A couple of bigger things

March 18, 2018

OK, now that I’ve introduced the concept of two small improvements (in grounds-keeping and in scouting) silently and invisibly making the game of baseball more competitive every single season, if only slightly, I want to suggest a few other ways the game is constantly improving. Then I want to suggest what the totality of all these small improvements might mean.

FrankD in the "Comments" section of "A Couple of Small Things" anticipated one of my examples: Tommy John surgery.  The TJ procedure, need I point out, is only one of hundreds of medical developments over the past century that has changed how baseball deals with players’ injuries, so it’s going to stand in for all of them because it’s so prominent in our minds. (And I’m distinguishing here "medical" procedures from "training" procedures, which also number in the hundreds—things like pitchers icing their arms after games instead of super-heating them. Just think of "Rub a little dirt in it" being the early 20th century standard treatment for a bruise or open cut.) Tommy John, and his hundreds of beneficiaries, played MLB after his surgery and, for over a decade, deprived some less-skilled pitcher of a big-league career. Having Tommy John around, and not having this less-skilled guy around, raised the level of play in MLB generally. It didn’t benefit him alone, or even benefit alone the pitchers who also had the surgery. Having TJ around for an extra decade (as opposed to the 11th or 12th best pitcher on his staff) also helped weed out weaker batters a little sooner than they would have against weaker pitching, as it increased the number of healthy pitchers competing for MLB jobs.

Our tendency is to regard things like Tommy John surgery on the individual or team level: "Hey, isn’t it great for Tommy John that he gets to pitch again after blowing out his arm?" or "Hey, the Dodgers are really going to benefit this year if Tommy John is back" but we tend to overlook what TJ procedures have done to benefit baseball itself, to raise the level of competitiveness. We must have seen a couple of hundred quality seasons, tens of thousands of innings, from pitchers since that first surgery who replaced inferior pitchers who got sent back to the minors, some never to play in MLB at all.

The grossest example of the phenomenon I’m trying to describe is the breaking of the color barrier, which everyone agrees massively introduced many better players into MLB in a short period of time, players whose presence is visible and self-evident. Even the most unenlightened observer had to admit, "Hey, that Willie Mays guy on the Giants, you know the one whose skin is much darker than most of his teammates’, he looks like he can play!"

One thing the anti-integrationists got exactly right was their objection that Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby were taking jobs away from white boys. Starting in 1947 there were white boys who otherwise would have had major league careers except they got cut from rosters, so a black guy, and a much better ballplayer, could have a major league career. This is so obvious I feel stupid even making this point. Willie Mays didn’t take Bobby Thomson’s job away from him, he took the job of some replacement-level zhlub you never heard of who got sent down to the minors and never got to play major league baseball.

OK, now, what about all the differences that are much less dramatic than the difference between dark brown skin and pink freckled skin? The signing of international players, which has multiplied many times since World War II, for example, or the just the U.S. population size more than quadrupling since the 1900 census while the number of MLB teams have increased in 2017 by less than double.

Finally (for now—I can’t be making points this obvious all day long), another unrelated, massive improvement that Bill is too modest to take credit for would be "sabermetrics," which has improved the game in more ways than even we on BJOL can conceive of.  Bill alone has made hundreds of practical suggestions over the years about improving the game—let’s take just one of them. Remember Bill’s correlation of wins with strikeouts? It was pretty mindblowing stuff, entirely contrary to how most of us (and most GMs) thought about W/K ratios, that it was a very accurate predictor of genuine ability to pitch in MLB— it was obvious which pitchers (most of them) were getting credit for wins that were in line with their actual abilities, and which ones (a few) were lucky stiffs, overdue for a reversion to the norm, and which ones (another few)  appeared to be struggling but actually had displayed far more ability than their W-L record showed.

Don’t you think in the years following Bill’s observation (but before it became generally accepted) that some teams made out like bandits, exploiting this revolutionary way to assess their pitching staffs and the staffs of other big league teams? Even if only one hardluck pitcher had his career saved (and another corresponding lucky stiff had his cut short) that’s one hell of an improvement in the quality of big-league play. And I think there was probably far more than one pitcher’s career being affected positively.

And I know that Bill has had many, many insights far more useful than this one. And I know that Bill is only one of many, many sabermetricians who’s come up with a useful idea or two.

I came up with a testable theory a few years ago, in fact, that will give you another example of sabermetric knowledge, which I’ll repeat only because I am among the least brilliant of sabermetric thinkers, and I won’t be insulting any of my peers in assessing their work as less than blindingly brilliant. (This five-part series ran at the end of 2016, under the general title "Young Pitchers Will Break Your Heart.) https://www.billjamesonline.com/young_pitchersll_break_your_heart_part_five/?AuthorId=23&pg=3

Despite my lack of brilliance, this idea is potentially a useful tool for GMs making roster decisions, and may for all I know actually be a long-practiced consideration in GMs’ decision-making. (In which case, I neither get nor deserve credit for coming up with it, just for describing here it on BJOL—I’ve never read of anyone else describing this phenomenon before, but that may just be a lapse in my reading.) It was the one about young hitters being about 50% more valuable over the course of their careers than young pitchers are, meaning that in trading pitchers for hitters, or just in acquiring one or dealing off the other, or in signing and letting free agents go, their generic value should be understood. Personally, I’ve never heard anyone in MLB expressing, as an axiom, the notion that a given young hitter has 50% less value than a comparable young pitcher. This notion, seems to me, should be extremely valuable to a ballteam looking to build its roster: trade your young pitching stars far more readily than your young hitters, acquire another team’s young hitters at a higher price than its young pitchers, etc. Unless you’re pretty sure you’re routinely 50% more brilliant than your trading partners, you should consider trading a potential major-league hitter for his pitching counterpart very skeptically, and vice versa.

Now, this theory may be totally wrong, or it may already have been long since adopted as an axiomatic truth by all GMs—like I say, if it is already axiomatic, I never heard anyone expressing the axiom in quite those terms.  But my main point here is that someone, maybe me, maybe someone else fifty or eighty years ago, came up with this non-intuitive idea. At some early point, pitching prospects and batting prospects were regarded as equally valuable, and for all I know, at some point maybe they were—at some point, for all I know, pitchers were even more valuable prospects than hitters. But my little study showed that hitters, since at least 1970, are about 50% more likely to have substantial careers than pitchers, and if it checks out in practice, then that’s a huge advantage for the first GM who practices it, until every GM assumes the axiom to be true and valuable, at which point it ceases to have a competitive advantage over other teams. But at that point, ALL teams will be making smarter choices, and the game itself will be vastly improved over the earlier point where teams were evaluating young pitchers and young hitters as about equally valuable.

