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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

David Epstein: Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?

When you look at sporting achievements over the last decades, it seems like humans have gotten faster, better and stronger in nearly every way. Yet as David Epstein points out in this delightfully counter-intuitive talk, we might want to lay off the self-congratulation. Many factors are at play in shattering athletic records, and the development of our natural talents is just one of them.

Morty Causa Posted: April 29, 2014 at 01:12 PM | 130 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history, performance

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   1. Morty Causa Posted: April 29, 2014 at 01:33 PM (#4696709)
To quote one of Fat Tony's henchmen: Soopurb. A fast, very informative presentation by the author of The Sports Gene.
   2. CFBF Is A Golden Spider Duck Posted: April 29, 2014 at 02:05 PM (#4696737)
I originally read the author's name as "David Eckstein" and thought, "Well, if you're the standard...."
   3. PASTE Thinks This Trout Kid Might Be OK (Zeth) Posted: April 29, 2014 at 02:16 PM (#4696743)
#2: Good to know I'm not the only one.
   4. Good cripple hitter Posted: April 29, 2014 at 02:20 PM (#4696748)
I thought this was another missive published by the esteemed firm of Babip, Pecota, Vorp and Eckstein.
   5. Morty Causa Posted: April 29, 2014 at 02:55 PM (#4696791)
Listen to it. It's really an intelligent talk, informative and full of facts.
   6. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: April 29, 2014 at 03:00 PM (#4696802)
Terrific talk. It doesn't so much tell you anything new as it consolidates a lot of relatively new insights into one compact perspective.
   7. Morty Causa Posted: April 29, 2014 at 03:03 PM (#4696805)
Well put.
   8. Hank G. Posted: April 29, 2014 at 03:13 PM (#4696824)
So, if Babe Ruth grew up today, would he be able to compete in MLB?
   9. Bhaakon Posted: April 29, 2014 at 06:20 PM (#4697032)

So, if Babe Ruth grew up today, would he be able to compete in MLB?


And pass up a lucrative career in competitive eating?


Seriously, though. I think that if Ruth were alive today, he'd have been David Wells. I'm not sure that a team today would give a competent or better Major League pitcher the opportunity into switch to position player.
   10. PASTE Thinks This Trout Kid Might Be OK (Zeth) Posted: April 29, 2014 at 06:48 PM (#4697046)
Seriously, though. I think that if Ruth were alive today, he'd have been David Wells. I'm not sure that a team today would give a competent or better Major League pitcher the opportunity into switch to position player.


I'm not so sure. Prospects with legitimate 80 power, light tower power, once-in-a-generation power, are even rarer than ace pitchers. Buck O'Neil said that there was a very distinctive sound made by the collision of a baseball and the bat of one of the very greatest power hitters of all time, and that in his entire long life there were only three men who he ever heard produce that sound: Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson and Bo Jackson. The story goes that Buck brought this up when he was at batting practice, not really paying attention to the field, and abruptly looked up when he heard a sound he hadn't heard in nearly fifty years, and saw Bo Jackson in the batters' box.

Obviously no one would transition mid-career from pitcher to position player and vice-versa, other than via the Ankiel path. But I think it's likely if Ruth had come up in the draft today he would have (a) been picked #1 and (b) been made an outfielder.
   11. Dan Posted: April 29, 2014 at 06:51 PM (#4697047)
been made an outfielder.


More likely he'd have been put at first base in today's game, with his body type.
   12. Manny Coon Posted: April 29, 2014 at 07:05 PM (#4697053)
More likely he'd have been put at first base in today's game, with his body type.


Mark McGwire is maybe comparable, he was originally drafted as a pitcher, went to college instead and became a big time power hitter at 1B. Ruth was a much more polished hitter than McGwire and likely would converted even sooner.
   13. Blastin Posted: April 29, 2014 at 07:28 PM (#4697059)
We do have big old butt muscles. And I am glad for it.
   14. PreservedFish Posted: April 29, 2014 at 07:38 PM (#4697061)
More likely he'd have been put at first base in today's game, with his body type.


I don't know, young Babe Ruth was tall and supposedly a pretty good athlete. I'm imagining him as a Jay Bruce type.
   15. Morty Causa Posted: April 29, 2014 at 08:13 PM (#4697079)
Ruth was a good athlete as a young player. Don't let that gut in late career fool you. When he came up, he was6'2" and weighed about 200-210. Until middle-age he was not a one-dimensional player.

Buck O'Neill must never have seen Williams or Mantle or Frank Howard.
   16. toratoratora Posted: April 29, 2014 at 09:16 PM (#4697119)
More likely he'd have been put at first base in today's game, with his body type.

Not only that, but when he was initially making the transition from pitcher in 1918, he liked playing first much better than the OF. Said he got lonely out there with nobody to talk with.
By all accounts, he was a decent 1b.

Personally I think the extreme outliers in talent, the Cobb's, Ruth's, and Mays of the world would still excel, just not to the same extent.
Sure, Ruth wouldn't hit more HR than entire leagues, but, given modern conditioning/training/resources, he'd compete year in year out for the title.
   17. Mefisto Posted: April 29, 2014 at 09:21 PM (#4697125)
I think there's some misunderstanding about the nature of timelining arguments. The argument is NOT that a Babe Ruth clone, born in 1990 and given proper training, couldn't succeed. The argument is, instead, that if you could magically transport Ruth from 1920 to today, swinging the same bat and wearing the same glove, he would be unable to succeed because of the improvements in the game since then. And if you did give him modern equipment, that wouldn't make up the difference.
   18. Morty Causa Posted: April 29, 2014 at 10:03 PM (#4697164)
Perhaps Epstein's comparison of Jesse Owens and Usain Bolt sheds light on how some athletes of yesteryear would acquit themselves under contemporary conditions. Epstein first compares Owens with Bolt without taking context into account, and then he "normalizes" Owens to modern conditions. The difference still outstanding--which at that point is very slight--may be due to not more than improved training methods and nutrition. Of course, baseball isn't the straightforward skill that running the 100-meter is, but that comparison is interesting and enlightening.
   19. McCoy Posted: April 29, 2014 at 10:16 PM (#4697175)
Ruth was a much more polished hitter than McGwire and likely would converted even sooner.

Ruth was anything but polished and while he became a great and feared hitter almost overnight he wasn't close to being polished as a hitter in his youth. His approach to hitting was very wild and it is a testament to his abilities as well as an indictment to the quality of pitchers back then that he was able to be the greatest hitter of all time virtually overnight.
   20. Morty Causa Posted: April 29, 2014 at 11:36 PM (#4697211)
I don't know, McCoy. Check out those OPS+s in his apprentice years during the dregs of the deadball era. I'd say the young Ruth did more than all right under conditions not favorable to the kind of hitter he was. Why makes you think he was struggling? To me, the very young Ruth's record clearly shows he was going to be a great hitter, Ruthian era or deadball era. The difference is due to his maturing and to the baseball ecology changing. But it's not like the Ruth of 1920 (or 1919) came out of nowhere. For that new environment immensely favored a particular organism that came to dominate that time and place, of which, it can be said, he was both the prototype and he exemplar.
   21. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: April 30, 2014 at 12:32 AM (#4697255)
Buck O'Neill must never have seen Williams or Mantle or Frank Howard.

