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Does the Public Prefer HItting?

February 8, 2018

Does the Public Prefer Hitting?


              It has long been my belief that the public reacts better to baseball in big-hitting eras like the 1930s and the 1994-2005 era than in low-run eras like the Dead Ball Era (1902-1919) or the 1960s (1963-1968).   Recently I undertook a study to attempt to prove that this was true. 

              I took in consideration all of baseball history from 1890 to the present, excepting the Player’s League (1890), the American Association (1890-1891) and the Federal League (1914-1915), excepting those because (1) they lack reliable attendance data, and (2) they are disconnected from a coherent history.  For the other leagues—the National League since 1890 and the American League since 1901—I worked toward two figures:  the runs scored per game in each season, and rate of increase in attendance in each season. 

              Without going into perhaps unnecessary detail, the runs scored per game was a moving average based on the 1-2-6-2-1 balance that I sometimes use, so that the "1940" figure is based 50% on the data from 1940 alone, and 50% on the data from the surrounding seasons.  I did this because each season’s attendance is (I believe) very much effected by what has happened in previous seasons.  People go to baseball games because they like baseball.  An exciting pennant race, a historic event, a good World Series or a popular innovation in one season effects the attendance the next season. What I am interested in is big-hitting eras and low-hitting eras, as much as big-hitting seasons and low-hitting seasons.

              So I figured the "runs per game" for each season, 1890 to 2017, and sorted those in two ways: high and low (two classes) and five classes (very high, moderately high, neutral, relatively low, and very low).   We can’t use the 1890 season because we can’t measure an increase/decrease in attendance in that season, since we have no "base" season behind it.  Reporting the classes:

              Runs Scored Levels are very high (top group) from 1891 to 1901, in 1925, from 1928 to 1932, from 1935 to 1938, in 1996, and from 1998 to 2000.

              Runs Scored Levels are moderately high (second group) from 1921 to 1924, in 1926-1927, in 1933-1934, in 1939-1940, in 1949-1950, in 1994-1995, 1997, from 2001 to 2009, and in 2017. 

              Run Scoring Levels are neutral (third group) in 1902, 1912, 1920, 1941, 1947-48, from 1951 to 1962, in 1977 and 1979, from 1985 to 1987, in 1993, in 2010-2011, and in 2016.  The 1950s are the "most normal" group of seasons in baseball history in this respect.

              Runs Scored Levels are relatively low in 1903, 1911, 1942, from 1944 to 1946, in 1970, from 1974 to 1976, in 1978, from 1980 to 1984, from 1988 to 1992, and from 2012 to 2015.

              Runs Scored Levels are very low from 1904 to 1910, from 1913 to 1919, in 1943, from 1963 to 1969, and from 1971 to 1973. 

              Then I looked at the percentage increase in per-game attendance in each season—2007 as opposed to 2006, 1997 as opposed to 1996, etc.   The best years for attendance growth were, in order, 1946, 1919, 1945, 1893, 1891, 1920, 1944, 1947, 1895 and 1903.   The worst years for attendance decline were, in order, 1898, 1914, 1932, 1931, 1950, 1951, 1917, 1933, 1961, and 1995. 

              My expectation was that attendance growth would, on average and overall, be higher in big hitting eras than in low-hitting eras.   The data does not show this to be the case.   Perhaps the thesis was wrong; perhaps I didn’t study it in exactly the right way, I don’t know.   But the study does not show that attendance increases more rapidly in big-hitting eras than in low-hitting eras.  It suggests that the opposite may be the case. 

              Looking first at the binary split (two groups). . . the overall attendance growth rate, from 1890 to the present, has been 2.6%.  In high-run seasons, the overall growth rate has been 1.6%.  In low-run seasons or low-run eras, it has been 3.6%. 