My larger point in belaboring this example (of an idea I’d almost forgotten about) is that these ideas are plentiful as raindrops, and smart teams can consider them, test them, adopt them if they seem to check out, and improve their clubs. (If this one turns out to be a dud, what have they wasted? A few days of consideration? There’s almost no downside to considering it, and considerable upside.) There are hundreds of sharper sabermetricians than I am, all with more ideas in a week than I’ll come up with in three lifetimes—collectively, they must be generating a few very helpful ideas every year, at a dead minimum.

These five improvements—the sweeping of pebbles, professional scouting staffs, the breaking of the color line, Tommy John surgery, and Bill’s discovery of the Wins/K ratio—were just the first five examples I thought of, of what I mean by "improvements," but there have been many other changes in the game, far more than one per season, that each by itself allows superior players to land MLB jobs over their inferior counterparts, while still retaining all the benefits of past seasons’ advancements as well. There are improvements in in-game strategy, improvements in roster proportions, improvements in economics, improvements in equipment design, improvements in virtually dozens of areas of MLB that I haven’t even proposed here or even imagined.

Most of these improvements have nothing to connect them causally to each other.

Each of them is happening more or less constantly, each of them is happening more or less simultaneously, and the cumulative effect of all of them is happening more or less invisibly and silently. What might that cumulative effect be?

I’d like to propose a radical concept, a what-if that I don’t expect you to take seriously right this second, and that might strike you as absurd even after long and thoughtful consideration:  what if that cumulative effect is far greater than anyone has speculated?

 

What if the order of improvement is NOT "Players in 2018 are a little bit better, generally speaking, than players were in 1918" but instead "Players in 2018 are a little bit better than players were in 2017" or even "Players in 2018 are measurably better than players were in 2017"?

And now that I’ve offended every traditionalist with that bit of arrant nonsense, please allow me to share my reasoning, using as my example the clear, and obviously large, improvement that breaking the color line represents. If there are 750 men on MLB rosters today, there must be at least 125 of them who would be ineligible to play under pre-1947 standards. I don’t know if that 17% actually represents a 17% improvement in the game of baseball (or how any 17% improvement could be quantified precisely), but it is by any measure a tangible step up in the quality of the game’s competitiveness. There is some very real number that can be attached to it. Other far less significant numbers than that one also measure tangible signs of improvement, and that there are certainly dozens of these smaller numbers, perhaps hundreds of them, that must be added to find the total effect. How we quantify these figures, how we combine them, is speculative, and mostly beyond the scope of my argument. I’m just trying to articulate for now how much we take for granted this level of improvement, how unconscious we remain of the pace of improvement because of how small each one of them is.

Now, I need briefly to give the contrary argument its due, the one old-timers love to invoke: baseball has in some ways gotten less competitive as time has gone on. Old school guys like to argue that equipment improvements, like more flexible and capacious gloves, have made fielding easier, not harder, that it took real skill to catch baseballs with tiny gloves or with no gloves at all. I would argue otherwise: better equipment allows for actual skills to comprise the difference between a good fielder and a poor one, as opposed to luck or other randomizing effects.

But even conceding some validity to such arguments (which I don’t) doesn’t invalidate my overall argument. Even if the old-timers are right about some things, I think it’s still unarguable that there have been many more improvements in competitive levels than there have been degradations in quality. But let me show why this one doesn’t even work:

A fielder without a glove, standing 100 feet away, is rarely going to handle cleanly a hard-hit line drive, no matter how skillful he is, right? So no matter who’s fielding without a glove, or with a crummy webless glove, that line drive is going to be a hit, either by bouncing off a gutsy fielder’s hand or just by skipping into the outfield unimpeded. Even Ozzie Smith, without a glove, just isn’t going to catch certain line drives, and if he tries, he’s going to break metacarpals like you break bubblewrap. But with a well-padded glove with a strong webbing and enormous flexibility, any major-leaguer will catch it cleanly almost every time, while an unskilled fielder is still almost never going to have the reflexes or the guts needed to catch it. You could put the best glove ever made on me, and it wouldn’t help me catch a major league line drive from 100 feet away any more than it would help me deflect a bullet from that distance. If I get very, very lucky, sure—but otherwise I need a suit of armor more than I need a mitt. Improvements in equipment make for finer distinctions between skill levels, not for grosser distinctions.

This is entirely separate from the argument about guts, or toughness. Old-timers liked to say that batting helmets are unmanly, that playing without a helmet takes guts, which I’ll readily concede. But we’re not discussing the bravery it takes to play baseball with inadequate equipment. It’s been almost sixty years since batting helmets were made mandatory, I think, and numerous players have been hit square on the noggin. None have died, and most have gone on to play MLB for many years afterwards. It’s more than probable that one of them, or several, would have suffered Ray Chapman’s fate (or best-case scenario, Mickey Cochrane’s) if not for the batting helmet. Tommie Agee (beaned by Bob Gibson in 1968), Kirby Puckett (by Dennis Martinez in 1995), Mike Piazza (by Julian Taveraz in 2005), David Wright (by Matt Cain in 2009), Mike Stanton (by Mike Fiers in 2014), and many others all have had their careers and quite possibly their lives saved by the batting helmet:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oomcPAIDp50 illustrates a few fastball-to-helmet shots, of which we can only speculate how many would have been fatal or career-ending if they’d been fastball-to-skull. Having such stars play for years after being beaned represents a tremendous improvement in the quality of major league competition.

Going on the assumption that major-league players are the 750 best on the planet (an exaggeration but only a slight one), if you subtract the ones who wouldn’t have played MLB at all in years past (too dark-skinned, furriner who wouldn’t have been scouted, ‘Murican who wouldn’t have been signed because of pebbles, kilt in the batters box, etc.) that still leaves us with way less than 50% of the major leaguers on current rosters, and then you start on strategies that we’ve come up with that past generations found useful but that we now reject universally today (leadoff batters who can’t get on base, pitchers struggling beyond their 200th pitch of the day, intentional walks handed out like Skittles, etc.)—well, I’ve got to say that it doesn’t seem crazy at all to suggest that most of the current players would be out of the game, and the game itself would be grossly inferior to the one we will be privileged to watch in a couple more weeks.

Some of these changes in baseball that I’m labelling "improvements" have, I suppose, made baseball less competitive rather than more. For example, take players’ salaries. My assumption is that paying players a decent living wage kept good players in the game, and that paying them astronomical wages incentivized good players to stay in the game longer, to keep themselves in better shape over extended careers, and never to walk away voluntarily from another season’s salary, which occurred occasionally in the decades players were badly underpaid. But of course astronomical salaries do sometimes have the contrary effect: players do sometimes still leave money on the table and walk away from the game when they’re still capable of playing at a high level, precisely because they’ve earned more money than they, or their grandchildren, will ever be able to spend. Overall, however, I think it’s plenty clear that fabulous wealth has acted far more as an incentive than it has acted as a disincentive. Most of the changes I’ve identified so far act in this way, not 100% clearly in the direction of improvement in the quality of competition, but enough in that direction to be labelled clearly as an overall improvement.

