Freakonomics Radio: Where are the runs?

Angel Pagan #16 of the New York Mets catches a fly ball in the outfield.

[CORRECTION: In this story about the decline in runs in major league baseball, we incorrectly reported that pitchers aren't any better than in years past. This is only true in the American League, and when comparing this season to the last.]

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: We've got a rare treat today: I'm at Yankee Stadium, sitting next to Stephen Dubner. Dubner, introduce yourself, say hello to the people.

Stephen Dubner: Hello people, I'm Stephen Dubner. I'm co-author of the book "Freakonomics" and I'm going to be bringing some Freakonomics right here to Marketplace.

RYSSDAL: So here we are, and this is great, I'm having a good time -- but the game doesn't start for like an hour and a half. Why are we at batting practice?

DUBNER: Let me tell you: Batting practice is one of the best places to see home runs hit these days, 'cause there aren't as many hit in the games anymore. There aren't as many runs being scored anymore; in fact, run scoring is down to about where it was 20 years ago. Now any guesses to why that might be?

RYSSDAL: Uh, I don't know. Pitching is better?

DUBNER: What would you say if I said steroids? Would you think, huh, maybe, with a lot of guys getting busted for steroids in the last few years, more steroids testing -- has that affected the number of runs that are being scored, number of home runs being hit? So I asked my buddy Steve Levitt, who's an economist at the University of Chicago, my co-author on "Freakonomics," to look into the numbers and see what he could tell us.

Steven Levitt: Twice in the past decade, I have really tried to find evidence that say steroids matter in baseball. And both times, I invested a lot of effort, and ended up finding no evidence that steroids mattered.

DUBNER: Levitt is a data detective. He's caught cheating school teachers and sumo wrestlers just by going through the statistics they'd left behind. In baseball, he's come up short. But in the last few years, a string of home-run studs have admitted to using banned substances. Congress has taken note, testing has gotten tighter. While Levitt hasn't found the cheaters, there has been a big change in baseball: Scoring has plunged.

Statheads like Mitchell Lichtman say it's a sign that the steroids era is over.

Mitchell Lichtman: People will say it's the year of the pitcher or pitching is great or better.

This season has seen some extraordinary pitching: Five no-hitters, two perfect games. But if you take a look beneath those numbers, you find that something else is going on. Behind all those great pitchers are a bunch of unsung heroes: The fielders. Forget pitching; 2010 is the year of the glove.

Lichtman: There's probably more of an emphasis in the post-steroid of players that have speed and defense as a primary attribute rather than hitting, slugging, hitting home runs.

Every year since 2006, the average number of runs scored by major league teams has dropped. But if you isolate the pitching stats, you see that pitchers themselves aren't any better than in years past [in the American League when comparing this season to last]. Fielders are the ones picking up the slack. The numbers show that fielders have gotten better at converting hits into outs. And this has created an opportunity.

Lichtman: One of the reasons that teams or some teams are focusing on defense and defensive evaluation using these advanced metrics is because it's an undervalued commodity in baseball.

An undervalued commodity. With more steroids testing and penalties, it could be that teams are going out of their way to avoid players who might be using. Or it could be simply that defensive players weren't paid enough during the go-go steroid years. Now teams have found a way to get a different kind of bang for their buck. And here's what's interesting: While run scoring is down in the majors, it's up in the minors. What it looks like is that teams are promoting their best defensive players to the majors faster than they used to.

Doug Glanville: I'm certainly proud and happy to hear that the defense is getting recognized at this time. Now certainly, maybe I would have had a different kind of career if I was playing now.

Doug Glanville is a former major league center fielder. He played nine seasons with three teams during the heart of the steroid era. He was a great fielder; in fact, he ended his career on a streak of 293 consecutive games without an error. But Glanville wasn't a power hitter, and that, he says, hurt him during contract negotiations. It was painfully obvious that while defense wins games, offense pays the bills. Translation: Fans want home runs.

Sitting in his team's dugout in San Diego, Padres Manager Bud Black disagrees. Last off-season, his team focused on defense, which helped them go from a second-to-last place finish in 2009, to barely missing the playoffs this year.

Bud Black: I think fans love to see offense, they love to see the ball hit far, they love to see the ball go over the wall. But also I think fans love to see a home run being robbed by a outfielder. I think fans get a kick out of that as much as they do a home run.

Whatever the case, everybody's going to have to get used to games with lower scores. Which means that if you want to see a lot of home runs, you'd better show up at the ballpark a couple hours early for batting practice.

RYSSDAL: All right Dubner, but wait, hang on just like one second. Here we are, back at Yankee Stadium, batting practice. I have to ask you the money question: Besides higher salaries for defensive players, where are we going with this?

DUBNER: Well it's a good lesson, something that economists can teach us. Whenever you change a rule, whether it's in baseball or banking, people are going to change their behavior in response to it. Some of the rules that have changed in baseball, especially having to do with steroids, have produced a lot more good gloves, defense. I have a feeling that with the banking regs that have changed in the past year or so, that I'm going to be hearing a lot from you in the next year, stories about how bankers' behaviors have changed. Bankers hiding their home runs, bankers bulking up on whatever kind of performance-enhancing drug they can find.

RYSSDAL: That was Stephen Dubner, Marketplace's Freakonomics correspondent, passing a late summer afternoon with me at Yankee Stadium a couple of weeks ago. We've got links to all the statistics he was using to decipher the mystery of the disappearing home runs and a new podcast at Freakonomicsradio.com. Dubner and the Freakonomics team are going to be back here on Marketplace in just a couple of weeks.

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