Athletics

Former A's Shooty Babitt, Bip Roberts on MLB's sinking batting average

Former A's Shooty Babitt, Bip Roberts on MLB's sinking batting average

Back in 2000, Major League Baseball's league batting average was .270. Fast forward to 2018 and that number had plummeted to .248, MLB's lowest average since 1972.
 
Through the first half of the 2019 season, the league average has crept slightly back up to .252, still a far cry from even 10 years ago when it was .262.
 
There are also far fewer .300 hitters these days, with just 16 qualified batters reaching the achievement last season, compared to 42 in 2009 and 53 in 2000. Last year's batting champions, Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich, hit .346 and .326, respectively. In 2000, Todd Helton and Nomar Garciaparra each hit .372.
 
So what has caused this sharp decline in batting average over the past two decades? Former A's infielder Shooty Babitt, now an A's scout and NBC Sports California analyst, believes the main reason is an enhanced focus on hitting for power.
 
"No question about it," Babitt told NBC Sports California. "It's the approach and the ideology about hitting and what production is. There was a time when the game was played differently. You're going to talk to people from back in the day and they're going to tell you that it's a totally different game. ...  Everybody's hitting the ball in the air, everybody's trying to hit homers, and teams are structuring their lineups that way."
 
To Babitt's point, teams now are much more focused on slugging percentage and OPS than batting average. Hitters' swings have changed to try to maximize launch angle, leading to more home runs than ever before, but also more strikeouts.
 
"Me personally, I watched, I lived, I played through the old type of baseball," Babitt said. "This is a different type of thing."
 
Fellow NBC Sports California analyst Bip Roberts played 12 seasons in the majors and hit .294 for his career. He offers another explanation for baseball's sinking batting averages.
 
"Guys are throwing harder and guys have to get set up a little sooner because of that," Roberts said. "It's one of those situations where they've adapted to the miles per hour that have been added to the game. So I give them a lot of credit for that." 
 
As it relates to the A's, only four players are hitting above .250 this season, with Marcus Semien leading the squad at .271. As a team, Oakland is tied for 17th in MLB with a .246 batting average. However, the A's rank sixth with 145 home runs.
 
"A lot of these guys have different mechanics than we did because of baseball now," Roberts explained. "We were more of the mindset of using the 5 1/2 hole (between third base and shortstop) on the opposite side and using the entire field as an approach all the time. Now, some guys use that approach all the time, but the consistency, I think because of mph, makes a difference."
 
Despite the lower batting averages in baseball today, teams are actually scoring more runs than they did 10 years ago. MLB squads are averaging 4.80 runs per game this season, the highest number since 2006.

[RELATED: Five bold predictions for A's second half]
 
For now, it appears that singles hitters have lost some luster, with home runs taking on more value than ever before. But Roberts isn't convinced that will last forever.
 
"I think it's always going to go back to pure hitting," he said. "That will never go out of style. It will always play. It's like having a good pair of shoes and a black suit."

AL wild-card race reset: Breaking down A's chances of making playoffs

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AL wild-card race reset: Breaking down A's chances of making playoffs

OAKLAND -- With just nine games left in the regular season, the A's are in a great position to lock up a playoff berth for the second consecutive year.

Oakland sits atop the AL wild-card standings at 92-61, two games ahead of Tampa Bay and 2 1/2 games in front of Cleveland. The A's also have the easiest remaining schedule of the three clubs.

Here's a breakdown of each team's final three series and their odds to make the playoffs:

A's: 92-61 (9 games remaining)

3 vs. Rangers (74-79)
2 at Angels (69-83)
4 at Mariners (64-88)

Oakland will play its final nine games of the regular season against sub-.500 AL West opponents. With a magic number of eight to clinch the top-wild card position, the A's likely only need to win five of the nine games. A 6-3 record would just about guarantee them the top spot.

According to FanGraphs, the A's have a 96.3 percent chance of making the playoffs.

Rays: 90-63 (9 games remaining)

4 vs. Red Sox (79-72)
2 vs. Yankees (99-54)
3 at Blue Jays (61-91)

The Rays have the most difficult remaining schedule of the three wild-card contenders, with six games against the Red Sox and Yankees. New York still has something to play for as they try to beat out Houston for home-field advantage, while Boston's lineup is always dangerous.

FanGraphs gives Tampa Bay a 59.9 percent chance of making the playoffs.

Indians: 89-63 (10 games remaining)

1 vs. Tigers (45-106)
3 vs. Phillies (78-72)
3 at White Sox (66-86)
3 at Nationals (83-68)

The Indians have two tough series remaining as they battle the Phillies and Nationals from the NL East. Washington currently leads the NL wild-card race, while Philadelphia is three games out of the second spot.

According to FanGraphs, Cleveland has a 44.0 percent chance of making the playoffs.