I’m going to list a dozen separate areas in which baseball has become more competitive, more demanding of a heightened level of play, less subject to randomizing factors. These areas have very little overlap—and since one has almost nothing to do with another, there will be cumulative progress even if one or two slow down or even reverse course for a season or two. Think of the progress as akin to the Dow Jones index over the course of the past hundred years, some years up, some years way down, but overall dramatically and overwhelming up, up, up:

Economic improvements: Not just salaries alone, but guaranteed contracts and other provisions of the standard contract, including comfortable accommodations on the road, first-class plane travel. When I hear old-timers commenting on the good old days when players could travel on comfortable trains, it’s enough to tear your hair out. Did you ever try to sleep on a moving train? As compared to a first-class hotel room? Give me a break. Just protection from needing to work the often physically demanding, sometimes dangerous off-season jobs, is a big advance. (Leaving to the next category all the safe, supervised training and conditioning that players have been able to afford instead for the past few decades).

Training improvements: Let’s include physical differences. Citing the average height and weight of today’s players compared to 50 or 100 or 150 years ago is not a pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch measure of improvement, but it’s gotta be worth something that everyone is taller, better fed, with routine access to complete gyms at home, on the road, at the stadium, etc. Within our lifetimes, weight training used to be disparaged, mocked, and severely discouraged reminds us of how much progress has been made in this area, leaving aside all of the specific advancements in types and techniques of strength and flexibility training.

Medical improvements: Not just baseball-specific improvements, like the TJ surgery, rotator cuff, ACL treatments, but all the advancements in medical knowledge generally affecting players’ lives before they turn pro: how many 20-year-olds are now eligible to sign contracts because they all been vaccinated against polio, which must have claimed the lives of several potential major leaguers before Dr. Salk?   Not sure if things like "players smoking cigarettes," which must be down at least 75% over my lifetime, belongs under "Medical" as much as "Social," but there’s a sizable cohort of active players who would have had serious health issues if smoking, chawing, dipping snuff, etc. were still a part of players’ lifestyles, not to mention stuff like seatbelts in cars  preserving more than a few players’ lives in their childhoods and teens. Just having a team physician, as opposed to one overweight masseur nicknamed "Doc," is critical progress.

Social improvements: Changes in society have extended and improved players’ lives: I’m thinking here primarily of military service, which from 1942-1971 or so routinely cost players whole seasons, and wiped out some players’ entire careers, but I’m sure you can think of other social changes besides the elimination of military service and racial discrimination that have added considerably to the pool of active major leaguers in 2018.

Player Development improvements: The nurturing and skills-training that takes place in the minor leagues (to say nothing of college ball and high school ball) is ridiculously more professional (and less idiosyncratic) than it was in the past. Bill wrote about a high school training program (for football) he endured in the early 1960s that would probably get the coach 3-to-5 years on child-abuse felony charges today: depriving kids of water, overworking them physically for the sake of teaching "discipline"-- such stories used to be universal, now not so much. Aside from saving a few lives in extreme cases, eliminating such needless macho crap prevents more than a few career-ending injuries as well. At the major league level, injuries that might have ended careers if left untreated (i.e., "healing by itself") are now carefully monitored, and re-hab duty is now a typical stage of recovery from almost any serious injury, freeing players from the need to go "all out" as they resume competition.

Self-assessment improvements: this one may have some overlaps with "personnel" or "training" improvements, or even "social" improvements, but have you ever realized what an advantage it is for players to be able to study film of their opponents, or themselves, any time they choose? We’re all surrounded by our laptops, and search engines, and streaming video so much that maybe we don’t realize what a boon it is to have dedicated video available 24/7. A pitcher with a "tell" in his delivery won’t last a week with opponents watching his motion over and over and over again, looking for weaknesses. Players can watch their own swings, side-by-side with their swing from last week or last year, with coaches sitting by their sides, pointing out the smallest change or quirk or wasted motion.

Support personnel improvements: Apart from scouting, whose staffs have grown from a couple of ex-ballplayers wearing out their cars’ tires to massive bureaucracies criss-crossing the country by plane, I’ll also include such innovations as the sheer number of coaches, which is probably double, maybe triple, what I remember from the 1960s, which is easily double, probably triple, the first coaching staffs (mainly one old ex-drinking buddy of the manager’s).  https://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/List_of_current_Major_League_Baseball_coaching_staffs  For that matter, even the idea of the manager being a separate job was introduced slowly: for years, it was assumed that the manager could swing a bat or toss a couple of innings every now and then. Ya think maybe reducing the manager’s responsibilities by eliminating half of his job while giving him a half-dozen assistants to help him do the other half makes for better managing?  I’m no fan of gigantic bureaucracies being key to efficiency (in academe, we tend to appoint a new associate dean every time a window needs opening, with no actual results being demonstrated or even required) but you do tend to have fewer tasks that are no one’s responsibility, and which therefore get completely neglected.  Such jobs as Spanish-speaking coaches and translators, or other languages if needed, are routinely assigned, putting a premium on victories ("Will this help us win even one game over a season? If yes, do it") rather than on dollars and cents. Skinflint GMs of my youth must be spinning in their graves like Mixmaster blades.

Rules improvements: The reduction of hard-contact plays (home-plate collisions, takeout slides at second base, beanball wars) has probably kept a few players in the game whose careers would have otherwise been truncated. Player safety has been at least partly behind most changes in the rules, as seen in such things as fresh, clean, white baseballs in play 100% of the time, as opposed to maybe 10%. Or maybe that’s an "Equipment improvement"?

Equipment improvements: I made a big deal in my previous column out of the improved dragging of the infield dirt, but that was only a minor example of the advances that have been made in grounds-keeping equipment and practices, which is only one type of equipment. When was the infield tarp introduced, for example? When was the first outfield wall padded? Did the Yankees (and other teams) eliminate the exposed drainpipes that ruined Mickey Mantle’s leg immediately after the 1951 Series, or was it more gradual than that? How slowly did teams install backgrounds behind the pitchers to make pitches more visible to batters? I suspect that one reason players used to leave their gloves on the field between innings is that the gloves didn’t represent significant enough impediments beyond what the field itself presented.  As unlikely as it was that a shortstop would trip over his counterpart’s glove, it was no more likely that he would trip over some lumpy piece of sod, some rock, some clod of clay.  (Good name for a 1940s player, btw: Claude O’Clay). I don’t know exactly when players started wearing sunglasses, but I wrote in my Halberstam critique last year about the difficulty (Halberstam claimed) the 1961 Cubs had in instructing Lou Brock in the use of this newfangled technology.