Great as Ted was, he didn't have the explosive power of those other two. Very few if any of those famously charted tape measure home runs in the mid-20th century were hit by Williams, whereas at one point Mantle held the distance record for nearly every park in the American League, plus Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.
   22. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: April 30, 2014 at 12:36 AM (#4697256)
Perhaps Epstein's comparison of Jesse Owens and Usain Bolt sheds light on how some athletes of yesteryear would acquit themselves under contemporary conditions. Epstein first compares Owens with Bolt without taking context into account, and then he "normalizes" Owens to modern conditions. The difference still outstanding--which at that point is very slight--may be due to not more than improved training methods and nutrition. Of course, baseball isn't the straightforward skill that running the 100-meter is, but that comparison is interesting and enlightening.

The point that Epstein made about how much of Bolt's advantage stemmed from the simple matter of being able to take off from a starting block instead of a crudely dug out hole in cinders was the one that first grabbed my attention. But then the entire talk is riveting from start to finish.
   23. Walt Davis Posted: April 30, 2014 at 01:08 AM (#4697266)
As I think about it though ...

the progress of time is usually more about a rising average and less skewed distribution than it is about the outliers becoming (or remaining) more extreme. Stephen Jay Gould's point about the lack of 400 hitters, etc. This de-skewing would have its biggest impact on "relative" sports like baseball (or moreso basketball) than on "absolute" sports like the 100 meter.

Of course with an obesity rate of 110%, it's hard to argue that the Western world has improved average fitness over the last century.

I'll try to listen to it later but how does he deal with the fact (I think) that people/athletes are larger than they were. Track I assume is largely a power/weight ratio type of sport and being smaller isn't an obvious disadvantage (length of stride). But it seems to me that in strength sports, the extra size has to create an absolute advantage.

I dunno, maybe if they'd trained Mikan to play like Kevin Garnett he could have pulled it off.
   24. Morty Causa Posted: April 30, 2014 at 01:18 AM (#4697267)
And Owens had to run his races on cinder tracks, which slowed him down. Yes, that talk was so good, I think I'll have to read his book.

   25. odds are meatwad is drunk Posted: April 30, 2014 at 02:05 AM (#4697275)
Starting blocks make a huge difference in start times. Having a solid object to push off of like that instead of a hole makes it a lot faster. And that coild even mean a half second and well thats a lot of time in the 100
   26. Misirlou's been working for the drug squad Posted: April 30, 2014 at 02:23 AM (#4697277)
Check out those OPS+s in his apprentice years during the dregs of the deadball era. I'd say the young Ruth did more than all right under conditions not favorable to the kind of hitter he was. Why makes you think he was struggling? To me, the very young Ruth's record clearly shows he was going to be a great hitter, Ruthian era or deadball era.


1915 - 1918 AL OPS+ leaders, 500 PA Min

Cobb - 192
Ruth - 172
Speaker 163
Jackson - 153

Yes, those other 3 had far more PA, but iy shows Ruth was an elite hitter. His rate stats and decent sample size (779 PA) prove that. This isn't Micah Owings here ( a great hitter for a pitcher), this is a great hitter. 172 OPS+ was Mantle's career. It was a couple of points worst than ARods career best.
   27. Morty Causa Posted: April 30, 2014 at 02:35 AM (#4697278)
25:

Yeah, Epstein prominently notes that.

26:

Yeah, an excellent pitcher who hits like that--choosing which for him to do full time: what a delightful choice to have to make.

It probably wouldn't have worked out, but under modern conditions, how wonderful would have been to see the Babe try to do both? Pitch in a rotation, then DH on his fallow pitching days. How awesome would it have been if he won, say, 200 games and hit 200 home runs? Or even better? Of course, like Bo Jackson trying to do too much, he would have probably blown a vital cog.
   28. Harlond Posted: April 30, 2014 at 03:21 AM (#4697283)
Interesting talk. But that graphic of Eddy Merckx suggesting that he set his hour record on a commuter bike was unfortunate.
   29. Rob_Wood Posted: April 30, 2014 at 03:27 AM (#4697284)

I am so old that I remember when my high school converted its track from cinder to a synthetic track. And around the same time they replaced those crappy wooden starting blocks to modern metal starting blocks. Every school record was eclipsed within two years.
   30. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: April 30, 2014 at 08:21 AM (#4697295)
Ruth was anything but polished and while he became a great and feared hitter almost overnight he wasn't close to being polished as a hitter in his youth. His approach to hitting was very wild and it is a testament to his abilities as well as an indictment to the quality of pitchers back then that he was able to be the greatest hitter of all time virtually overnight.


Ruth's domination has more to do with figuring out a new way to play the game that his contemporaries weren't familiar with. If the uppercut had been the standard when he first arrived on the scene instead of deadball strategies, I doubt he would have stood out as much as he did. Of course, that doesn't mean he wouldn't have been an all-time great and still the finest hitter of them all, only he would appear to be more human to our eyes.
   31. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 30, 2014 at 08:47 AM (#4697305)
I think there's some misunderstanding about the nature of timelining arguments. The argument is NOT that a Babe Ruth clone, born in 1990 and given proper training, couldn't succeed. The argument is, instead, that if you could magically transport Ruth from 1920 to today, swinging the same bat and wearing the same glove, he would be unable to succeed because of the improvements in the game since then. And if you did give him modern equipment, that wouldn't make up the difference.

But if you took the 17 y.o. Ruth, gave him modern equipment, and 2-3 years of modern training and playing in the minors to improve his conditioning, and get used to the modern game, I bet that closes most of the gap.

I mean, yeah, if you dump him out of a time machine, from an era when he wasn't allowed by the team to run to stay in shape, and has never seen a slider, he's going to scuffle a bit. But, you'd have to think an elite athlete would adjust very, very quickly.
   32. McCoy Posted: April 30, 2014 at 08:56 AM (#4697308)
I don't know, McCoy. Check out those OPS+s in his apprentice years during the dregs of the deadball era. I'd say the young Ruth did more than all right under conditions not favorable to the kind of hitter he was. Why makes you think he was struggling? To me, the very young Ruth's record clearly shows he was going to be a great hitter, Ruthian era or deadball era. The difference is due to his maturing and to the baseball ecology changing. But it's not like the Ruth of 1920 (or 1919) came out of nowhere. For that new environment immensely favored a particular organism that came to dominate that time and place, of which, it can be said, he was both the prototype and he exemplar.

Where did I say he struggled?
   33. Ron J2 Posted: April 30, 2014 at 08:59 AM (#4697311)
#26 Worth looking at his home/road splits in that time frame:

Despite playing in a park that kept his power very much in check, he still excelled at home. And on the road.


Ruth 1914-1919

.     AB  H  2B 3B HR  BB   BA  OBP  SLG
Home 519 162 47 17 11 102 .312 .425 .532 
Road 591 180 35 13 38  87 .305 .394 .601 


What's interesting is the walk rate in Boston -- where he eally wasn't a major HR threat.

   34. AROM Posted: April 30, 2014 at 09:15 AM (#4697314)
I don't think Ruth playing today would ever get a chance to pitch. Not that it couldn't be done, just that you would never risk a pitching injury if a guy has that good of a bat. Bryce Harper has a great arm. If he sucked at hitting I don't see any reason to think he couldn't turn into a Sean Doolittle or a Sergio Santos. But you'll never see a great hitter, post-Canseco, ever take the mound in a game again.