              That LOOKS like strong evidence against the theory that fans like offense, but the data is less convincing with a closer look.   This is the data from the five groups:


Group 1

Very High Runs


Group 2

Moderately High Runs


Group 3



Group 4

Relatively Low Runs


Group 5

Very Low Runs



              If you focus on the MOST telling groups—very high runs and very low runs—you see a different pattern, a pattern consistent with my initial theory:

Group 1

Very High Runs





Group 3






Group 5

Very Low Runs



              Attendance has grown more rapidly in truly high-run eras like the 1920s and the steroid era than in pitching-dominated eras like the Dead Ball era and the 1960s.  The split in the binary data (1.016 vs. 1.036) is created entirely by the moderate eras.  Attendance has grown far more rapidly in eras when scoring was relatively low than in eras when it was above average, but not really high.  Weighting the data for its inherent intensity would largely neutralize the conclusion.

              So. . .what do we learn here?  This data certainly does support my initial thesis. It provides slight but unconvincing evidence of the opposite proposition. 




COMMENTS (33 Comments, most recent shown first)

I'm curious as to whether competitiveness would adversely impact your study? For example, in years when the Mets and/or Dodgers and/or Cubs or Angels are not competitive, attendance will dip. Or increase when those teams are doing well.

Would it be illustrative to analyze one team (or market) as opposed to the entire league? And to account for winning and losing seasons? How did the Orioles do in all years in which they were within + or - 5 games of .500 and it was a high scoring era, for example?

I have split my life between years when I was in a city (where I could easily attend a game) and about 3-4 hours driving time away from a big league ballpark. And the factor that most impacted my decision to see a game was how was the team doing? Run scoring never factored, and no one I know ever said that. But I would presume winning/losing impacts everyone a lot and skews the data.
3:17 AM Feb 26th
Bill: you beat me to the punch on this one. While long holding to this belief myself, I was astonished to see, looking at the attendance records, that baseball in 1967-8 had an upswing of fans in spite of nobody scoring any runs in these two years.
10:23 AM Feb 12th
Marc Schneider
Re: 1944-1945. I think two things were going on. First, the war economy was in full gear and people had more money. Second, people saw the war beginning to wind down after D-Day (which occurred in the middle of the 1944 season) and the US offensives in the Pacific. Some thought the war in Europe might be over by Christmas (which turned out, obviously, to be very wrong.) Plus, the advent, likely of more night games. People probably were already trying to get back to some sort of post-war mode, even though the war was still going on.
8:06 AM Feb 12th
Sorry, typo -- 'next w years' was supposed to be 'next 2 years.'
Finger slipped down a row. :-)​
2:49 AM Feb 10th
Bill: I was going to ask the question about the methodology that I see was asked by Hotstatrat.

I understand using something like "1-2-6-2-1" for lots of things, but why here???
Why did you consider the runs-scored in the next w years to be relevant to what you were looking at for a given year?

I have no idea if this diluted the picture and prevented the study from showing what you expected -- not asking on any 'results' basis, just a methodological thing -- but I suppose it's possible that it did.
2:47 AM Feb 10th
I would have assumed that the "more runs = more fans" theory was correct, based on the "chicks dig the longball" late '90's recovery after the 1994 strike.

Also think that doncoffin is on to something with income levels, ticket prices, competitive balance, etc.

Fascinating topic.
11:00 PM Feb 9th
According to a lot of sources, 1946 was also the peak moviegoing year in American history -- about half of all Americans went to the cinema once a week:​
6:23 PM Feb 9th
For what it's worth, there's a fairly rich body of (academic) literature dealing with attendance at sporting events (perhaps more dealing with baseball than any other sport). Here's a link. A lot of the papers are available as pdf files. (I have not read all of them and do not vouch for their quality.) (Apparently copying-and-pasting the link is the thing to do.),15&q=attendance+baseball&btnG=
1:58 PM Feb 9th
StatsGuru: The Red Sox 1919 attendance was higher than either of the previous two years (the 1918 season was shortened by the war), but still lower than any season between 1907 and 1916.

The Yankees' attendance did in fact skyrocket in 1920.
1:16 PM Feb 9th
Perhaps the fact that we can look at the highest and lowest years identified by Bill and at a glance reasonably match up outside influences (war, depression) confirms that they are outliers with external factors that overwhelm the study topic.

