Scouts Shift Expectations In Game's New Offensive Era

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See Also: Average Production Around The Diamond
See Also: Defining 'Regular' At Each Position

Teams score fewer runs per game today than they have in 20 years, which means that everything we think we know about position profiles and the concept of major league average production is wrong. At the very least, our perceptions are outdated.

Consider the following:

• Teams averaged 4.30 runs per nine innings and hit .251 in 2011, the lowest rates since 1992, when they scored 4.13 R/9 and also hit .251.

• Teams averaged 0.94 home runs per nine innings in 2011, the lowest rate since 1993 (0.90).

• Batters struck out in 18.6 percent of all plate appearances in 2011, the highest rate in baseball history.

• They drew unintentional walks in 7.4 percent of PAs, the lowest rate since 1988, and just 10 of 51 full seasons in the game's Expansion Era, 1961-present, have featured fewer.

As recently as 2006, talent evaluators expected an average major league regular to hit between .270 and .285 while hitting between 15 and 19 home runs. Bear in mind that this isn't the overall major league average. Instead, these guidelines attempt to quantify the expected average range among the 30 regulars at each position.

To give you an idea of how the game's decreased run scoring has affected hitters, consider that 50 different big leaguers satisfied the minimum requirements of hitting .270 or higher with 15 or more home runs last season. Rewind to 2005 and 77 players met those benchmarks. In 2000, a full 101 players—including Ron Coomer, Gerald Williams, Wil Cordero and Mike Bordick—met those standards. In other words, we see half as many .270-and-15 seasons today as we did a decade ago.

Research conducted by Baseball America suggests that the average major league regular today can be expected to hit between .260-.275 (down 10 points from five years ago) and slug between 13-17 home runs (down two longballs from five years ago).

Breaking things down one level further, the typical corner regular in today's game—i.e. first base, corner outfield and third base—hits roughly .263-.278 with 17-21 homers. The typical up-the-middle regular—i.e. second base, center field, shortstop and catcher—hits .260-.275 with 10-14 homers.

Profiling The Profile

With a changing offensive climate comes an evolving sense of the ways in which organizations scout and evaluate talent.

One front office executive cautioned that it's important to view performance on a relative rather than absolute basis, especially in times of rapidly changing context like today. He said his organization's scouting scales are updated every few years, though most of the adjustments tended to be minor—until recently.

A member of the front office for a different club said that his organization has adjusted some factors when it comes to evaluating players in today's game, though his club has kept its 20-80 scouting scale intact.

"Scouts are the biggest piece of the evaluation puzzle," he said. "They're smart, and they're aware that factors such as defense, baserunning and on-base percentage can impact a players role more than ever.

"However, they still 'tool' players out the same because the impact power players have become more valuable than ever, as long as their defense doesn't kill their value. Identifying (those players) is more important than ever."

Other organizations acknowledge that the game is changing, but instead of making wholesale alterations to the scouting scale they rely more on assessments of impact potential based on players' tools.

"Regardless of the league trends, our jobs as evaluators is to base our judgments on relative comparisons and to our organization's standards," a third front office executive explained. "While we have average and home run totals defined on our scale, the grades tend to be more relative to the league and the competition and the best players at each position.

"I can't remember the last time when we were talking about a player and someone said he is a 5 bat and had 5 power (average on a 2-to-8 scouting scale) and anyone ever questioning them on what his batting average range is going to be. It's more on a big picture scale of what type of production that means to us."

The scarcity of elite offensive performers will always provide the context in which other hitters are judged.

"I think you try to search for the best offensive players available," a fourth front office executive said. "If there is more offense, then the players available will have more offense. If offense is down, then we try to find the best offensive players available.  

"Put another way: Elite players are rarely available, so whatever the offensive threshold may be during that time period, you are getting roughly the same player in terms of comparability to league-wide offense."