So why did they make Ruth a pitcher in 1914 when he had talent both ways?

1. Pitchers pitched a much greater percentage of team innings, making each top pitcher more valuable
2. Ruth as a hitter was not Ty Cobb at hitting for average. There was no precedent to think he would make up for it and more with power hitting.
   35. You Know Nothing JT Snow (YR) Posted: April 30, 2014 at 09:47 AM (#4697328)
The argument is, instead, that if you could magically transport Ruth from 1920 to today, swinging the same bat and wearing the same glove, he would be unable to succeed because of the improvements in the game since then. And if you did give him modern equipment, that wouldn't make up the difference.


You're overlooking the time it would take to adjust and familiarize himself with the equipment.

I hate to fall back on boxing (no I don't) but my area of historical interest was the transition from bare-knuckle striking to the small-glove era, with somewhat lesser focus on the transition from small gloves to the larger gloves used today. If you took the very best small-glove heavyweight from the early 20th century - Jack Johnson or Sam Langford or Jack Dempsey or James Jeffries - and dumped them in the ring against a modern contender, they'd have an *awful* time of it, not because today's fat or overmuscled heavyweight pretenders are modern athletic supermen, but because adding the additional padding to the gloves had completely changed the ways fighters punch and how the defend punches. It's an enormous difference in technique that you can document in analyzing film footage, and it's absolutely real and a direct result of how having bigger, softer pads over your knuckles greatly penalized some techniques (precision striking to the weakest areas) and rewards others (hey, I now have two big pillows to protect my face from incoming blows without getting my wrists and hands broken!).

You can't expect any athlete to step out of the time machine and grab today's equipment off the rack and go out and dominate, and I think it's obvious when you consider going the other way - you wouldn't expect a modern hitter to walk out of the time machine into the Polo Grounds and grab a fat-handled heavy bat and start hitting dingers off spitballs at twilight.
   36. Tom T Posted: April 30, 2014 at 09:52 AM (#4697332)
Terrific talk. It doesn't so much tell you anything new as it consolidates a lot of relatively new insights into one compact perspective.


Obviously I'm biased in my views of David and his work (cf. SI of 1 Nov 2010), so I'm not surprised by this talk. He's a blast to interact with, and exceedingly sharp. Unlike most of the "sports science" journalists, he spends a lot of time becoming quite knowledgeable about his material before writing/talking about it. As a scientist, I have greatly enjoyed my conversations with him.
   37. BDC Posted: April 30, 2014 at 10:03 AM (#4697336)
you'll never see a great hitter, post-Canseco, ever take the mound in a game again

Jeff Francoeur is weeping as he reads this.

   38. BDC Posted: April 30, 2014 at 10:18 AM (#4697344)
how does he deal with the fact (I think) that people/athletes are larger than they were. Track I assume is largely a power/weight ratio type of sport and being smaller isn't an obvious disadvantage (length of stride). But it seems to me that in strength sports, the extra size has to create an absolute advantage

Epstein takes that issue head-on, noting that basketball players, shot-putters, etc. are indeed bigger and stronger than they used to be. He attributes this (of course) not to the evolution of the species but to the increasing efficiency of recruiting larger athletes with more optimal body types into given sports. It's a very complicated issue, of course, but he surely identifies part of the equation there.

Another theme in TFT is better selection for "weird" body types. That interests me WRT baseball. Sometimes in timelining threads somebody will point out that Ernie Banks, let's say, wouldn't be a particularly large ballplayer today, well on the short and/or slender side. Cal Ripken, AROD, Giancarlo Stanton are all reasonably similar body types to Banks but scaled up considerably – leaving some doubt about whether Banks would be winning MVPs in this century, no matter how good his bat speed and hand-eye coordination (because pitchers have gotten bigger too and throw a lot harder).

But baseball may privilege "weird" body types too. Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner both had unusual physiques, much remarked-on in their day. Unlike basketball or swimming (examples Epstein uses), though, I don't notice a lot of selection for weird bodies in contemporary baseball. I mean, Bartolo Colon is weird, but that's not really what Epstein is talking about. It may be harder in baseball to capitalize on things like extreme reach (basketball) or extreme relative length of trunk to legs (swimming); and hence simply selecting bigger versions of the "overall" type is the way to go. Obviously tall pitchers and massive sluggers are a bit "weird," but they're basically all strong big guys, as were Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg.

Joe Morgan has a weird body. Wait, that sounds like a creepy comment, strike that.
   39. PASTE Thinks This Trout Kid Might Be OK (Zeth) Posted: April 30, 2014 at 10:21 AM (#4697349)
I don't think Ruth playing today would ever get a chance to pitch. Not that it couldn't be done, just that you would never risk a pitching injury if a guy has that good of a bat. Bryce Harper has a great arm. If he sucked at hitting I don't see any reason to think he couldn't turn into a Sean Doolittle or a Sergio Santos.


There's still time. Doolittle ended up on the mound because he could never stay in the lineup for more than a month at a time. Of course Doolittle never hit when he WAS in the lineup, which is the difference between him and Harper. But if Harper's injuries ever get to the point of sapping his power.....
   40. Blastin Posted: April 30, 2014 at 10:42 AM (#4697375)
His book is also fantastic. I learned a lot (also was encouraged that a short guy like me really isn't disadvantaged for distance running, the only sport I've ever been any good at, and only now as an adult).
   41. Jeltzandini Posted: April 30, 2014 at 11:23 AM (#4697414)
The Buck O'Neil/Bo Jackson story is a good one. It's probably pure joyless internet snarkoskepticism to doubt that a) his ears were that well-calibrated and b) that the sound of Bo Jackson hitting a ball squarely is different from the sound produced by any strong power hitter doing the same. Never mind the HOFers, I bet when Kingman or Luzinski hit their moonshots it sounded pretty good.
   42. Morty Causa Posted: April 30, 2014 at 12:09 PM (#4697454)
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
   43. Squash Posted: April 30, 2014 at 12:11 PM (#4697456)
People have mentioned nutrition, but I think it plays an even bigger roll than we give it credit for. Not just a better diet but the variety of our diet is a huge change from back in the day. How many lower- and middle-class kids had a salad with dinner in 1896? Not that everyone does today, but many more do. If your diet growing up is two potatoes a day and some dubious meat you're probably not going to grow up to be Frank Thomas.
   44. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: April 30, 2014 at 01:07 PM (#4697498)
Buck O'Neill must never have seen Williams or Mantle or Frank Howard.


Buck might have seen Ted, but after his arm injury in 1950. The Thumper couldn't hit the ball the same way as he did the decade before, so his homers might have sounded different during the second half of his career than they did the first half.
   45. Barnaby Jones Posted: April 30, 2014 at 01:29 PM (#4697531)
Go take a look at Babe Ruth's swing. That would not be nearly effective in the modern era. Off-speed pitching had greatly changed since then.
   46. Sunday silence Posted: April 30, 2014 at 01:47 PM (#4697555)

I mean, yeah, if you dump him out of a time machine, from an era when he wasn't allowed by the team to run to stay in shape, and has never seen a slider, he's going to scuffle a bit.