1:09 PM Feb 9th
I agree with 78sman. Probably after scoring is high or low for a few years, the level of scoring won't be driving attendance changes; people are used to it. Only when there is a significant increase/decrease would it have an effect.

Bill left out the 1890 Players League, but for what it's worth, those in charge of that league agreed with Bill's theory. They moved the pitcher back and used a lively ball in order to try to attract fans with high-scoring games.
1:05 PM Feb 9th
To add to OldBackStops's comment, 1919 and 1920 were the years when Babe Ruth wowed the majors with two impossible home run records. I suspect a lot of people were coming out to see Boston play that season.​
1:03 PM Feb 9th
I'm not sure why one would think that attendance is primarily driven by offense. As others have stated, there are a lot of factors that influence attendance.

I think you'd have to do a very careful and detailed analysis to tease out offense from the other factors like economic conditions, social influences (riots, urban decay), new stadiums, franchise movement, media influences, wars, and on and on.

Also, I'd think there would be a lag in impact on attendance. Especially in the modern era where most ticket sales are done many months in advance. If runs were up 0.5/game in April and May most people wouldn't notice, much less go out and buy a bunch more tickets for June and July.

I think this warrants a much more in-depth study, and even then I'd be prepared for a "how much influence does the coaching staff have on wins" degree of difficulty. Which leads to an answer of "Some? I think..."
12:52 PM Feb 9th
Bill, I'm skimming your article during lunch break so my comments might be completely off base if I misunderstand your methodology.

It looks like you are measuring change in attendence as a function of runs. Try measuring change in attendence as a function of change in runs. There are probably many other factors, such as the economy, which affect attendance so you probably also have a missing variable issue. The 1930's might be a high run environment, but it was also a depression; the 1960's are just the opposite.
11:10 AM Feb 9th
I certainly believe that attendance is affected by any number of factors in various combinations. It seems logical that the attendance growth in 1919 and in the 1945-47 years would have been affected by the end of WWI and WWII drawing to a close, for example.
I have to admit that I like high-scoring games more than low-scoring ones.
I don't remember exactly where I read this, Bill, but I thought you were right on the money when you pointed out that offense is making something happen, while defense is preventing anything from happening. And since most people would rather see something happen than to see people preventing anything from happening, it's logical that most people might prefer offense.
9:09 AM Feb 9th
Agreeing with the comments below about multiple causes - a logical explanation for the lack of correlation could be that when attendance wanes or slips, MLB tries to do something about it - to some degree anyway. It isn't always about steering the game back towards the hitters.
8:13 AM Feb 9th
There are simply too many other factors affecting attendance. For example, it increased after the initial downturn following the 1994 strike, but was that a result of steroid-driven offense or just a recovery from artificially low numbers?

Another way to study this, though vastly more complicated, is to try to figure out the run expectation for a particular game, depending on the starting pitchers. Conventional wisdom has always been that attendance is higher when the starter is a Koufax, a Ryan, a Johnson, a Maddux, a Martinez, as opposed to the number four in the rotation. Is this true? If so, it suggests that the expectation of a low-scoring pitcher's duel boosts attendance.
7:46 AM Feb 9th
For some reason clicking the link is stripping out the : after https. Just put it back in the address bar of your browser after clicking and the link works.
4:46 AM Feb 9th
Totally agree with doncoffin here, and I have nothing but respect for the practitioners of the dismal science.

When looking at long-term attendence trends, those outside factors mentioned by don have enormous impact. For example, baseball attendence surged from 1900 to 1909 despite record low scoring due to numerous off-field factors (thriving economy, franchise stability, the first modern stadiums opening, etc.).
4:37 AM Feb 9th
That was interesting work, G.

