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Sunday, March 25, 2001

Let’s Give the Young Man Some Help

Don shows his soft side.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed by Don Malcolm do not necessarily   represent those of the Baseball Primer or any of its other authors. For those who   suffer ill effects from any material presented here, Don suggests they follow the same procedure   specified in first aid manuals for rattlesnake bites. Those seeking further   redress, please contact Don’s legal beagle via email at

Why Did Offense Explode In The Nineties?

As a card-carrying curmudgeon   (ranked at 9.77 on a 1-10 scale according to Edward Hume?s Personality Analysis   Profile),   I?ve made it something of a policy to have my say and move on. I?ve held to   this precept even in the Face of Controversy (which I think was a movie with   one of my all-time favorites, Lee Remick?or maybe it was really called The   Grip of Fear with Ross Martin as an asthmatic remote control bank robber   who winds up getting shot on the pitcher?s mound in Candlestick Park).

All that said (and that was   clearly more than you needed to know, except maybe for the fact that about twenty   years later I actually became involved with a woman who looked a lot like Lee   Remick: it didn?t work out, but it was fun while it lasted), I do at least read   my e-mail, despite what appears to be a widespread impression to the contrary.

I?m just very selective about   what I respond to. It?s the thin-skinned person?s method of simulating a thick   skin, I suppose.

And of course there are major   exceptions to such a rule. Here?s one of them:

?Mr. Malcolm:

I am researching for my term paper for my Honors English 201 class.?   What I am attempting to find is the answer to this question: ?What   has been the cause for the offensive increase in Major League Baseball of   recent times???

While doing this, I have come to believe that a definite answer cannot   be found, so I am looking for opinions.? I was hoping that you could assist   me by giving me yours be it based on statistics or if you think that is even   possible.?

Thank You,

Scott Robinson?

Now anyone who calls me ?Mr.   Malcolm? is either very young or very clever, because I just instinctively respond   to that ?Mr.? thing. (I?m about ten times as likely to respond to an email addressing   me as ?Mr. #######? than simply ?Hey, #######??I think when you?ve reached the   top of the slag heap you deserve a little respect, know what I mean?)

I also happen to think young   Scott is asking a very interesting question. And I think that he?s already come   to an important conclusion about the issue?namely, that the exact cause of the   explosion in offense in the nineties is a bit murky.

Basically, as I see it, there   are three elements that are often pointed to as causes for the rise in offense   since 1992:

The trend toward smaller,   cozier ballparks as a result of the ?retro? stadium construction mania in the   90s;
  ?          The emphasis placed on weight   training for hitters, accelerating what has already been a long-term trend toward   power hitting;
?          The composition and resiliency of the baseball itself, subject   of many rumors and theories.

Of these items, only the   first one is readily measurable as part of traditional baseball stats. The second   one resists quantification, but we can at least try to see when power made its   biggest increase during the period in question. We can do that by looking at   league isolated power from 1992 to 2000:

Year       NL     AL
1992       .116   .126
1993       .135   .141
1994       .148   .161
1995       .145   .157
1996       .146   .168
1997       .147   .157
1998       .148   .161
1999       .161   .164
2000       .166   .167

Though the NL has had a ?late growth spurt? over the past two years that has   gotten its ISO in sync with the AL, we can see that most of the upswing in power   (85% of it in the AL and 64% of it in the NL) occurred in the first two years   of the ?explosion.?

That would tend to indicate   that if you can look closely enough at the events in 1993-94, you might be able   to isolate the causes for the change.

One thing worth looking at   statistically would be the impact of baseball in Denver on the NL stats. Take   the Denver ballpark out of the NL overall stats and see how much of a gain in   offense occurs without it. That would be a good piece of data for use in a paper   for your English class, Scott.

The third item (the baseball)   is a favorite of conspiracy theorists. (It would be interesting to find out   if there is a larger-than-average number of these types amongst the baseball   fan sub-group than there is in the population as a whole, but I don?t know if   there?s a way to get that information.) The ISO numbers tend to indicate that   if the Lords juiced the ball, such would have occurred in 1993 and/or   1994.

That?s about as much as I   can come up with on this. What I?m hoping is that our readership will feel free   to add any thoughts, conjectures, studies, conspiracy scenarios, etc., to my   meager little attempt to answer Scott?s question. It strikes me that there is   a rich lode of opinion to be had from the readership, and   I?d like to see all of you add your ideas here, so that Scott will have a wealth   of viewpoint with which to work. Anyone who calls me ?Mr. Malcolm? deserves   to get an ?A? in his class (though there are doubtless many of you who would   contend the opposite!).