Tactical improvements:  We could measure the difference (relative to league runs) between runs scored in innings 7-9 in 2017 and in 1917. I assume there’s a significant payoff in having several fresh arms from both sides over having one tired arm from one side of the plate pitching the final three innings. Much as we complain about the overuse of relief pitchers (I devote at least two hours per week to bitching about it, myself), there’s no denying that it is clearly a more effective tactic to get a fresh arm out there than it is to wait until your starter has given up multiple runs in a late inning before finally taking him out, disgusted that you can’t rely on him for nine good innings. (Whether it’s more watchable, as Marc Schneider observed in the last "Comments’ section, is highly doubtful.) It may be that not every new tactic represents a clear advance, but there sure have been a lot of tactical changes and most of them must work out, because otherwise smart guys would gain advantages by reverting to old tactics, which you very rarely see.

Strategic improvements: Let’s lump "sabermetrics" into this one, evaluating players rationally, by careful study instead of relying on General Managers’ ideas of a ballplayer’s "good face," but also such non-sabermetric changes like teams generally signing more starting pitchers on the roster than they’ll actually use at any one time, knowing that some starting pitcher, probably several, will get injured at some point. A contender will in effect stockpile starting pitchers, cautiously keeping one starter on the DL routinely while his minor injury heals rather than having him "pitch through it."  Teams react much more pro-actively to pitchers’ complaints of aches and pains, encouraging them to voice even minor issues, instead of the former policy of "Of course your arm hurts, wussy man. Tough it out."  Teams have figured out that they can squeeze extra pitchers onto the MLB roster by keeping their third catcher on their AAA roster, taking advantage of the miracle of modern plane travel. As inefficient as it was to keep a third catcher around who would bat less than 100 times per season, that used to be the standard practice. Long-range planning has dominated discussions, and the advocates for "tomorrow’s game" win fewer arguments these days with the advocates for "the season" or "the player’s career."

Improvements in techniques: Sticking to just pitching here, pitchers experiment with new pitches, new grips, new deliveries constantly, and the result is that the ones that work catch on, while the ones that don’t, or the ones that cause injury, drop out of play. I’m thinking of the screwball in particular but also about the practice Bill described the other day of prewar pitchers being told to pick a fastball (two-seamer or four-seamer) and stick with that, up until someone said "No" and was successful throwing both, opening the door to everyone throwing both fastballs. This sort of thing can be superstitious, or based on an idea that applies to some but not to all, like "Don’t be a one-handed hero" in catching fly-balls that applies to few outfielders outside of Pete Gray but was axiomatic until some outfielders got themselves into better position to throw by using only their glove hand.

Each of these dozen large categories of improvements (which could easily be expanded) contains many particular examples of ways the game of baseball gets progressively more competitive every season. I’ve been stalling off hitting "submit" on this article because I kept thinking of different categories, and different examples within each categories. I have no idea how to devise a comprehensive list of categories or examples—I’ll just go with "more than I can think of."

So how do we discuss this stuff in a quantitative way? I’ve been tossing around numbers freely here, such and such a percentage of improvement for this little thing or that, so let’s look at the few numbers we can approximate pretty closely: there were about 400 roster spots in 1901 (384 men batted in MLB, but we’ll go with 400 for the moment.) With twice the number of American boys to be scouted (remember, the population has more than quadrupled, while the number of MLB teams hasn’t quite doubled), you figure that brings the number down to fewer than 200 right off, of players in 1901 who would make a roster in 2018. Now bring in the number of foreign players being scouted actively, and the number of dark-skinned players (some overlap there, which is why I’m combining these two areas) --figure conservatively that’s at least 25% of MLB today, so we’re down to 140 players from 1901 making a current roster.

Those are the areas that are easiest to pin an approximate value to, but of course we’ve only scratched the surface of all the areas of improvement I’ve listed above. I have no idea how to quantify the other areas of improvement, but I have to believe that cumulatively, no matter how we do it, it has got to add up to a considerable positive integer. All the injuries prevented, all the careers extended, all the players added to major league rosters in place of these 140 players from 1901….

If we assume that half the remaining players from 1901 would make a MLB roster in 2018, which is perfectly arbitrary yet perfectly reasonable assumption, that gives us a little over two 1901 players on each 2018 roster, and that seems about right to me. Some of those players, such as Nap Lajoie, Jimmy Collins, Christy Mathewson, Vic Willis, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, would still be starters (though perhaps not as league-dominating alongside the vastly better competition they’d be facing and playing with) while others, such as Rube Waddell or Doc White (the 18th and 19th best pitchers in the NL in 1901, as WAR has it) might be struggling to make the final cut on some contemporary roster.

It also seems right, using 2.5 players per 2018 roster, to then assume that baseball has improved about tenfold since 1901, almost 10% per decade, between .5% and 1% per season, a figure low enough to be imperceptible to the human eye or ear but high enough to make for the sort of annual progress I’m trying to describe.

That figure, which is not much more than a numerical approximation of a feeling, an attempt to quantify a vague sense of baseball history, seems at least close to correct.  If it were much lower than 0.5% percent, it wouldn’t account for the improvements that we all acknowledge have been made, and if it were much higher than 1%, it would begin to show up before our eyes.

I was a little surprised, and a lot pleased, to find that several of you anticipated and affirmed the direction my last article was heading, but I suppose BJOL is where I’m going to find readers who don’t find a severe assessment of early baseball to be heretical. I’d like to explore, in my next piece, a little further back into an even more severe assessment of baseball before 1901, and more significantly a critical assessment of the way we read history in general, not just baseball history, as we look deeper and deeper into the past.

 
 

COMMENTS (36 Comments, most recent shown first)

Brock Hanke
One other small thing: Steven noted that I had Willie Mays' size wrong in my list, which has him at 6'0" / 180. I'm not sure what happened a week ago when I was putting together the data. My best guess was that, while I was trying to figure this all out, I copied Duke Snider's data down, because he was the guy, other than Musial, who actually had the most WS in the 1950s. Snider is listed as 6'0" / 180 exactly, which is the exact height and five more pounds of weight than Stan Musial, whom I had already used for the 1940s. In other words, Snider was bigger than Mays, but not by enough to affect the data, since the point of what I was doing was to illustrate that, at the superstar position player level, there hasn't been any noticeable increase in size from the 1800s through to the 1950s. I do agree that I should double-check my data when I am making decisions. Sorry about that.
5:04 PM Mar 28th
 
KaiserD2
I'd like to hear from Steven Goldleaf as to why he thinks we now have "ten times as many" players competing for MLB roster spots today, since there were far more men playing full-time minor league baseball in earlier eras--peaking,. actually, around 1940--than there are now--far more in absolute terms--and only 16 MLB rosters then and 30 now. I'll be very interested in his answer.

David K
8:55 AM Mar 27th
 
Marc Schneider
Steven,

I completely agree with your comment about the larger pool of players meaning that a lot of players back in the day couldn't hit Nolan Ryan. But some, presumably could, probably including Babe Ruth. I don't think every single player today is better than every single player back in the day, just as I don't think that every single Negro League player was better than every single white player in MLB pre-integration. No doubt, Ruth would not hit .378 with 59 home runs today as he did in 1921 but I suspect he would still be pretty damn good once he adjusted to modern velocity.

