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Thursday, March 18, 2004
March 18, 2004
Is the talent level in baseball really higher than it was 50 years ago?
There have been some outstanding discussions in Clutch Hits lately regarding the greatest player ever and the differences in eras.
There?s little to debate with respect to whether or not humans are in better health or athletes are bigger and faster and stronger. What is debated is how much this evolution matters in discussing the quality of the players in Major League Baseball.
Is Barry Bonds the greatest player ever? Can Babe Ruth?s dominance be washed away amid "timeline adjustments"? Did Ted Williams only appear to be so great because the other players in his leagues were so "not great"? Are today?s average players, like Sean Casey, better than yesteryear?s stars, like Hank Greenberg?
With all the steroid talk, does that dampen the enthusiasm with which we proclaim today?s athletes better due to evolution, rather than pharmaceuticals?
Stephen Jay Gould wrote a piece some time ago on why we don?t see .400 hitters any longer. It was first published as "Entropic Homogeneity Isn?t Why No One Hits .400 Any More" in Discover, August 1986. The version Mark Field, who is a clutch hitter, was kind enough to share with me is: Gould, S. J., Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. New York: Harmony Books, 1996.
As quality of baseball play has improved, it has also become far less variable. "Declining variation arises as a general property of systems that stabilize and improve while maintaining constant rules of performance through time. The extinction of .400 hitting is, paradoxically, a mark of increasingly better play." "Standard deviations have been dropping steadily and irreversibly?reaching a stable plateau by about 1940."
That is a good assessment of what it looks like has happened.
However, Gould?s findings are often exaggerated. Gould says MLB talents (variation) has effectively "stabilized" since 1940. That means, to me, that the talent level of the 1940s is roughly similar to the talent of today.
I?m a skeptic, so I want to see for myself.
Obviously, one of the finest tools in the world, the Lahman database, allowed me to look at different eras and league wide values.
Here?s the argument, as I hear it, regardless of what has been said:
It is harder to dominate today because the overall quality of play is better.
From Gould, "this decline [in variation] produces a decrease in the difference between the average and stellar performance. Therefore, modern leaders don?t stand so far above their contemporaries."
So a player like Bonds or ARod that dominates as much as they do, are better than comparably dominant players from older times, be it Williams, Ruth or Honus Wagner. This is not to say those aren?t great players, but that they aren?t as good as Bonds.
So how we do test this? Clearly, we can?t test it directly, as Ruth is 108 years old, and well, dead. We haven?t perfected time travel, Jack the Ripper notwithstanding, so the 2003 Devil Rays cannot go back in time to play the 1927 Yankees. So what we look at can only be used as evidence ? some of you will find it more compelling than others will. Most of you have an opinion, and you will say, "It?s flawed" because it doesn?t agree with your preconceptions. That and I?m sure I?m not doing everything correctly, so the work is flawed.
As Gould did, we?re going to look at standard deviations of the leagues.
Let?s look at the inferences we can start with, both from Gould and arguments made in Clutch Hits:
Here are the data treatments: Plate appearance cut-offs were assigned in an effort to remove pitchers from the hitting statistics. It was initially suggested by Mark Field to use a very low number of PAs, like 10, but it is apparent that pitchers should be removed from the section.
To do that, I set the cut-off at "where pitchers start showing up". While looking over the data, I could find Bob Feller with 140 plate appearances, so I had to raise the cut-off to 150 PAs. This affects the selectivity slightly because it means a player had to be good enough to warrant 150 plate appearances. Pitchers got fewer and fewer PAs as time has passed, going from 163 in the 1900-1920s, to merely 105 in the 1983-2002.
I summarized the data for every five seasons. There are a few exceptions to five seasons (4 seasons or 6 seasons) where I knew there would be specific changes in the game (like expansion or the DH).
I also split the leagues.
The Eras and player counts:
This can be altered if the peer review thinks it is necessary.
I looked at each league?s batting average (BA), on-base percentage (OBP), slugging percentage (SLG), and isolated power (ISO). I calculated the league average for the sample I selected and calculated the standard deviation on the same sample.
The NL chart shows just what Gould observed ? since the mid-to-late-thirties, the standard deviation of batting average and on-base percentage have been flat ? really flat.
But look at slugging (and thus ISO). Slugging SDs have been on the rise, overall. Today is the highest ever. And by a lot.
So what do we have? The highest variance in slugging percentage ever. Much higher than when Ruth was in the game. So what can we take from this data?
Looking back at our four (essentially two and their converses) assumptions, it appears that a player in today?s game has the greatest potential to "outpace" the league in slugging percentage in baseball history.
Has the overall talent in the league worsened with respect to slugging?
That doesn?t seem very likely if athletes are bigger and stronger. So what are other possible explanations?
Regardless of the explanations (and excluding steroid use), it does not appear that MLB hitters have decreased the variance of batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage or isolated power since the late 1930s. Does variation, or lack of it, explain what Gould and others claim?
I know the gloves have made a big difference in what becomes a hit and not. I also know that better quality fields have made a difference. I am pretty sure the changes in parks have made it easier to get hits.
One thing I generally hear is that Camden Yards is a "pitchers? parks". That?s clearly nonsense. It can be called a "pitchers? park" compared to the other parks in the AL today, but it is a massive hitters? park compared to the park it replaced, Memorial Stadium. What does that also mean? That means the other AL parks have gotten significantly easier for hitters. Enough to drive OPACY from a 104 park factor (1993) to a 95 park factor (2003) (The Baseball Encyclopedia, 2004 ed. Palmer, Gillette, et al).
I also am not touching on things like sliders - mostly because I believe that sliders and forkballs (which I threw as a 12-year old) and nickel curves and hard curves and slip pitches and heavy fastballs were just as common, in some form, in the 1930s and 1940s as they are today.
While I believe humans are bigger and stronger, the skill set required to excel at major league baseball is eye-hand coordination and throwing a baseball in an extremely unnatural manner. I know of no evidence that evolution would provide for these things in the societies we have developed in a significant manner. And the pool of MLB players have always been to the far right of the spectrum, so change there is very, very slow.
The best pitchers of the last decade haven?t been "physical specimens" like the hitters have. Randy Johnson, while tall, is lanky. Greg Maddux is about as "average build" as they come. Pedro Martinez is average size for a 1920s player. In my opinion, that certainly means that the pitchers of the Williams? era could have been just as good.
In the end, Gould?s work supports those saying the difference between Ted Williams? era and Barry Bonds? is not significant. The data I accumulated indicates as much. Players today simply do not appear to outstrip the players of a generation ago, and when your dad says Mickey Mantle was the best player he ever saw, he might be right.
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