I know. Why does that [dump him out of a time machine] have to be the issue? It seems more interesting/fair to try to predict what he would be if he had the modern day benefits of all that other stuff: nutrition, training, equipment, video, etc.

Another point that has not been mentioned is that we have a much larger pool of baseball players to choose from. In 1915 there were lot of factors that limited the pool. The geography of where baseball was played; economic necessities that prevented some from pursuing their dreams, smaller population in general etc.

I never studied Jesse Owens to Bolt; but I did look at the times of Owens vs Carl Lewis and Lewis is maybe one step faster than him, which given the differences in equipment seems almost a push. Given that in the modern era of Lewis and Bolt the geographic size of the pool has increased then the fact that a Usain Bolt can come around at some point and be even faster than Owens/Lewis, may just be a function of waiting long enuf for an outlier to come along.
   47. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 30, 2014 at 01:50 PM (#4697557)
Go take a look at Babe Ruth's swing. That would not be nearly effective in the modern era. Off-speed pitching had greatly changed since then.

And Ruth would adapt to that.
   48. BDC Posted: April 30, 2014 at 01:59 PM (#4697564)
Plus the first thing you have to do after you get out of the time machine is stop Hitler, and that's going to take a lot out of you.
   49. Barnaby Jones Posted: April 30, 2014 at 02:07 PM (#4697573)
And Ruth would adapt to that.


Perhaps. Changing your natural swing is not easy. He would have a lot to change.
   50. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: April 30, 2014 at 02:11 PM (#4697577)
Plus the first thing you have to do after you get out of the time machine is stop Hitler, and that's going to take a lot out of you.


What I would do is stop the Archduke Ferdinand's assassination at Sarajevo instead. Much easier and would have saved countless more lives.
   51. PASTE Thinks This Trout Kid Might Be OK (Zeth) Posted: April 30, 2014 at 02:17 PM (#4697586)
Eh, somebody else would have whacked him in short order. And even if he had never existed that powder keg was due to explode.
   52. Ron J2 Posted: April 30, 2014 at 02:26 PM (#4697596)
Ruth's domination has more to do with figuring out a new way to play the game that his contemporaries weren't familiar with.


And in that same time frame he was competing against a group of pitchers largely selected for their ability to command the spitter and then largely denied the chance to use it.

As to adapting, Ruth started with exceptional strike zone judgement. He's not going to be getting himself out.

I figure the low end for Ruth is a more durable Harmon Killebrew (with more defensive value) and that's a heck of a player.
   53. Mefisto Posted: April 30, 2014 at 02:39 PM (#4697612)
I mean, yeah, if you dump him out of a time machine, from an era when he wasn't allowed by the team to run to stay in shape, and has never seen a slider, he's going to scuffle a bit. But, you'd have to think an elite athlete would adjust very, very quickly.


Maybe, but this is the whole point. Ruth succeeded to the extent he did precisely because the conditions were easier. The very fact that he'd need to adjust is the key to the need for timelining.

You can't expect any athlete to step out of the time machine and grab today's equipment off the rack and go out and dominate, and I think it's obvious when you consider going the other way - you wouldn't expect a modern hitter to walk out of the time machine into the Polo Grounds and grab a fat-handled heavy bat and start hitting dingers off spitballs at twilight.


I'd expect a top modern hitter to step out of a time machine with a lighter bat and a superior glove and the advantages modern diet and conditioning have provided, and dominate the players of 1920. That's why we need to timeline the earlier stats.
   54. bjhanke Posted: April 30, 2014 at 02:43 PM (#4697614)
There is no doubt that people in general, including athletes, are bigger and stronger than they were, and that trend started way before 1871, much less Babe Ruth. Most articles I have read on the subject say that diet has a lot to do with it, although advanced training techniques are certainly in the mix. But that's not the question I would phrase. What I would want to know if whether, if you took a man who has as many standard deviations of strength, height, speed, etc. as Ruth did, would he put up numbers as far above everyone else, or has the increased sophistication of the game, plus perhaps a larger recruiting pool, lowered the standard deviation's effects? In other words, has the game tended, over time, to compress the difference between the greats and the average, making the old greats look better?

Both my dentist and my eye doctor say that the increased size over time has changed things in our heads. I only grew in 3 wisdom teeth, all of which had to be pulled, because my jaw didn't have enough room for them. The dentist, who was in his 70s at the time, said that when he got started back in the 1930s, there were almost no cases of this. But people have gotten bigger, and their teeth have gained size at a faster rate than our skulls. The eye doctor said the same thing. Nearsightedness was not anything like as prevalent 50 years ago as it is now, because (I've forgotten which) our eyes have grown faster than our skulls, or the other way around. As for absolute size, my dad played high school basketball in the 1920s. His team was very good, because they had a very tall center who was almost impossible to guard. They lost the state championship to a small school that had a short team, but a team that ran and ran and ran, and eventually wore Dad's team out. The center in question, who went on to a very good career in Division I play, was 6' 2". That was a TALL center in the 1920s. Now it's a short point guard.

My guess is that Babe Ruth would have spent a lot of time, particularly when young, as a catcher, if he were playing now and his team chose not to pitch him. Catchers do not get nearly as beaten up as they did in the 1920s, and Ruth started as a catcher back in school.

Ruth DID change his natural swing in 1919 or 1920. He was on record as saying that he picked up the uppercut swing from Joe Jackson. I am sure he would be able to do that nowadays as well.

I have read, although the commenter here (YR, #35) doubtless knows much more than I do, that the reason that boxing gloves got bigger and bigger was to save the boxer's hands. It was NOT done to save damage to the opponent's body, but to keep your hands from getting broken. I am sure that boxers had to adjust to the larger, heavier gloves, but they got some of that back in the form of hands that were not nearly as beaten up as in the old days.

The advance in speed is easy to document. Years ago, American sprinters ran the 100-yard dash. Now, due to the Olympics, they run the 100-METER, which is a bit longer. The current, and presumably forever, holder of the 100-yard dash record is a guy from my high school, Ivory Crockett. He ran it in 9.2 seconds, right before the distance went extinct. I think (not completely sure) that the 100-meter guys have closed that gap, and now run the 100-meters faster than Ivory could run the 100-yards. - Brock Hanke
   55. Rough Carrigan Posted: April 30, 2014 at 03:11 PM (#4697655)
Ruth did adjust to breaking pitches. Wes Ferrell, in one of those Donald Honig or Lawrence Ritter books, says that he noticed that Ruth would close his stance just a little more when he was expecting a breaking pitch and as a result, Ferrell tried throw him fastballs if he saw that.
   56. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 30, 2014 at 03:16 PM (#4697663)
I'd expect a top modern hitter to step out of a time machine with a lighter bat and a superior glove and the advantages modern diet and conditioning have provided, and dominate the players of 1920. That's why we need to timeline the earlier stats.

Oh no. If you're doing the timelining bit, he has the same thick bat, tiny glove and flannel unis they had back then.

I'd expect most moderns would be horrible fielders for a good while, as they had to adjust to the tiny gloves.
   57. Mefisto Posted: April 30, 2014 at 03:19 PM (#4697666)
Oh no. If you're doing the timelining bit, he has the same thick bat, tiny glove and flannel unis they had back then.