Tiebreakers

The A's own tiebreakers against both the Rays and Indians, having won the season series against each club. That means, in the case of a two-team tie between the A's and either Tampa Bay or Cleveland, Oakland would still host the Wild Card Game.

[RELATED: Red-hot A's have work to do to attract fans]

It gets more complicated if all three teams tie for the two wild-card positions. The A's still own the tiebreaker, so they would host the Rays, with the winner earning the top wild-card spot. The Indians would then host the loser, with the winner of that game claiming the second wild-card position.

Of course, if the A's handle their business, it won't come down to tiebreakers.

Why red-hot A's still have work to do to captivate Oakland's home fans

Why red-hot A's still have work to do to captivate Oakland's home fans

OAKLAND -- Redoubtable and relentless, the A’s are four months away from being the only game in town, the most visible representative of a city that craves positive recognition.

They’re launching home runs at an astonishing pace, delivering the equivalent of baseball fireworks.

They’re winning, generally the first requirement of sports popularity, at a rate that keeps them in the thick of the race to the AL playoffs.

Despite these advantageous factors, fans are not flocking to the Coliseum. And, please, let’s not blame local indifference on the ballpark’s lack of freshness and charm. Too simple.

This is about emotional attachment. Listening to fans of baseball in general and the A’s in particular, some variation of that theme consistently surfaces. There are varying degrees of emotional scar tissue, and it has them in their feelings, making them reluctant out of fear of getting burned. Again.

It’s unfortunate, because what these A’s are producing is worth the time and money.

Here they are, surging into the postseason with the second-best record in baseball since the All-Star break and averaging 14,870 fans over three games this week. That included 16,714 witnesses Wednesday afternoon for a stressful 1-0 victory in 11 innings over the Kansas City Royals.

These A’s have something for everybody. Shortstop Marcus Semien, who is having an MVP caliber season, grew up in the East Bay, as did Stephen Piscotty. Mark Canha, who lashed the game-winning hit Wednesday, grew up in the South Bay. Third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson mash with their bats and sing tender ballads with their gloves.

If homers are supposed to lure folks to the yard, how is it that this club, which now owns the single-season franchise record, remains in a relative vacuum?

Mostly because too many local fans have too often been captivated by A’s teams of the past 20 years, only to feel victimized by the franchise’s cycle of assembling and disassembling, usually in the name of payroll discipline. Each time around, a few more folks stop coming and decide to observe, if at all, from the distance of living rooms and bars.

“I know if, knock wood, we’re able to get into the postseason, they would show up,” manager Bob Melvin told NBC Sports Bay Area on Wednesday. “Our fans are into it. They might not be here every night. And I’m not telling people how to spend their money. But it is a terrific fan base. When they’re ignited, and they come out and full force, we feel them like a 10th man.”

This has been true in the past and likely will be again. There is a bandwagon, but it sits in a distant corner, idling, ready to get into should the A’s reach the postseason.

Postseason baseball in Oakland is so vibrant it makes the Coliseum feel spectacular. And some are waiting for a playoff game to light up the yard. Even then, though, there will be holdouts who can’t overcome the scar tissue reminding them of old heartbreak.

Too many fans remember those engaging teams of early 2000s, when pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito were rocking batters to sleep while Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez and Jermaine Dye were terrorizing pitchers. Those clubs averaged 98 wins per season and made four consecutive playoff appearances, each ending in painful AL Division Series defeats over the full five games.

The core of that roster -- which drew an average of 2.03 million fans per season from 2000 through 2003 -- broke up and scattered.

Most remember the 2006 team, led by Frank Thomas and Nick Swisher and Chavez, with Zito taking the mound every fifth day. That bunch, which came 23,375 short of drawing two million, swept the Twins in the Division Series before being by the Tigers in the AL Championship Series.

Thomas, the most commanding clubhouse presence the A’s have had this century, left as a free agent and landed in Toronto. Zito, priced out of Oakland -- with, to be fair, declining effectiveness -- headed across The Bay and signed with the Giants.

Lastly, all A’s fans remember the 2012 (94-68) and 2013 (96-66) teams, both of which made quick postseason exits but generated enough momentum for the 2014 A’s (88-74) to draw more than 2 million for the first time since 2005.

Ever since the leader of those teams, third baseman Josh Donaldson was traded exactly two months after the 2014 season despite expressing a commitment to Oakland, attendance has been in decline.

The roster has, once again, been revived by team architect Billy Beane and his lieutenants. The A’s won 97 games last season and have 92 wins with nine games to play this season.

[RELATED: Treinen out 4-6 weeks with back injury; Bassitt to A's 'pen]

An A’s home game offers the best value in Bay Area sports, maybe the highest entertainment-per-dollar ratio in baseball. It’s quality ball at budget-friendly prices in a town that has lost the Warriors and soon will lose the Raiders.

But the breakups of the past have left too many scars. Only if this team finds its way deep into the postseason would those scars be easier to ignore.