It seems to me that baseball is different from other sports because it is so dependent on hand/eye coordination rather than pure size. A 220 pound offensive lineman would have no chance today. (Although presumably he would be a lot more than 220 pounds.) But guys similar in size to those of the 1920s can and do succeed in baseball.
8:47 AM Mar 27th
 
Brock Hanke
I hadn't really expected to comment further on this thread, but don coffin mentioned me, and I do have a couple of things to say:

1. I picked on the best players from each year per decade, because that's how the argument is almost always phrased. People argue about whether Ty Cobb could have hit Nolan Ryan. They don't argue about whether journeyman hitters could have hit journeyman pitching from 50 years earlier.

2. I did NOT choose the players subjectively. That's the only accusation I'm annoyed with. I picked the highest number of Win Shares within a decade, in each league. That is, I did NOT pick Mel Ott for the 1930s because he proved a point for me or because I like Mel Ott. I picked Mel Ott because no position player in the NL in the 1930s has more Win Shares. The data is easy to find, for superstars. It's on pages 927ff in the New Historical Baseball Abstract.

3. There are three exceptions I will admit to. First, dealing with the 1800s will drive you nuts. You have one decade with tiny schedules and serious disagreement as to whether you should count the first five years, another decade where there are arguments over how much better the NL was than the AA, and in which years, and then a decade with one 12-team league. All things concerned, I thought it far better to go with the two clear choices as to the two best players of the century, as expressed in the first Hall of Fame vote. Second, there is a LOT of movement between leagues in the early 1900s, because the AL was, at the outset, considered an outlaw league by the NL, so I decided to do 1900-1920 instead of trying to figure out 1900-1905 by the league. And third, I gave Willie Mays a decade. What happens here is that, in the 1940s, Stan Musial has the most Win Shares in the NL. He ALSO has the most WS in the NL in the 1950s. The 1940s are what he is most famous for. For the 1950s, it goes Musial, Duke Snider, Richie Ashburn, Eddie Mathews, and then Mays. It seemed wrong to leave a player of Mays' caliber out of there because he went off to the Korean War, so I gave him the slot. For what it's worth, Duke Snider was 6'0" / 180 and Mathews was 6'1" / 190. Ashburn was 5'10" / 170. There's no functional difference.

3. I stopped at the 1950s because, after then, you return to the problem of which league to attribute a player to. The most WS in the 1960s in the NL is Hank Aaron, who beats out Willie Mays by 3 whole WS. And if you don't count Aaron in the 1960s, you don't ever get to count him. It's just the Mays problem a decade later. And then there is the AL. The player who put up the most WS in the 1960s in the AL was actually Harmon Killebrew, at 257. But then there's Frank Robinson. He has 307 WS, but was traded from the NL to the AL after the 1965 season. Do you count him in the AL or not? This is the same problem as 1901-1905. What's odd is that the problem doesn't occur in any intervening decade. Between about 1905 and 1960, players of super quality hardly ever got traded between leagues in mid-career. You can figure out who had the most WS for a decade in one league. Starting in the 1960s, it becomes much more common to trade superstars between leagues and so much harder to decide who counts for what league in what decade.

So, that's basically what I have to say. The interesting point, to me, is that the size of the absolute superstar position players does NOT rise at the rate that the size of the general population does. The idea that Ty Cobb would have to be the size of Dave Winfield to put up Ty Cobb-quality numbers in Winfield's time just isn't true. The size of PITCHERS does seem to increase at about the rate for the population as a whole. But there seems to be a sweet spot for superstar hitters, at about 6'1" and 185 pounds. Why this sweet spot exists, I don't know. But it does exist. And it completely changes the parameters of the "could Ty Cobb have hit Nolan Ryan" argument.
1:05 AM Mar 27th
 
klamb819
If Ruth were batting against Ryan, as Steven has said, he'd also be: using a lighter bat, looking at a batter's eye, standing on level ground, gripping the bat more surely with batting gloves, learning pitchers' tendencies from video and printouts, and wearing more comfortable clothing than wool flannel in the summer,

Does anyone else remember playing on fields with so many ruts in the batter's box that you had to stand, not where it maximized your hitting chances, but wherever the ground allowed you to keep both feet out of holes?

3:17 AM Mar 24th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Marc--I'm not claiming that hand/eye coordination per se has improved--mostly I'm claiming that we've got ten times (or more) the number of athletes competing for MLB roster spots, so we're getting a more elite selection of players. Maybe Ruth could hit Nolan Ryan, but maybe he couldn't. Molly Putz definitely couldn't.
4:39 PM Mar 23rd
 
Marc Schneider
Re: old time hitters being able to adjust to modern velocity.

I don't know the scientific reasoning here, but has hand/eye coordination really improved over the last, say 50 years? That seems to me, as a non-scientist, something that is hardwired into the species. Maybe over the course of centuries, humans hand/eye coordination has improved but is there any proof of that?

The point is that hitting a fast ball seems to depend largely on hand/eye coordination (although strength also plays a role). It doesn't seem farfetched that Babe Ruth, magically transported through time, could eventually adjust to the modern velocity. I don't think it's sufficient to just say that players are more athletic and therefore oldtimers by definition couldn't compete. I read somewhere that some scientist had compared Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics to Usain Bolt and his conclusion was that, adjusting for changes in conditions, ie, that starting blocks are different today and so forth, the actual time difference between Owens and Bolt is not that great. No doubt that changes in diet, conditioning/training, technology, and a larger universe has made today's athletes, in general, superior to players from the past, but I'm not sure that universally true in ALL aspects. It's sort of like saying, are we smarter than Plato? Well, we certainly know more but if you adjust for the centuries of knowledge and scientific progress, I don't know if a smart person today would necessarily be smarter than Plato. I don't know if any of what I say is true, but I wouldn't simply dismiss DK's story out of hand.
1:06 PM Mar 23rd
 
klamb819
Does the standard deviation of MLB's top to bottom players decrease as the latest expansion becomes more distant? We're entering the 20th straight season without expansion -- the longest stretch since 1941-60.

In the previous 22 years, 1977-98, MLB expanded by 25% from 24 to 30 teams. Or, to use years that aren't cherry-picked, call it a 29-year period, 1970-98.

