Goodbye to all that

It’s not easy to make sense of the short, strange season of 2020, but let's try

This is the final installment of Baseball’s Best (and Worst) before the legendary ball — actually a crystal geodesic sphere — is dropped in a fittingly vacant Times Square. That makes this the perfect time to say goodbye to the accursed year of 2020.

And what a short, strange season it was.

Only 898 big-league games were played in 2020, slightly more than a third of the usual total of 2,430. Doubleheader games were limited to seven innings. Extra-inning games were expedited by the placement of pinch runners at second base. And the designated hitter was unilaterally extended to the National League.

It’s not easy to draw any lessons from such a peculiar season. But let’s close the books on 2020 by checking 10 statistics to see if any trends emerged or — as seems more likely — confusion reigned supreme. Then let’s move on to a (hopefully) normal 2021.

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Bases per out

  • 2020 (both leagues): .707

  • 2019 (both leagues): .723

  • 1970-2020 highest: .759 in 2000

  • 1970-2020 lowest: .605 in 1972

  • Notes: This is the best measure of offensive efficiency, comparing every base a batter reaches to every out he makes. BPO peaked during the power craze — fueled, in part, by steroid abuse — around the turn of the century. It fell back below .700 in 2010 and has generally remained below that threshold, popping above it only three times since (2017, 2019, 2020). BPO slipped a bit this year, yet it remained higher than in most seasons of the past decade.

Batting average

  • 2020 (both leagues): .245

  • 2019 (both leagues): .252

  • 1970-2020 highest: .271 in 1999

  • 1970-2020 lowest: .244 in 1972

  • Notes: Batting average usually shifts a point or two from one season to the next, yet it really plummeted in 2020. A seven-point drop resulted in a BA of .245, dangerously close to the low of .244 for the past half-century. American League owners were so disturbed by the 1972 nadir that they instituted the designated hitter for the following season. Will additional rule changes be in order if the current decline continues?

Slugging average

  • 2020 (both leagues): .418

  • 2019 (both leagues): .435

  • 1970-2020 highest: .437 in 2000

  • 1970-2020 lowest: .354 in 1972

  • Notes: Hitters have never been more apt to swing for the fences, yet the big-league slugging average fell by 17 points in 2020. A decline of such proportion may seem alarming, though it actually means very little. The 2020 SLG of .418 is virtually the same as the figure for 2016 (.417) and precisely identical to the number for 2009. No reason for concern here.

Runs per game

  • 2020 (both leagues): 9.29

  • 2019 (both leagues): 9.66

  • 1970-2020 highest: 10.28 in 2000

  • 1970-2020 lowest: 7.37 in 1972

  • Notes: The rest of the statistics that we’ll examine are combined averages for both teams in a single game. Keep in mind that some of 2020’s contests were shorter than usual, thanks to the doubleheader and extra-inning rules noted above. Those changes might explain slight deviations, though the drop of 0.37 runs per game between 2019 and 2020 was certainly not slight. Nor was it necessarily the sign of a trend, since it was still higher than the 8.90 runs per game in 2018.

Hits per game

  • 2020 (both leagues): 16.08

  • 2019 (both leagues): 17.31

  • 1970-2020 highest: 18.67 in 1996 and 1999

  • 1970-2020 lowest: 16.08 in 2020

  • Notes: Here’s a real reason for concern. The overall batting average fell, and games were slightly shorter on average, so you would expect hits per game to drop. But they fell off a cliff from 17.31 in 2019 to 16.08 this year. The latter is the lowest figure in a half-century — the lowest, in fact, since the infamous drought year of 1968, when batters managed just 15.82 hits per game. Only four other seasons in baseball history have seen fewer hits per game than 2020 — the dead-ball years of 1906 to 1909.

Home runs per game

  • 2020 (both leagues): 2.57

  • 2019 (both leagues): 2.79

  • 1970-2020 highest: 2.79 in 2019

  • 1970-2020 lowest: 1.15 in 1976

  • Notes: If you love the long ball, you have nothing to worry about. Yes, the number of home runs dropped from 2.79 per game in 2019 to 2.57 in 2020. But this year’s average was still the second-highest in history. Compare it to the rate of 2.34 homers per game in 2000, the peak of the previous power wave, and you can see that the home run remains alive and well.

Walks per game

  • 2020 (both leagues): 6.78

  • 2019 (both leagues): 6.54

  • 1970-2020 highest: 7.51 in 2000

  • 1970-2020 lowest: 5.77 in 2014

  • Notes: Pitchers are either getting more nervous or they’re slowly losing their control. The number of walks per game has risen every season but one since 2014, when the rate was 5.77, the lowest of the half-century. The resurgence of power hitting is obviously the major reason why pitchers are growing more careful.

Strikeouts per game

  • 2020 (both leagues): 17.36

  • 2019 (both leagues): 17.63

  • 1970-2020 highest: 17.63 in 2019

  • 1970-2020 lowest: 9.50 in 1981

  • Notes: Baseball has become a game of free swingers — and, consequently, a game of strikeouts. There were 12.61 whiffs per game in 2005, a figure that rose (without exception) in each of the subsequent 14 seasons, bringing us to a peak of 17.63 in 2019. The rate finally dropped in 2020, but there is no reason to believe the plague of strikeouts is behind us. This year’s average of 17.36 strikeouts per game was still the second-highest in baseball history.

Stolen bases per game

  • 2020 (both leagues): 0.98

  • 2019 (both leagues): 0.94

  • 1970-2020 highest: 1.70 in 1987

  • 1970-2020 lowest: 0.91 in 1971

  • Notes: The average number of stolen bases climbed above 1.00 per game in 1973 and kept rising. It peaked at 1.70 in 1987. But power subsequently supplanted speed, and the stolen base declined in popularity. The average finally slipped below 1.00 steals per game in 2019 and remained beneath that threshold this year.

Sacrifices per game

  • 2020 (both leagues): 0.59

  • 2019 (both leagues): 0.79

  • 1970-2020 highest: 1.55 in 1978

  • 1970-2020 lowest: 0.59 in 2020

  • Notes: Sacrificing was less popular in 2020 than in any previous season in big-league history. There were just 0.59 sacrifice hits and flies per game this year, down 0.20 from the previous all-time low, which was set in 2019. Why such a decline in 2020? The obvious reason is the universal adoption of the DH, coupled with the growing reticence of most managers to surrender an out for any reason whatsoever.