No, that would measure something very different. That would measure the relative differences between Ruth, say, and some modern player simply as physical specimens. The point I'm making has to do with changes in the game itself (which may include a weaker talent pool, but isn't limited to that).
   58. BDC Posted: April 30, 2014 at 03:28 PM (#4697681)
Very interesting, Brock: just two notes. Ruth wouldn't catch now (or even as a pro in his own day) as a left-handed thrower. And the 100m record isn't quite down to 9.2. Bolt has run it just under 9.6 (9.58). These records must, logically, be asymptotic, and one wonders if it's physically possible for the 100m record to dip below 9.2. It took about 50 years for the 100m record to go from about 10.0 to about 9.6, and it naturally gets harder to carve off each additional tenth of a second.
   59. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 30, 2014 at 03:40 PM (#4697699)
No, that would measure something very different. That would measure the relative differences between Ruth, say, and some modern player simply as physical specimens. The point I'm making has to do with changes in the game itself (which may include a weaker talent pool, but isn't limited to that).

That doesn't make any sense to me. If you give one golfer modern clubs, and the other a hickory shafted mashie and niblick, and a ball with no dimples, their subsequent scores are not going to tell you a whole lot about their relative skill as golfers.
   60. Mefisto Posted: April 30, 2014 at 03:46 PM (#4697710)
The idea is to identify how much lower the competitive level was in, say, 1920 compared to today. Any specific player is of only tangential interest. What we could do, hypothetically, is take a player like Ruth and force him to face modern conditions with a 48 oz bat, etc. He wouldn't do very well, certainly not as well as he did in 1920. Then we could take a modern player -- say, Mike Trout -- and put him and his 33 oz bat into 1920. He'd do very well, I suspect. Then we could get a sense of how much the overall level of competition differed.

If we had a time machine, that is.
   61. booond Posted: April 30, 2014 at 03:48 PM (#4697712)
The advance in speed is easy to document. Years ago, American sprinters ran the 100-yard dash. Now, due to the Olympics, they run the 100-METER, which is a bit longer. The current, and presumably forever, holder of the 100-yard dash record is a guy from my high school, Ivory Crockett. He ran it in 9.2 seconds, right before the distance went extinct. I think (not completely sure) that the 100-meter guys have closed that gap, and now run the 100-meters faster than Ivory could run the 100-yards.


Technically, the official record is 9.2 by Frank Budd. Crockett ran 9.0 but it was hand-timed. Asafa Powell ran 9.07 electronically-timed during a 100-meter run. I'm sure Bolt dipped under 9.0 when he set the 100-meter record of 9.58. Bolt ran 8.79 for 90-meters in his 2008 world record, which is slightly shorter than 100 yards.



   62. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: April 30, 2014 at 03:56 PM (#4697724)
The idea is to identify how much lower the competitive level was in, say, 1920 compared to today.

But, if you gave everyone in 1920 modern equipment, or everyone in 2014 old equipment, it would wash out on average.

It's not very interesting to compare Patton and Napoleon as generals and say "Patton wins clearly, he had tanks".
   63. cmd600 Posted: April 30, 2014 at 03:58 PM (#4697728)
People have mentioned nutrition, but I think it plays an even bigger roll than we give it credit for. Not just a better diet but the variety of our diet is a huge change from back in the day. How many lower- and middle-class kids had a salad with dinner in 1896? Not that everyone does today, but many more do. If your diet growing up is two potatoes a day and some dubious meat you're probably not going to grow up to be Frank Thomas.


My dentist also does the work for the local low A team. And let's just say that is quite the lucrative business for him. He sees a lot of kids who grew up dirt poor and need extensive orthodontic work. He's certainly not unbiased, but he's absolutely dead-set that the orthodontic work is largely responsible for these kids being able to eat a lot more/better, and he watches these kids go through growth spurts that he compares to what we see from early teenage boys in more well-to-do homes.
   64. Mefisto Posted: April 30, 2014 at 04:24 PM (#4697761)
But, if you gave everyone in 1920 modern equipment, or everyone in 2014 old equipment, it would wash out on average.


I doubt it, but it doesn't matter. The point of a timeline adjustment is that we want to know how much different the actual level of play -- not some hypothetical level of play -- was in 1920.
   65. bjhanke Posted: May 01, 2014 at 06:02 AM (#4698067)
boond - Thanks for the info. I, of course, remember the record as it was called right after the distance was abolished (Crockett is a legend in Webster Groves, MO, which is where I grew up). At that time, they probably didn't adjust for hand-timed. I am certainly not qualified to get into a discussion of what counts as a "record" in track. But at least now, if I hear the name Frank Budd, I'll know who that is. And BDC is certainly right that no lefty is going to end up as a catcher if he has the arm for it, because they'll convert him into a pitcher. I don't know details, but that may be what happened to Ruth in the 1910s. And it makes it much more likely that, if you had whatever clone of Ruth you want to define, and put him into modern baseball, he very well might have had the same career path as he actually did - starting out as a pitcher, once he got to the level where they don't use lefties at catcher. Imagine the waste if he got into the AL and was never allowed to show how well he could hit. - Brock
   66. Greg K Posted: May 01, 2014 at 08:28 AM (#4698090)
Eh, somebody else would have whacked him in short order. And even if he had never existed that powder keg was due to explode.

I sense you're probably right about that, but I have always wondered whether Franz Ferdinand's vague plans for some kind of federation of nationalities under the Hapsburg umbrella was viable. It shares certain superficial similarities with Tito's Yugoslavia which chugged along in a fairly stable fashion for many years (by the region's historical standards). Not that Franz Ferdinand was a great liberal hero or anything. His primary goal appeared to be getting a counter-balance into the Empire to screw the Hungarians.

As a smaller flight of fancy, I also wonder if he's there in August of 1914 if Hotzendorf enjoys the kind of free reign he did in our reality.

In the end it probably doesn't matter, if not that assassination than something else would have set events off. But Franz Ferdinand almost seems like the perfect figure to kill if the goal is to start a general war. Not only for the reaction it would set off, but because it removes probably the key moderate voice in the Austrian decision-making circle.
   67. McCoy Posted: May 01, 2014 at 08:49 AM (#4698101)
The Black Hand was an organizatin in trouble by the time of the killing. A schism had been developing between that organization and the Serbian political body. By most accounts the top ranking members of the Black Hand and the Serbian government did not want this attack to happen. If Princip and the others had failed that fateful day it is quite possible they never go after Franz again and the Black Hands gets shaken up.
   68. jacksone (AKA It's OK...) Posted: May 01, 2014 at 10:41 AM (#4698161)
Both my dentist and my eye doctor say that the increased size over time has changed things in our heads. I only grew in 3 wisdom teeth, all of which had to be pulled, because my jaw didn't have enough room for them. The dentist, who was in his 70s at the time, said that when he got started back in the 1930s, there were almost no cases of this. But people have gotten bigger, and their teeth have gained size at a faster rate than our skulls. The eye doctor said the same thing. Nearsightedness was not anything like as prevalent 50 years ago as it is now, because (I've forgotten which) our eyes have grown faster than our skulls, or the other way around. As for absolute size, my dad played high school basketball in the 1920s. His team was very good, because they had a very tall center who was almost impossible to guard. They lost the state championship to a small school that had a short team, but a team that ran and ran and ran, and eventually wore Dad's team out. The center in question, who went on to a very good career in Division I play, was 6' 2". That was a TALL center in the 1920s. Now it's a short point guard.