I wonder, too, if there is any correlation between expansion & innovation. The only example that leaps to mind is the Royals' baseball academy (and maybe an emphasis on groundskeeping with George Toma?). But there's nothing like starting from scratch to lure one's thinking outside the box.
5:30 PM Mar 22nd
 
doncoffin
Incidentally, the Tigers' rotation in 2017 averages about 4" taller than the 1925 rotation, which is (about) in keeping with the data I found for the population...The 1925 rotation averaged about 5'10" (the 1900 birth cohort averaged about 5'6"or 5'7"); the 2017 rotation averaged about 6'2" (the 1980 birth cohort was about 5'11").
2:29 PM Mar 21st
 
doncoffin
Don't know exactly where this gets us, but I found a source giving adult male heights for birth cohorts (so, in the following table, 1880 is the birth year and 66.1" is the adult height). The data are for Germany, but I see no reason to believe the US would be significantly different (the earliest data are for 1880; the most recent are for 1980):

1880-----66.1"
1890-----66.5"
1900-----66.5"
1910-----67.3"
1920-----68.1"
1930-----68.5"
1940-----68.9"
1950-----69.7"
1960-----70.5"
1970-----70.9"
1980-----71.3"
https://ourworldindata.org/human-height (and scroll down)

So, on average, we're now about 5" taller than our grandfathers. (Willie Mays, who was 5'10" or 5'11" (and born about 1930) was taller than average by 1.5"-2.5." For this to be useful, of course, we'd need more than selected heights (of, in the cases Brock presents, of exceptional players). We'd need to compare the universe of players over time. I'm not going to do t hat. But I'd be truly surprised if MLB players have not become taller, relative to the overall male population, over time.

2:21 PM Mar 21st
 
Steven Goldleaf
Actually a very interesting guy: http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/46212d83

Asked his brother (they were all named after Presidents--Lil was "Ullyses Simpson Grant Stoner") to chop off his finger, which he did--his ma reattached it herself, and the deformed finger that was saved allegedly gave movement to his pitches--ya can't make this stuff up.
9:36 AM Mar 21st
 
Steven Goldleaf
Lil Stoner sounds like a ganja-stoked rapper.
4:52 AM Mar 21st
 
MichaelPat
Where the size factor really matters is with pitchers. today's [pitchers are far bigger than those of the far past. Here are the heights and weights of the 1925 and 1955 Tiger starters vs those of the 2017 Tigers.

Earl Whitehill 5'9" 174 lbs
Hooks Dauss 5'10" 168 lbs
Lil Stoner 5'9" 180 lbs
Rip Collins 6'1" 205 lbs
Dutch Leonard 5'10" 185 lbs

1955
Frank Lary 5'11' 175 lbs
Ned Garver 5'10" 180 lbs
Billy Hoeft 6'3" 180 lbs
Steve Gromek 6'2" 180 lbs
Duke Mass 5'10" 170 lbs

Verlander 6'5" 225 lbs
Fullmer 6'3" 210 lbs
Zimmermann 6'2" 225 lbs
Sanchez 6'0" 205 lbs
Boyd 6'3" 215 lbs

We're talking a whole different world here. Modern baseball is about power on the mound....​
12:58 AM Mar 21st
 
steve161
I don't know what Birdie's reasoning was, but there sure are a hell of a lot more strikeouts than there were 30 years ago.
5:43 PM Mar 20th
 
Steven Goldleaf
That doesn't make a world of sense, David. What was Tebbetts' reasoning? Seems to me that some batters would adjust, but most would be just baffled. Pitcher/batter balance makes for seemingly slow progress, as I figure it: if pitchers throw faster, but there are more batters to test their reflexes, it may look to the naked eye like little real progress is being made but in reality most batters from the 1940s wouldn't be able to get their bats off their shoulders. If you want to argue otherwise, I wish you'd cite something better "An oldtimer once confided in me that players from his day were just as good as players now, maybe better" as your authority.
4:54 PM Mar 20th
 
KaiserD2
A couple of things.

Both Bill James and Mike Humphreys, whom I admire, tried in their historical surveys to factor in improvements in the overall quality of baseball. In my book I explicitly declined to do that. I measured everyone against the average performance in the leagues they played in, and the consistency (since 1901) in how many superior players there were, and how many guys stayed superior for long periods of time, was quite remarkable.

Second thing: about 30 years I ago I did a long interview with Birdie Tebbetts about 1948. At one point, a propos of nothing, he remarked that if everyone could throw as hard as Nolan Ryan, then Ryan would be pretty easy to hit. I am quite sure that most pitchers are throwing much harder now than they did 50 years ago, say, but it's possible that most hitters have simply adjusted to that and that hitters from earlier eras would have been able to as well, given a chance.

DK
4:15 PM Mar 20th
 
Steven Goldleaf
also not too sure about your research--I always thought I was about two inches taller than Willie Mays, and sure enough baseball-reference.com lists him at 5'10".
10:17 AM Mar 20th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Brock--I really can't endorse your subjective selections, and would suggest you do a more systematic, in-depth examination of heights in different periods, if I thought this was a central issue, which I don't. Baseball is unique in that height doesn't have a lot of key advantages (maybe nabbing HR balls at some outfield fences, or giving a target for infielders to throw to 1B, and of course power pitching) like football, where it's a serious factor on pass plays (linemen able to knock down passes, QBs able to see a little better over the line) or basketball where the advantage of height is built into the game. You'll always have Yogis Altuves and Otts and Morgans who can excel at hitting despite their stature. But I think we need to look past the cherrypicked short guys and just look at average heights in given years to see that players keep getting bigger. I've always held the theory (non-proven by medical science) that being short is actually an advantage for infielders who don't strain their back muscles bending to reach grounders as much as tall infielders do. it's really the general health of ballplayers I'm talking about here, of which height is merely one indication.
8:30 AM Mar 20th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Not sure that Altuve's height, or anyone's height, is the major factor in 19th/21st century differences--I'd much sooner take a short athlete who's been conditioned for years using current training techniques than the tallest athlete of the 19th century, but I used height just because a 19th century inch is the same as a 21st century inch. You know how the Giants got their nickname, right? A bunch of HoFers who were unusually tall started for the Giants in the mid-1880s: these "giants" were mostly under six feet, some as short as 5'8" (Mickey Welch and Jim O'Rourke) or 5'9" (John Ward), while a few reached the height of 5'10" (Tim Keefe and Buck Ewing). The only real HoF Giant was Roger Connor, who was 6'3", which of course would go unnoticed on a modern team. You'd have to add, what, 5 inches to each player?, to get anyone in our time to begin to notice that this squad was unusually tall. Going the other way, can you imagine what we'd make of any current team whose players were all 5 inches shorter? Pretty sure we'd feel they were dealing with a major disadvantage, and as I say I think height is in large part a symbolic issue rather than a substantive one, helping to put into perspective the type of differences we're dealing with here. (in response to FrankD, not Brock Hanke whose post popped up as I was writing this.)
7:10 AM Mar 20th
 
