By isolated power — the portion of slugging percentage that comes from extra bases — MLB is at .163 in 2021 vs. .103 in 1968.
Strikeouts and walks
Here’s a reason for worry in 2021: Strikeouts are at an all-time high of 8.86 per team per game, while they were at a mere 5.89 in 1968. Walks are at 3.33 per team per game vs. 2.82 in 1968.
In 1968, Sam McDowell led MLB with 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Gibson was at 7.9, Cubs leader Fergie Jenkins at 7.6 and White Sox leader Gary Peters at 6.1. This season, deGrom leads at 14.3, with Carlos Rodon at 13.0 to lead four Sox starters averaging double figures. The Cubs’ Adbert Alzolay is at 9.4.
In 1968, pitchers averaged 6.65 innings per start. In 2021, the average is 5.09. More innings are going to relievers, who are averaging 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings. In 1968, the average was 5.83 strikeouts per nine.
The 2021 baseball world has a steep increase in the number of hard-throwing pitchers, emphasis on spin rates no one knew about in 1968 and offenses built for power to counteract the difficulty of stringing hits against today’s pitching.
It’s a challenging time, but the challenges are different than in 1968, when scoring crashed along with batting averages.