I don't know about the nearsightedness, but your dentist was flat wrong. Our jaws are smaller now which is why the wisdom teeth don't fit. We don't need to break down as many fibrous plants and veggies, and we cook our meat, which makes it easier to chew. Our teeth are the same size they always were. Plus - evolution takes a long time, it's certainly not going to happen over two generations.

As for basketball, tall players were initially dismissed due to a perceived lack of mobility and overall skill. It wasn't really until George Mikan (born 1924) that tall centers were seen as the impactful players they could be. Mikan was 6' 10" - the same size as the average center today. Obviously the average height of basketball players has increased markedly, but in the 20's basketball was in its infancy.
   69. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: May 01, 2014 at 10:54 AM (#4698173)
As for basketball, tall players were initially dismissed due to a perceived lack of mobility and overall skill. It wasn't really until George Mikan (born 1924) that tall centers were seen as the impactful players they could be. Mikan was 6' 10" - the same size as the average center today.

And if the 25 year old Mikan were in today's NBA, he'd likely be a backup power forward whose chief assets were his blocking out and screening skills and his ability to take a charge. He had virtually no vertical leap compared to today's players, and his best shot was a short hook that with today's defenders would mostly be pushed right back into his glasses. He was essentially a much stronger and more durable version of Neil Johnston, another center who starred in the mid-50's before shot blocking became common.
   70. Barnaby Jones Posted: May 01, 2014 at 10:55 AM (#4698175)
Teeth don't fit jaws more often now because we have more heterogenous gene pools.
   71. alilisd Posted: May 01, 2014 at 11:27 AM (#4698198)
Ruth's domination has more to do with figuring out a new way to play the game that his contemporaries weren't familiar with. If the uppercut had been the standard when he first arrived on the scene instead of deadball strategies, I doubt he would have stood out as much as he did.


Of course not as much, but I think the difference would not be significant. He arrives on the scene, fully, in 1920, IMO. Yet a decade later, at 35 years of age, and again at 36, he's still leading the league in HR, BB, and OPS+. The next two seasons, at 37 and 38, he's still 2nd in HR, 1st in BB, and 2nd then 3rd in OPS+, 14 years after he's revolutionized the game. Offensive WAR tells the same story. From 1930 to 1933 he's 1st, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. If younger players had not developed in the preceeding 14 years to a level at which they could surpass an aging, late 30's Ruth, I see little reason to believe he would not have still dominated the 1920's rather handily even if his offensive style was already established when he arrived.
   72. BDC Posted: May 01, 2014 at 11:30 AM (#4698202)
Bob Kurland, who died last fall, was the same age as Mikan, and taller (7'0") – he's the player who inspired the goaltending rule. He continued to be a dominant player after the rule was instated, but it's interesting that as soon as he established the overwhelming advantage of sheer height, the rules were changed to minimize it. Something of the same thinking happened when the dunk was later banned for a while in college ball.
   73. jacksone (AKA It's OK...) Posted: May 01, 2014 at 12:11 PM (#4698241)
Bob Kurland, who died last fall, was the same age as Mikan, and taller (7'0") – he's the player who inspired the goaltending rule. He continued to be a dominant player after the rule was instated, but it's interesting that as soon as he established the overwhelming advantage of sheer height, the rules were changed to minimize it. Something of the same thinking happened when the dunk was later banned for a while in college ball.


Eh, the same type of thing just came up for consideration in college football - some of the coaches don't like the fast, fast, fast play calling technique and tried to put a mandated slow down timer into when the ball can be snapped. When only a few teams have advantages the masses try and implement rules to limit the advantage.
   74. GuyM Posted: May 01, 2014 at 02:33 PM (#4698324)
The idea is to identify how much lower the competitive level was in, say, 1920 compared to today. Any specific player is of only tangential interest. What we could do, hypothetically, is take a player like Ruth and force him to face modern conditions with a 48 oz bat, etc. He wouldn't do very well, certainly not as well as he did in 1920. Then we could take a modern player -- say, Mike Trout -- and put him and his 33 oz bat into 1920. He'd do very well, I suspect. Then we could get a sense of how much the overall level of competition differed.

If we had a time machine, that is.

We don't need a time machine. We can compare the performance of both Trout and Ruth to the performance of pitchers-as-hitters in their own time. Today's pitchers are roughly equal in hitting ability to the pitchers of Ruth's time. In both cases, their ability to hit was essentially irrelevant to their selection as MLB players -- their hitting ability is that of a generic good athlete. You do have to make one adjustment, which is that pitchers used to hit quite a bit more often, and there's evidence this improves performance. But you can apply a reasonable adjustment for that. (It would also be interesting to look at high school batting records for MLB pitchers over time). It's also true that today's pitchers are much bigger and stronger, which presumably at least somewhat offsets the decline in their yearly plate appearances.

And a nice feature of this method is that equipment isn't really an issue: pitchers and position players both use the equipment available at that moment in time.

And if you use pitchers-as-hitters as a baseline, you find that today's players really are much better than the average player of Ruth's era. At the same time, Ruth would still be an outstanding hitter today. Maybe at the Pujols/Trout level, probably a bit below that but still an excellent player.
   75. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: May 01, 2014 at 03:02 PM (#4698342)
I doubt it, but it doesn't matter. The point of a timeline adjustment is that we want to know how much different the actual level of play -- not some hypothetical level of play -- was in 1920.

If we're not using it to compare individual players across eras, I have no idea why we'd care. I personally have absolutely no interest in knowing how a modern player with modern equipment and training would do in 1920. Or how a 1920 player would fare today under serious handicaps. It's a completely unfair comparison.

I'm sure thousands of good country club golfers could beat Bobby Jones on today's courses if they used modern equipment and Jones had to use 1920's equipment. What does that tell us? Absolutely nothing.
   76. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: May 01, 2014 at 03:07 PM (#4698344)
In both cases, their ability to hit was essentially irrelevant to their selection as MLB players -- their hitting ability is that of a generic good athlete.

Even if we grant no change in hitting ability as a selection criteria, it is possible that other selection criteria that have changed over time correlate with hitting.

Example: today's pitchers are selected far more for velocity and far less for endurance/durability. This leads to far more selection for height and arm strength, and less for more general athleticism.

Your very tall, lanky pitchers (Randy Johnson being the extreme) are probably worse athletes than your more standard build pitchers of yore, and therefore worse hitters.
   77. alilisd Posted: May 01, 2014 at 03:19 PM (#4698351)
Your very tall, lanky pitchers (Randy Johnson being the extreme) are probably worse athletes than your more standard build pitchers of yore, and therefore worse hitters.


You mean the Randy Johnson who also played two years of basketball at USC? :-)
   78. Sunday silence Posted: May 01, 2014 at 03:25 PM (#4698357)
Our jaws are smaller now which is why the wisdom teeth don't fit. We don't need to break down as many fibrous plants and veggies, and we cook our meat, which makes it easier to chew. Our teeth are the same size they always were. Plus - evolution takes a long time, it's certainly not going to happen over two generations..


well I cant help but think that you must be leaving something out here. You say it takes a long time for teeth to evolve but in the same passage are jaws are smaller. Jaws evolve faster? Something else?

elaborating a bit here, would be most welcome.


