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The Decline of the Hit

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Back when Ichiro was rising rapidly up the all time hit ladder, I started to pay attention to the career hit list. It’s just a fun diversion during the season. Now, I recognize that the hit is not the greatest stat ever to determine greatness. In the Three True Outcome era, many have come to believe that a walk is almost as good as a hit and without the problem of hitting into double plays putting weak contact on the ball. So the total number of hits, like everything else entertaining in baseball except for homers, has declined rapidly.

A couple of weeks ago, Elvis Andrus reached 2,000 hits. No one is going to claim Andrus is some great player. But he’s the kind of guy who traditionally has ended up higher on this list than his overall skill set would suggest. He got called up young, doesn’t walk much, doesn’t get hurt too often, and is a dependable everyday player. So in his 15th season, at age 34, he managed to get to 2,000 hits.

What’s remarkable about this is that we are about to see this kind of player totally disappear. If you look at the active hit leaders, it’s pretty grim. This is the last year for Miguel Cabrera, who may be the last 3,000 hit guy for a long, long, long time. Second on the active list is Joey Votto. He has not played this year and it is almost certainly the end of the line for him after the end of the year. He is presently 239th on the all time hits list with 2,093. Third is the 42 year old Nelson Cruz, who probably is also in his last year, although maybe he can squeak out one more. He is at present 272nd on the list with 2,031 hits. Then it is Andrus, at 283rd all time. He might stick around for a year or two more, but isn’t going to rise too high.

So even if we are optimistic, the top career hit guy next year would be Cruz, who even if got another 100 hits this year, would be in 220th place all time.

This is kind of crazy. For no active players to be in the top 200 all time in any category is almost unthinkable, outside of things such as wins because of a game that has almost nothing in common with the 1890s version of it. But hits, I mean, this is just the last 10 years that everyone stopped bothering with hits, what with the Three True Outcomes snooze fest and the shift. It’s really a sign of a broken game.

Let’s look at this from another angle. Mike Trout is the kind of guy who one would think would be near the top of these kinds of lists by the time he retires. He also was called up very early and should have a quite long career, especially given his the incentive of his sizable paycheck. And yet, in his 13th season, Trout has 1,568 hits, which presently ties him with Juan Uribe for 580th place all time. Uribe did play 16 seasons, but if you look at the hitters around him, none of which are even close to as good as Trout, many of them played about 13 seasons. Trout is behind Daniel Murphy, who only played 12. He just passed Lance Johnson, who played 14. Other guys he remains behind include Juan Samuel, Brad Ausmus, Carlos Baerga, Raul Mondesi, and Jose Guillen. Now, these were all pretty good players, but Trout–the most feared hitter of his generation–gets about as many hits per year as these guys. Sure, the Covid year definitely cost him hits and he has had injuries too. But not only has Trout never had 200 hits, he has only had 180 twice and not since 2013. He has led the league in walks a bunch of times though, just what people pay to see.

My point here is not that Trout isn’t great. He is of course a wonderful player. It’s to use this as a moment to think about how badly the game has been played for the last decade and how smart all the rule changes are. At least through the first week of the season (the last time I see a story on this), the league batting average was up 16 points over last April (because of weather, offensive numbers are always low in April compared to the rest of the year). Steals were up about a third of a steal per game. And of course the games are far shorter.

The extent to which all this impacts people following fun stats (which is part of the joy of this game), I don’t know. It’s going to take a long time, probably another decade, before you see any real impact on the all time lists due to these changes. Jose Altuve is the most likely player to make a run at 3,000 hits, as he has 1,935 at the age of 33 and he remains very good, though hurt right now from getting hit on the hand during the World Baseball Classic. I doubt he makes it, but he should get to 2,500 or so. After that? I just don’t know. Freddie Freeman might get up there a bit. Manny Machado could, maybe. But all of these guys are very far away.

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