Excluding the strike-affected 1994-1995 years, the 2009 season ranks seventh out of 14 seasons no matter which rate you use. Within that context, it's a run-of-the mill post-strike season. What's throwing observers is that 2008 featured the lowest home run rate of that period, and 2007 the second-lowest. The 7.7 percent increase over the previous year, were it to hold, would be the largest climb since 1998-1999 (9.3 percent), just edging out the 2005-2006 increase (7.4 percent).As to why, what's interesting is that in the absence of any contemporary steroid scandals (A-Rod is sooo 2003), it's ballparks and balls that are being discussed as the mechanism, which shouldn't surprise anyone who read the chapter I wrote for Will Carroll's The Juice or my follow-up.
Of course, we're still dealing with a relatively small sample size here—10.6 percent of the schedule, to be exact—as we haven't even finished the April schedule in a season where Opening Day arrived late because of the World Baseball Classic. The question is whether a change observed in the cruelest month will continue to manifest itself over the course of the year. All signs point to yes:Year April Change Season ChangeSince the post-strike 1995 season didn't start until April 25, we're confined to using 1996 as a cutoff, but the effect is clear: the small samples of April (and March) games can produce swings on the order of 20 percent, and while the magnitudes of such year-to-year changes aren't sustained over the course of the season, without fail during this era, an increase or decrease in April home runs portends an annual change in the same direction. It's a nearly bulletproof assertion to say that we'll see more home runs hit in 2009 than 2008.
1996 1.150 n/a 1.094 n/a
1997 0.944 -17.9% 1.024 -6.4%
1998 0.976 3.4% 1.041 1.7%
1999 1.143 17.1% 1.138 9.3%
2000 1.281 12.1% 1.172 3.0%
2001 1.168 -8.8% 1.124 -4.1%
2002 0.953 -18.4% 1.043 -7.2%
2003 1.047 9.9% 1.071 2.7%
2004 1.087 3.8% 1.123 4.9%
2005 0.947 -12.9% 1.032 -8.1%
2006 1.154 21.9% 1.109 7.5%
2007 0.920 -20.3% 1.020 -8.0%
2008 0.896 -2.6% 1.005 -1.5%
2009 1.082 20.8% 1.082 7.7%
Record: 11-9The topic and format will change every week, perhaps being based on a trend, a problem or a bit of history as opposed to a statistical ranking, and it should increase the frequency with which I publish there given that I don't have to grind my gears to come up with a whole new topic every time.
Current Hit List Factor: .549
Why They're Flying High: The Pirates are allowing the league's fewest runs per game (3.70) after finishing dead last in that category last year, and new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan is receiving a good deal of the credit. Where Paul Maholm was the only Bucs starter to finish the season with an ERA below 4.80 last year—a figure that essentially matches that unit's projection—four of the Pirates' five starters are below that mark this year, led by Zach Duke (2.43). Kerrigan's use of video led Duke to review the form he exhibited in his stellar 2005 rookie campaign, prompting a tweak in his delivery, and the coach's knack for preparation and use of statistics have helped the young hurlers improve their situational pitching. Where they were among the worst in the league in batting average allowed after getting ahead 0-1 (.251 AVG, T-15th) or 0-2 (.194, T-14th) last year, they're now among the best (.214, 3rd on the former; .138, tied for first on the latter).
Why That May Not Last: The Pirates lead the majors with a .738 Defensive Efficiency after finishing 28th at .675 last year. That 63-point improvement is not only the largest jump of any team, it would top the 2008 Rays' record-setting turnaround of 54 points. But where the Rays notably upgraded the left side of their infield via Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria while shifting B.J. Upton and Akinori Iwamura to positions for which they were better suited, the 2009 Pirates are returning three-quarters of their regular infield, with Andy LaRoche swapping out for Jose Bautista at the hot corner. The outfield has seen some shuffling, but neither Eric Hinkse nor Craig Monroe, the two new faces in the mix, are known for their work with the leather.
Additionally, the staff's strikeout rate (5.4 per nine) is the worst in the league, with Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf whiffing less than four per nine, and Ian Snell's staff-leading 6.1 still lagging a full K behind the league average. Their strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.29) is also last, and ERA indicators such as their 4.76 FIP and 5.52 QERA suggest that when a correction arrives, it won't be pretty.
Glimmer of Hope: Perhaps because of Kerrigan's help, the pitchers are serving up fewer meatballs than before; the staff's Line Drive rate has fallen from 19.2 percent to 16.7, the fifth-largest drop in the majors. Whether you're using the simple LD% +.12 to estimate batting average on balls in play, or Brian Cartwright's more advanced .15*FB%+.24*GB%+.73*LD%, both formulas herald BABIP drops of more than 20 points, so it's possible that some of the early-season improvement in that department is real enough to stick.
Nine-O? It's only Seven-O: Roughed up on a road trip, the Dodgers return to, uh, Dodgertown 90090 to complete their first undefeated April at home (7-0) since 1947. Chad Billingsley ranks in the league's top 10 in ERA, strikeout rate, fewest hits per nine and SNLVAR after reeling off his fifth straight quality start but the rest of the rotation is looking rather rickety. The team has otherwise gotten just four quality starts out of 18, three of them from Randy Wolf, and Clayton Kershaw's been bombed (two starts, nine innings, 15 runs) since his 13-strikeout performance.
June 2001 July 2001 August 2001 September 2001 October 2001 November 2001 December 2001 January 2002 February 2002 March 2002 April 2002 May 2002 June 2002 July 2002 August 2002 September 2002 October 2002 November 2002 December 2002 January 2003 February 2003 March 2003 April 2003 May 2003 June 2003 July 2003 August 2003 September 2003 October 2003 November 2003 December 2003 January 2004 February 2004 March 2004 April 2004 May 2004 June 2004 July 2004 August 2004 September 2004 October 2004 November 2004 December 2004 January 2005 February 2005 March 2005 April 2005 May 2005 June 2005 July 2005 August 2005 September 2005 October 2005 November 2005 December 2005 January 2006 February 2006 March 2006 April 2006 May 2006 June 2006 July 2006 August 2006 September 2006 October 2006 November 2006 December 2006 January 2007 February 2007 March 2007 April 2007 May 2007 June 2007 July 2007 August 2007 September 2007 October 2007 November 2007 December 2007 January 2008 February 2008 March 2008 April 2008 May 2008 June 2008 July 2008 August 2008 September 2008 October 2008 November 2008 December 2008 January 2009 February 2009 March 2009 April 2009 May 2009 June 2009 July 2009 August 2009 September 2009 October 2009 November 2009 December 2009 January 2010 February 2010 March 2010 April 2010 May 2010
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