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1993: A baseball BABIP mystery

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The year everything changed for balls-in-play—and what it might mean for the present

Oakland Athletics v Minnesota Twins Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Throughout most of the 2021 MLB season, a common talking point was the suppression of offense. Whether blamed on dead balls, sticky balls, proliferation of relievers, off-the-chart velocity, or batter stubbornness, the first few months of ‘21 represented a pittance for offensive output. Though that somewhat evened out as the year rolled on, it felt like I was constantly evaluating the best ways for batters to swing the pendulum back in their favor.

In a baseball environment where the deck seems so stacked against the batter and in favor of the pitcher (constant velocity increases, fresher arms earlier and earlier into games, sophisticated shifts, etc.), I had myself almost convinced that the current en vogue philosophy was the correct one: eschew soft contact in favor of barrels, launch angle, and exit velocity. Whether such a “three true outcomes”-heavy approach is best for fans in the stands is another matter, of course, but strictly from a competitive mindset things like choking up, bunting, and hitting to the opposite field seem futile.

Houston Astros vs New York Yankees, 2019 American League Championship Series
A batting approach rarely seen in today’s baseball
Set Number: X162975 TK1

Recently, however, I stumbled across some interesting findings simply by poking around in the history books as they relate to BABIP (batting average on balls-in-play). Information that may indicate a return to “contact mode” might not be as fruitless as originally thought.

Using information from FanGraphs, I noticed that between 1940-1992, the league-wide BABIP never eclipsed .289. In fact, for most of those seasons it hovered in the upper .270s range before hitting that high-water mark in 1987. Basically, making contact in that time span made one a .280 hitter.

But then, something strange happened: In 1993—the year that saw Bill Clinton take the Oath of Office, Unforgiven nab an Academy Award, & Joe Carter walk off the Phillies in the World Series—league-wide BABIP jumped to .294 (up from .285 in ‘92). Then, in ‘94, BABIP skyrocketed to a nice round .300. Since that point? BABIP has never dropped below .292 (the value for both the 2020 & 2021 campaigns). Clearly, some sort of new plateau in contact-success has been reached.

Minnesota Twins v Milawaukee Brewers
Knobby putting a ball in play in ‘93
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

All this brings to mind two primary questions:

  1. What happened in 1993 that allowed BABIP to spike and never really come down? The only thing I can think of was baseball’s expansion that year, adding the Marlins & Rockies into league play. It would stand to reason that the thinning out of pitching staffs could increase offensive output. Yet, when 1998 saw the Diamondbacks & Devil Rays introduced, there wasn’t another corresponding spike in BABIP.
  2. For the last 30-odd years, an all-contact hitter would essentially be a .300 hitter—long held as an offensive golden standard. So perhaps a return to putting the bat on the ball in any capacity—rather than just the strongest ones—might prove fruitful in allowing more runners to touch home plate?

What say you on the matter: Thoughts on the ‘93 BABIP spike? Musings on whether or not batters should be choking up and making more contact? Random stories on what you were doing in 1993? Let’s hear them all :)