Teeth don't fit jaws more often now because we have more heterogenous gene pools.


again, maybe you're right, but without any explanation this statement is more confusing then anything. what do the gene pools do? Make jaws smaller? teeth bigger? Does your statement contradict the previous guy? support him? neither? what??
   79. Sunday silence Posted: May 01, 2014 at 03:29 PM (#4698358)

And if you use pitchers-as-hitters as a baseline, you find that today's players really are much better than the average player of Ruth's era. At the same time, Ruth would still be an outstanding hitter today


This is an amazing conclusion. Is there anyway you can show us any of the details of you use "pitcher as hitters baseline" to prove all this? Is there some reference? Is this technique publicly available?
   80. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: May 01, 2014 at 03:30 PM (#4698359)
You mean the Randy Johnson who also played two years of basketball at USC? :-)

Because centers are known for being the best athletes on basketball teams :-)

Randy Johnson was a miserable hitter (-22 OPS+ for his career). Being 6'10" and gawky as hell certainly didn't help him there.
   81. Mefisto Posted: May 01, 2014 at 03:37 PM (#4698365)
If we're not using it to compare individual players across eras, I have no idea why we'd care.


We are going to use it to compare individual players, but we're going to compare actual performance, not hypothetical performance.

Under current methods, we can measure how far Ruth performed above the average/replacement level of his time. We can similarly measure how far Mike Trout is performing above the average/replacement level of today. What we canNOT do (at least not without controversy -- see GuyM's 74) is relate the average/replacement level of 1920 to the average/replacement level of today. When people say they want to timeline, what they mean is that they want to know if that average/replacement level in 1920 was 10% better than today or 30% worse, or whatever.

In order to do that, we'd need to measure how players played under the conditions in which they actually did play. Thus, a thought experiment would bring Ruth into MLB today to see how well he could hit modern pitching with his 42 oz bat (or whatever it was) compared to how well he actually did in 1920. The flip side of that would send Trout back to 1920 with today's equipment and see how his performance compared to his actual performance today.*

With that information, we could then adjust Ruth's performance to today's level (whether higher or lower).

*Ruth and Trout are examples. An ideal experiment would bring every single player from 1920 to 2014 and vice versa, one at a time.
   82. Mefisto Posted: May 01, 2014 at 03:39 PM (#4698369)
Is there anyway you can show us any of the details of you use "pitcher as hitters baseline" to prove all this? Is there some reference? Is this technique publicly available?


GuyM's technique has been debated here on several occasions. You might want to search for those threads, or maybe Guy has them bookmarked.
   83. GuyM Posted: May 01, 2014 at 03:40 PM (#4698370)
#79: We've had a couple of long threads on this here you can search for. The best article on the basic concept is still Dan Fox at Baseball Prospectus.

To get a quick sense of how much the gap between pitchers and position players has grown, today position players are about 100 points in OPS+ better than pitchers (who post an average OPS+ of about zero or less). If you look back at the 1920s, the average position player was about 58 points higher (comparing #9 hitters, since B-Ref doesn't show position in their hitting splits for this period).

   84. Sunday silence Posted: May 01, 2014 at 03:47 PM (#4698378)
We are going to use it to compare individual players, but we're going to compare actual performance, not hypothetical performance. ... When people say they want to timeline, what they mean is that they want to know if that average/replacement level in 1920 was 10% better than today or 30% worse, or whatever.


I think what's confusing to me and perhaps to others, is that you are suggesting something real i.e. "actual vs hypothetical" but isnt all this discussion, entirely theoretical? Even the method you suggest. Are you really suggesting that you have a pretty good idea of how actual 1925 version of Ruth would fare in today MLB? That seems entirely hypothetical to me, but maybe you have an answer for that.

***

THanks for the reference in no. 83.
   85. Sunday silence Posted: May 01, 2014 at 03:59 PM (#4698382)
...today position players are about 100 points in OPS+ better than pitchers (who post an average OPS+ of about zero or less). If you look back at the 1920s, the average position player was about 58 points higher...


is the basis upon which you say in, no. 74, that todays players are better the avg player in Ruth's era? and/or the same basis for concluding that Ruth would be oustanding today ?


I am not sure any of that follows by looking at OPS+ differential of pitchers. It could simply mean that pitchers were being selected for general athletic ability more in the 1920s. And that today players are more specialized, but I dont see how it translates into absolute differences in level of skill.

For instance, say we set up an old time league in the modern era. But you can only carry 15 players, and you get 4 pitchers all of whom are expected to finish nearly all their games. Furthermore, the ball is dead and power hitters are at a disadvantage. We use the same pool of players are modern day MLB. It might not be unusual to see guys like Cal Ripken or Ken Griffey thrust into the role of pitchers since they are naturally good atheletes and have the stamina required.

The hypothetical is of course set to show your reasoning seems flawed. Since the both the "old time" league and modern day MLB are using the exact same pool of players but the old time league has pitchers with OPS+ much closer to average.

I.e. increasing specialization could very well produce the same effects as general improvement in abilities. You could take the same pool of players and put them in an environment that forces them to perform more varied tasks and get this same effect. Say for instance football 50 years ago, or even say hi school football where players play both off/defense. This would tend to create the same effect as you are measuring. Yes?
   86. Mefisto Posted: May 01, 2014 at 04:08 PM (#4698388)
I think what's confusing to me and perhaps to others, is that you are suggesting something real i.e. "actual vs hypothetical" but isnt all this discussion, entirely theoretical? Even the method you suggest. Are you really suggesting that you have a pretty good idea of how actual 1925 version of Ruth would fare in today MLB? That seems entirely hypothetical to me, but maybe you have an answer for that.


I'm using the words in 2 different contexts. I (really, we) want to measure Ruth's actual performance in 1920. That is, not how well Ruth might have done if he had access to modern equipement, training, etc., but his actual, real life performance. We can do that quite well relative to other players in 1920.

However, let's say we want to know if Ruth's 1920 season was better than Ted Williams' 1941. Well, we can say that Ruth was X% above 1920 replacement, while Williams was only Y% above 1941 replacement (where X>Y). The problem is, the replacement level in 1941 might be different than it was in 1920 (say, from population increase). Unless we know how to compare the 2 replacement levels, we can't categorically declare Ruth's season better, even though in both cases we're measuring their "actual" performance, because that "actual" performance is relative to a specific time.

That's where the hypothetical comes in. Suppose we could, hypothetically, take the actual 1920 Babe Ruth and use a time machine to put him into the AL in 1941. At this point we could see how he'd do using his actual 42 oz bat versus Ted using his 36oz (or whatever). We keep the player and the bat the same so that we control the variable: only the league itself is different. The end result would be as I explained in 81.
   87. GuyM Posted: May 01, 2014 at 04:11 PM (#4698389)
#85: The skills needed to be a successful pitcher in 1923 or 2013 are in general similar. To the extent they have changed, we have zero reason to believe that those differences would correlate with hitting ability. Indeed, since there is no correlation between pitching and hitting ability (among pitchers), such a correlation would be very surprising. Certainly, it couldn't possibly be enough to translate into more than a small change in the hitting ability of pitchers. The key point, which can't be emphasized enough, is that neither groups of players were selected to play in MLB based in any way on their hitting ability. That creates a pretty level playing field (and low ceiling for potential hitting ability).