So whaddya say? Let?s help   Scott get an ?A? on his paper. Fire away with your ideas on this subject.



Don Malcolm Posted: March 25, 2001 at 05:00 AM | 6 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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Reader Comments and Retorts

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   1. Jay Jaffe Posted: March 27, 2001 at 12:01 AM (#603490)
With regards to the shift in hitting theory, here's something else to consider: the impact of the Charley Lau hitting approach--the release of the top hand after contact to extend the swing. McGwire, Sosa, Junior, A-Rod and others all use this approach, which goes against the traditional keep-both-hands-on-the-bat approach.

It's not exactly a brand-new idea (Lau's book was published in '80; he passed away in '84), but in the span of a generation of players this approach has gone from heretical to orthodoxy.
   2. Robert Posted: March 27, 2001 at 12:01 AM (#603494)
I think there are many factors affecting offensive levels. I think the bats have something to do with it. With the thin handles (and therefore lighter bats), players are able to generate more bat speed, which will allow them to hit the ball farther and perhaps also cause them to strike out more often (as % of outs).

I wonder if the wood used for the bats is different or has been changing over the last 15 years. If so, after a sufficient number of players convert to new style or better bats, there might be an incremental effect on overall power numbers.

I think walks have been going up partly due to the strike zone "shrinkage" (very slow). Perhaps more importnatly, increased walks are related to increased homeruns. It becomes circular: more homers, more guys trying to hit homers, more pitchers nibbling, more walks, more men on base, more guys going for the downs (to drive in the ducks on the pond). Or maybe the circle starts with the walks because of the strikezone.

If I were a pitcher I would view the matter differently: the greater the threat of the homer, the more the pitcher should be trying to throw strikes rather than nibble and risk walking guys - but I don't think pitchers think this way.

The bats, or the hitting background, or laser surgery can improve a hitter's performance, but the only ways a pitcher can improve are related to his abilities: throw harder, improve control, learn new pitches, improve pitch selection.

Perhaps the theory should be: barring any powerful counterveiling forces, offence will tend to rise.
   3. Mike Webber Posted: March 27, 2001 at 12:01 AM (#603500)
One other thing factor I think is the improvement of eyesight among players. Improvements in eyesight would included on this list would be eye surgeries, increased testing by clubs, and wearing contacts carrying less stigma than actual glasses.
   4. Mike Emeigh Posted: March 28, 2001 at 12:01 AM (#603503)
It's not just that teams are more willing to use their 9th and 10th
pitchers, but that more teams are carrying 12 (and sometimes 13)
pitchers, too. In commenting about Whitey Herzog, Bill James once wrote
that the more pitchers you use on any given day, the more likely you
are to find the one who doesn't have his stuff that day. Since the
time frame in Don's note suggests that the increase in offense occurred
about the time that LaRussian strategies for pitching staff construction
came into full vogue, it would be interesting to look at pitcher usage
patterns over that time frame, as well.

-- MWE
   5. Mike Emeigh Posted: March 28, 2001 at 12:01 AM (#603505)
If the quality of the hitters has improved by a larger factor than the
quality of the pitchers, then pitchers will LOOK worse relative to
the hitters now than they did then. And since managers are being more
selective now with regard to hitters (because they are usually
selecting just 12 or 13 rather than 15 or 16) and less selective with
regard to pitchers (because they are now selecting 12 or 13 rather than
9 or 10), then it's very possible that the quality of the average
major league pitcher HAS declined relative to the quality of the
average hitter, even though the quality of pitchers _as a group_
has improved.

You have to think about both sides of the issue.

-- MWE
   6. Rich Rifkin I Posted: March 30, 2001 at 12:02 AM (#603552)
My addition to this discussion is admittedly small. I agree that ballpark factors, slimmer bats, hitting technique, weight training, and so on are all larger contributers. But I think a marginal factor which is mistakenly overlooked is the average hitter's age has gone up markedly in the last decade and more.

If you look at each league's batter's age - on - you will see that after hitting a low point in the mid-1970s (when offense was also at its nadir) batters in both leagues have gradually become older and older. The average hitter is now about 2 years older than he was 25 years ago.

What does having an older average hitter mean? It means that the average hitter is - on a knowledge-basis - further along the learning curve of how to hit major league pitching. Of course, it also means that the same guy has physically deteriorated more than a guy two years younger. But due to superior training in recent years (maybe beginning in the late 1980s or early '90s?), the 29 year old of today may be in better physical shape than the 27 year old of 1975.

Thus, what I am in effect hypothesizing is that better physical conditioning translates to the above effect.

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