PITTSBURGH - JULY 06: Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates breaks his bat on a groundout against the Houston Astros during the game on July 6, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
With a cumulative .178/.216/.260 batting line heading into yesterday's game and a total of eleven runs scored in their first seven games, the 2012 Pirates' offensive performance so far would try the patience of a saint. Pittsburgh fans' frustration with the limp output is entirely understandable. A point that has been lost a bit in the conversation to date, however, is that many fans in other markets are currently harboring similar feelings, albeit to a lesser degree. In the early days of the season, run scoring is down, and down substantially, across MLB as a whole.
In 2009, MLB as a whole batted .263/.341/.421 over all games in March and April, scoring 4.84 runs per game and striking out 17.7 times per 100 plate appearances. In 2010, those numbers dropped to .264/.334/.416 with 4.56 runs per game and 18.4 Ks per 100 PA. In 2011, they dropped again, to .251/.319/.391, with 4.29 runs per game and 18.6 Ks per 100 PA. In 2012 games through yesterday, the league has hit .240/.308/.386, with 4.14 runs per game and 19.6 Ks per 100 PA. It's still early, but the trend seems clear. What's less obvious is the reason for the decline. I've seen speculation about shifts in the weather and/or climate, decreased levels of PED use with the onset of drug testing, the increasing importance of service time considerations in determining early season rosters, and the influence of new umpire evaluation methods like QuesTec on pitch calling, among other possible causes, but actual facts are fairly thin on the ground.
Whatever the reason, if the trend continues, fans will need to become acclimated to lower-scoring games as "the new normal", and calibrate their expectations accordingly. To the naked eye, hitters giving average or above-average performances this year may appear from raw stat lines to be disappointments, while pitchers delivering below-average performances may superficially appear to be delivering respectable results. Careful consideration of context will be necessary in order to properly value players or assess the team's strengths and weaknesses, and it would be a shame to have the team's current offensive futility come to an end without fans realizing that it has happened. Being bad is enough of a handicap on its own.