Bill! Article author!
11:25 PM Feb 8th
If your theory is that attendance improves after more runs are scored, then why look at attendance in years before the runs are scored? If you are using 1-2-6-2-1 weights of run scoring with the 6 being the year of attendence increase that you are correlating, why use the -2-1 at all? Nobody would be affedted by future scoring. Why not use something like 1-5-4 so that half of the tested years attendance is based on the previous year, 40% on the current year, and 10% on the year before the previous year. (Or 2-4-4 if that fits your theory better.)
10:39 PM Feb 8th
For anyone that cares, if you just copy the link and paste it into a browser window, it works.
9:43 PM Feb 8th
I don't think that link is working either; Oh, well. Maybe it's a temporary thing.
7:32 PM Feb 8th
Thanks for trying. Hmmm...try this one, it's a step back in the process, but you can download the pdf from here:

7:30 PM Feb 8th
"Hmmm...can’t reach this page" my computer tells me.

Anyway, I suspect you are right. (One reason I suspect this year's Super Bowl attracted high late-in-the-game ratings--lots of points, lots of action, close).

6:50 PM Feb 8th
I would bet that people like two things when they attend sporting events:

1. Scoring Opportunities, not just scoring. If that's true, then having more balls in play as opposed to Strikeouts and Walks, would be worth tracking, or perhaps a total of runs scored and men left on base.
2. Close games. I did a study on that which I will submit with an utter lack of shame and some trepidation here:

5:38 PM Feb 8th

I thought about some of those issues, but Bill outlined that he weighted them with the surrounding years (or whatever they were teaching when I was in the smoking area.)

The invasion of TV, ticket prices, incomes, even night games after the 1944 jump came in at least somewhat gradually, I would assume.

I think there would be a temptation to toss the Depression and the war years, and the 1890s, and every recession, and the exciting years of expansion teams, and, and...... :-)
4:32 PM Feb 8th
I always thought 1977 was a high run scoring season, but its listed as Neutral.

Then I see that 75-56, and 78, were low run scoring seasons.

I guess that explains that about my favorite season
4:31 PM Feb 8th
Speaking as an economist (always something guaranteed to attract ridicule)...

Clearly there's what statisticians call an omitted variables problem (some of which OBS gets at in his two comments. To which I would add:
Changes in income (in the 1890s, for example, and from 1929 to (say) 1934, incomes fell fairly dramatically; 1921 was another very bad year).
Changes in ticket prices (very hard to get decent data on this, however).
Changes in accessibility of the product (e.g., radio/television).
Changes in "competitive balance" (for example, the Yankees' dominance in the 1950s was probably bad for attendance).
4:09 PM Feb 8th
hmmm....looking at '44 and '45......I see some articles that recount the public attitude that in the first few years of WWII there was a sort of view that these leisure activities were frivolous. But baseball's war bond activities and some cheerleading by Roosevelt (see Greenlight Letter) seems to have made it cool again. Maybe the biggest factor was, encouraged by Roosevelt, night games went from 156 to 197 in 1944, and patriots didn't have to cut work to attend.
3:33 PM Feb 8th
Hey Bill!

This is a very cool topic.

"The best years for attendance growth were, in order, 1946, 1919, 1945, 1893, 1891, 1920, 1944, 1947, 1895 and 1903."

I think if, shorn of this data, you asked me the largest attendance pop years, I would have guessed 1946, 1947, and 1919 and 1920, simply because the men were back. I'm not sure about '44 and '45, unless there was some draconian wartime travel measure put on in 1943 and loosened in the next two years. (or maybe it was because your cousin was playing.) Those 1890s years....well, they were among the most economically turbulent in America's history, and you had two competing leagues collapse.

Just saying, could be some skew from factors outside hitting....

3:17 PM Feb 8th
Is it possible that people want to see potential record breakers, such as Barry Bonds passing 60 HRs, the very high run category, and are less interested in non-record breaking results, moderately high runs?
3:17 PM Feb 8th
Is it possible that you are seeing two things' impact?
1. People like runs scored, and
2. People don't really like longer commitments of time. Higher scoring gams last longer, and involve more dead time due to pitching changes, (or at least I would guess that they do.)
2:50 PM Feb 8th
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