Brock Hanke
Having embarrassed myself once on this thread, I'll try again. I started wondering about the size of players over time, since someone brought that up on another thread. Are modern players bigger than older ones? Rather than try to do a full study of entire rosters, which I don't have the database for, I just made more-or-less subjective judgments as to who was the best player in the National and the American league in each decade (largely ignoring the rest of the careers), and looked up the sizes. Two caveats: for the 19th century, I just took Cap Anson and Buck Ewing, since they finished tied for the first Hall of Fame vote, even though neither of them played in the American Association. Also, I left pitchers and catchers out of it, except for Ewing, because their sizes are dependent on a lot of things other than their birth dates, and because the further you go back, the more valuable starting pitchers are, to the point that, in the 19th century, the best players are pretty much all pitchers. Anyway, with all those caveats, here's what I came up with, checking a couple of sources including BB-Ref:

1800s - Cap Anson, 6'0" / 200 pounds, and Buck Ewing, 5'10" / 180.
deadball - Cobb, 6'1" / 175, and Honus Wagner, 5'11" / 200
1920s - Ruth, 6'2" / 200, and Hornsby, 5'11" / 175
1930s - Gehrig, 6'0" / 200 and Ott, 5'9" / 170
1940s - Williams, 6'3" / 205, and Musial, 6'0" / 175
1950s - Mantle, 5'11" / 195, and Mays, 6'0" / 180

I stopped there because I don't see the claimed effect at all. The strongest outlier is Ott, but the other NL choices for the 1930s are Paul Waner and Arky Vaughn, and neither of them is significantly bigger than Ott. I will note that, when we get to the 1970s, Joe Morgan is about 5'8" tall. It is true that PITCHERS have gotten bigger over time, but not position players, at least that I can see. In fact, it appears that the "sweet spot" for a superduperstar position player is about 6'1" and 185.​
5:21 AM Mar 20th
 
Brock Hanke
Steven - No, I don't disagree with that conclusion. I got mixed up in the size of the post. I thought you were also saying that, if you take a player and a pitcher whose careers ended up equal, you will find that the hitter is 50% weaker than the pitcher in any given earlier year. Rereading the article, you don't state that. I just got confused, and thought you had. Sorry about that.
5:01 AM Mar 20th
 
FrankD
addendum to my last comment ..... you can't project today's soldier to the past and allow him to use today's modern equipment. Machine guns alone would be deadly on a Roman Legion. Just like you cannot violate the time continuum by not adjusting for the technology differences in MLB over the last 100+ years , which is the whole scope of this article......
8:45 PM Mar 19th
 
FrankD
I too think the time-line adjustment is fascinating and absolutely necessary. If size only were important, where do you put Altuve? Project Altuve back using growth trends what do you have - maybe same size as Eddie Gaedel? Clearly the top MLB players in the past and the top players now are/were great athletes. And all could adjust to times different than their own eras. Here's a crazy example: take a Centurion from a Roman Legion. Clearly brave and probably in good shape. I would posit that this Centurion, projected to today, with some training, could use modern weapons and be a hell of a soldier. Same with a Sergeant today in the special forces. Clearly brave, trained to fight with the weapons back then, might think standing with stabbing sword and shield in a mass is a little wacko, but would perform excellently. And the larger size of the projected Sarge is probably an advantage. So, my conclusion again, the best then would be as good as the best now, and the best now would be as good as the best then, switching eras. I would also opine that the whole group of today players are probably better than the oldies ......
8:39 PM Mar 19th
 
Rich Dunstan
Thanks for this, Steven. What Bill calls time line adjustment, in comparing the greatness of players of different eras, is one of the most fascinating topics in baseball to me. How would you, yourself, use the numbers you have given in this article if you were comparing, say, Ty Cobb and Mike Trout? What would you do to the metrics you might use (win shares, WAR or whatever) to adjust for the difference between Trout's era and Cobb's?
7:25 PM Mar 19th
 
steve161
I'm glad you brought up the earlier piece about the relative merits of developing young pitchers vs young hitters. At the time, many noted that the World Series champion Cubs had chosen the latter route. Today, we can note that the World Series champion Astros did as well. As did the team they beat in the 7th game. As did the teams both beat in the previous series (one of which of course was the Cubs). As have the clear majority of playoff teams of the past few years.
4:07 PM Mar 19th
 
BryanBM
Using a much easier sport and position to determine how many could play in 2018, NFL offensive linemen have gained around one pound per year for the last 100 years.

You're answering the question how many could travel by time machine and take the field in 2018 which for offensive linemen is zero through around 1970, John Hannah who was one of the most dominant NFL linemen and is listed at 265lbs debuts in 1973 and is possibly the first player in NFL history who could effectively play on the offensive line in 2018. Without a time machine Hannah definitely can't play in 2018 since he's about to turn 67.

The question you're not answering is whether John Hannah would be a great player if the only "improvement" in his career arc is that he knows from the Age of 10 that he will face 300lb defensive ends at Baylor High School in the late 1960s.

Do Rube Waddell and Doc White struggle to make the final cut if they know that their stuff simply isn't good enough to get the job done at an early age. Do they have the genetic and mental base to rise up to a higher level of competition. Doc White hitting 267/302/325, 87 OPS+ in 1901-02 likely says more about the quality of the competition than Doc's batting skills but if he can't effectively pitch at 12 does he have the capacity to improve?

John Hannah might have played at 300lb with low body fat relatively speaking and he certainly could have and if playing at that weight was too much of a detriment he certainly could have gotten larger, even if he's cut by the 2018 Patriots after Nate Solder signs with the Giants and Hannah responds to being cut by gaining mass and strength he might well play for the 2019 Patriots even if he's restricted to 1970s diet and exercise knowledge.

Leonardo da Vinci was really smart, but if he steps out of the time machine he's going to lose on "Are you Smarter than a 5th grader?". Assuming you're not just bringing da Vinci forward in time for a half hour to make him look bad on a show hosted by Jeff Foxworthy, Leonardo is most likely going to excel in the modern era.
3:14 PM Mar 19th
 
Marc Schneider
Not to beat a dead horse but I will anyway. I readily acknowledge that you are correct that all the changes you mention have improved the quality of baseball. But, again, as you noted in the article, I question whether these have made baseball ore fun to watch. We accept today, for the most part, that strikeouts are good for a pitcher and not necessarily bad for a hitter. The result is we see more strikeouts and less action. The length of games is, I think, in part a function of changes in strategy and approach by managers and players. Again, these improve the quality of the game in a mechanical sense but I think make the game less fun to watch.

Like most technological improvements, improvements in baseball "technology" (which I use in a broad sense to include changes in strategy) are not an unmixed blessing except for the breaking of the color barrier. Several months ago, I read a book about the 1963 pitcher's duel between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal, where each pitched 15 innings before Willie Mays won the game in the bottom of the 16th with a homer. Games like that will never happen again; the benefit is that better care of pitchers will perhaps prolong their careers. But you will never have classic games like that again. I think that's a loss. Yes, baseball is better today than ever before, but I'm not sure it's more entertaining.
12:43 PM Mar 19th
 
jwilt
I also wonder if there is a non-linear effect on outlier seasons if the run context is very high. For example, the year that Pedro had a 291 ERA+ (1.74 ERA in a hitter's park in a league with a 4.91). To get a 291 ERA+ in 1968 he would have had to have a straight ERA of 0.80 or something. That's 20 earned runs in a season of 30 starts. Basically no margin for error.