People raise the specialization argument all the time, but there's nothing there. Read the Fox piece and look at his graphs. What you see is a very steady growth in the gap between pitchers and position-players. And most of the change comes before 1973, so the DH certainly can't explain it. The data is 100% consistent with the notion that position-players have gotten steadily better, but that the rate of improvement slows over time, which not coincidentally is the same story told by the data on changing variance in performance among position players.
   88. alilisd Posted: May 01, 2014 at 04:46 PM (#4698413)
Randy Johnson was a miserable hitter (-22 OPS+ for his career). Being 6'10" and gawky as hell certainly didn't help him there.


I'm going to concede the point to you, sir!
   89. McCoy Posted: May 01, 2014 at 05:10 PM (#4698427)
Even if we grant no change in hitting ability as a selection criteria, it is possible that other selection criteria that have changed over time correlate with hitting.

Example: today's pitchers are selected far more for velocity and far less for endurance/durability. This leads to far more selection for height and arm strength, and less for more general athleticism.

Your very tall, lanky pitchers (Randy Johnson being the extreme) are probably worse athletes than your more standard build pitchers of yore, and therefore worse hitters.


You also have to remember that 90 years ago almost all the best physically gifted players were pitchers. On average they were taller and bigger than your typical position player. The position players did eventually catch up to the pitchers
   90. GuyM Posted: May 01, 2014 at 05:55 PM (#4698460)
You also have to remember that 90 years ago almost all the best physically gifted players were pitchers. On average they were taller and bigger than your typical position player.

Completely irrelevant for this discussion. What matters is how the pitchers of 90 years ago compare to the pitchers of today. And they were quite a bit smaller.
   91. Sunday silence Posted: May 01, 2014 at 06:04 PM (#4698465)
instead of referring to the article,cant you just give me a simple explanation of why the specialization argument doesnt work? youve explained everything else in detail, whats the big secret here?
   92. Sunday silence Posted: May 01, 2014 at 06:18 PM (#4698476)
Ive read the article, maybe I missed something, but it seems to bring up the issue of specialization without really addressing why it has little or no effect. I dont even know if it's even claiming that, it's pretty muddled on that issue.

   93. McCoy Posted: May 01, 2014 at 06:43 PM (#4698489)
Completely irrelevant for this discussion. What matters is how the pitchers of 90 years ago compare to the pitchers of today. And they were quite a bit smaller.

How is the sample pool irrelevant?
   94. GuyM Posted: May 01, 2014 at 08:15 PM (#4698513)
SS: Pitchers in the 1920s were fully specialized. I don't believe any starting pitcher in that era lost his job for poor hitting. Nor have I heard it said of any pitcher in that time "he couldn't pitch much, but they kept using him for his bat." But I'm no baseball historian, so correct me if I'm wrong.

If there is some other meaning to the "specialization" argument, you'll have to flesh it out for me.

McCoy: The question at hand is whether today's pitchers are roughly equal in hitting ability to pitchers in the past, so they can serve as a constant against which other players are measured. Their size and weight would be an argument against this idea if today's pitchers were smaller/lighter, but the reverse is true. The relative size of pitchers vs position players in different eras is irrelevant.
   95. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: May 01, 2014 at 08:51 PM (#4698537)
In order to do that, we'd need to measure how players played under the conditions in which they actually did play. Thus, a thought experiment would bring Ruth into MLB today to see how well he could hit modern pitching with his 42 oz bat (or whatever it was) compared to how well he actually did in 1920. The flip side of that would send Trout back to 1920 with today's equipment and see how his performance compared to his actual performance today.*

The Masters champion shot 279 in both 1939 and 2013, on the same course. The course in 2013 was longer and at least one method exists to determine the relative difficulty of Augusta then and now (e.g., for handicap purposes each course gets a "course rating.") Obviously, you'd have to make a weather/wind adjustment if there were dramatic differences.

That's probably a decent starting point. Baseball hitting, in its biomechanics and dependence on equipment, is closely related to golf. And the change in golf equipment parallels the change in hitting equipment.
   96. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: May 01, 2014 at 08:54 PM (#4698540)
That's where the hypothetical comes in. Suppose we could, hypothetically, take the actual 1920 Babe Ruth and use a time machine to put him into the AL in 1941. At this point we could see how he'd do using his actual 42 oz bat versus Ted using his 36oz (or whatever). We keep the player and the bat the same so that we control the variable: only the league itself is different. The end result would be as I explained in 81.

Right, and I think it's a silly hypothetical. It's totally uninteresting how Ruth would perform when you handicap him badly.

It's like asking how good a Physicist would Nils Bohr be today, and oh by the way we're not going to let him read any books published after his death, or use a computer.
   97. The Id of SugarBear Blanks Posted: May 01, 2014 at 09:03 PM (#4698546)
There's plenty there to specialization. Compared to 1920, people are relatively worse at their avocation than their vocation across American society. Specialization and continual division of labor is how economies expand, innovate, and grow.

And in sports, it's obvious that athletes focus on their best sports relative to other athletic activities they're good at far more intensely and far younger than in 1920.

It therefore isn't remotely surprising that part-time dilettante hitters are worse compared to pro hitters than they were 90 years ago. It's exactly what you'd expect.
   98. Mefisto Posted: May 01, 2014 at 09:09 PM (#4698550)
I think it's a silly hypothetical. It's totally uninteresting how Ruth would perform when you handicap him badly.


Well, the hypothetical is designed to answer a specific question. You keep re-framing the issue into a different issue. If you focus just on the original issue, I think you'll at least see why the hypothetical is phrased that way.
   99. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: May 01, 2014 at 09:15 PM (#4698553)
Well, the hypothetical is designed to answer a specific question.

A meaningless question involving an imaginary time machine. It doesn't help you evaluate Ruth vs. Trout, b/c you are seriously handicapping Ruth.

To evaluate Ruth vs. Trout, you have to allow them to both hypothetically play under the same conditions.

The question, "What if 16 y.o. Babe Ruth and 16 y.o. Mike Trout and 16 y.o. Willie Mays were all put in the same environment, how would their careers unfold", is interesting. Handicapping Ruth and Mays makes that question uninteresting.
   100. Mefisto Posted: May 01, 2014 at 09:31 PM (#4698559)
A meaningless question


Considering how many people like to debate whether Ruth or Williams was the greater hitter, it hardly seems meaningless. And by "was the greatest hitter", I mean "who actually performed at the higher level".

It doesn't help you evaluate Ruth vs. Trout, b/c you are seriously handicapping Ruth.


As I've said several times, I'm not trying to evaluate Ruth v. Trout. I'm trying to answer a much more limited question: what is the relative level of average/replacement in 1920 v. 2014. Ruth and Trout are just examples used to think of ways to address that question.

The question, "What if 16 y.o. Babe Ruth and 16 y.o. Mike Trout and 16 y.o. Willie Mays were all put in the same environment, how would their careers unfold", is interesting.


Then you should feel free to investigate that question.
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