The late 90s, early 2000s were the highest scoring era since the 1920s and 1930s.
12:22 PM Mar 19th
 
KaiserD2
Let me answer that second question first. The number of 4 WAA or more performances per team per league was remarkably consistent until very recently, when it dropped. In the era of the .400 hitter the top performances tended to be a bit higher than average than they are now, but not as much as you might think.

One could explain the drop in top performances by higher average performances, but it happened so suddenly that I'm skeptical that that is the reason. Of course, it's possible that PEDs were keeping the number of above average performances a bit artificially high in the 1990s.

DK
11:52 AM Mar 19th
 
jwilt
KaiserD2,
Wouldn't a fall-off in high-quality performances most likely be because of higher-quality average performances? The standard deviation of top and bottom performances is a pretty good way to determine the quality of a league, with the best leagues having the smallest gap.

When I was a kid I marveled at players of the distant past who hit .400 or even .430 sometimes. But I came to realize that they weren't supermen, they were just playing in inferior leagues where they could feast on lower-level pitchers.
10:50 AM Mar 19th
 
KaiserD2
Just a few comments on an interesting article.

1. The relatively low probability that an outstanding young pitcher is going to maintain his level of performance for very long has been a constant since the beginning of baseball time, as the "young pitchers will break your heart" series confirmed. Interestingly enough, I remember Bill noting in a very early abstract in the 1980s that it was for this reason that pitchers weren't getting huge long-term contracts. Now there was a change in the 1990s. For reasons I will not spell out, quite a few pitchers managed to sustain a remarkably high level of performance for a much longer period of time. This allowed several teams--the Arizona Diamondbacks, the New York Yankees, and the Houston Astros come to mind--to buy their way into post season regularly in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Those days, however, are over now. It's really very questionable strategy to sign a big free agent contract with a pitcher who had a great year 2-3 years ago.

2. The impact of integration is very different now from what it originally was. Integration in the late 1940s and 1950s allowed a number of fantastic players into the majors. This also happened to be a moment when several factors--the Second World War and the Korean War, the decline of the minors, and the bonus rule--made the development of great players by a traditional route much harder. So, Robinson, Irvin, Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Robinson F., and the rest provided an astonishing amount of top-quality talent. As is often noted, however, average-quality black players in that era weren't much of a presence.
What has happened now is very different. The academies in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the Caribbean are the easiest places, it seems, to develop average-quality players, and that's where a great many of them are coming from.

3. Regarding the comparative quality of players in the present and the past, two points. First of all, despite integration and the opening of international talent markets, the number of young men devoting several years of their lives, full time, to developing themselves as baseball players, is nowhere near where it was when it peaked around 1940. Secondly, my new book, now available (see below), shows that in the last 15 years or so, there has been a measurable and very significant fall-off in the number of high-quality performances (4 WAA or more) in the major leagues. This accounts in part for the increasing leveling off of team performance (despite welcome exceptions like the 2016 Cubs and the 2017 Astros and Dodgers.)

My book, Baseball Greatness: The Top Players and Teams According to Wins Above Average, 1901-2017, is now available on amazon, and you can hear a podcast interview I did about it at:
https://www.facebook.com/baseballbookpodcast/photos/a.632889600251669.1073741828.6321​38970326732/828384727368821/?type=3&theater

8:40 AM Mar 19th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Brock--I'll take all the mathematical help I'm offered, but I don't quite get your point here. Whatever the figure is (50% doesn't seem that different to me from 67%, and 50% was just an approximation of my findings anyway), what do you mean by 'it is NOT true that a pitcher and a hitter of equal careers will be that much different," which seems to be your thrust? I wasn't saying that in my study (how can players of equal careers even be different?)--I was saying that young players of equal WAR measurement will have a 50% increase if they are hitters rather than pitchers over the course of their remaining careers. Do you disagree with that conclusion?
7:32 AM Mar 19th
 
Brock Hanke
Steven - A quick math note. If a player and a pitcher of equal quality have vastly different expectations for their futures (player = 150% of pitcher), then it is NOT true that a player and pitcher of equal careers will be that different at any point in time. The player will be better than 50% as good as the pitcher. In fact, the player will be 2/3 as good as the pitcher. It's like this. 150% / 100% = 1.5, or 3/2. But 100% / 150% = 2/3. So the comparison you have to make between the player and the pitcher, if you're considering a trade, isn't 50%, it's 66.7%. That's still a lot, but it's not 50%.​
2:32 AM Mar 19th
 
FrankD
Interesting continuation of article. I agree that most of the effects of evolutionary changes (for lack of a better term) have improved the quality of MLB. I should say the removing the color line was much more of a revolutionary change. I think you have named most of the primary evolutionary changes.

Here are a few other changes that improved the game by letting the top players stay in top form include society getting away from heavy drinking all the time, better psychiatric aid (many stories of suicide back in the old days, decrease in smoking/chewing tobacco. Of course, along these lines, modern society has drugs (meth, coke, etc.) that are a bane. Are the statistics of all players the same for different over time (avg length of career, STD of careers lengths, etc.)

Going to new, white baseballs, and that the baseballs are probably made with more consistancy has improved performance in both batting and pitching/fielding. And the mounds are better manicured and much more consistent from field-to-field.

The change in knowledge that thin/light bats improve power has had a large effect. I have no ideas of bats are made with tighter tolerances now than in the past nor if bats are 'better' by growing and choosing specific trees, lacquering, etc.

One change not mentioned is that baseball was THE sport back in the day. Many athletes now in basketball or football or whatever would have played baseball. And the percent of the population playing baseball was much higher. I think the increased population of players from parts of Latin America in MLB show the effect of having baseball as a major cultural sport. I think this needs to addressed when determining which percent of old players should be thought of as making the MLB grade today. However, I do not think this effect would have a huge effect on your estimates.

I agree that the best of the old timers (Ruth, DiMag, Cobb, Grove, Mays, Mantle, etc.) would be among the top players. Paraphrasing Bill James: the best players then would be top players now but not as dominant. I also believe that the borderline MLB players from the past are not as good their compatriots now. Of course, for comparison we have to estimate the effect of the old timers getting to play on new manicured fields, with big gloves, and new white baseballs. The old timers also get to fly and do not have to play exhibition games in mid-season.


10:09 PM Mar 18th
 
doncoffin
I think you touched on this, but it needs to be emphasized. When I first started seeing several AAA games per season in person (the Indianapolis Indians; late 1950s/early 1960s), the teams had, essentially, no coaches. The manager was the third base coach, and yesterday's starting pitcher was the first base coach. The team had no resident hitting or pitching coaches, no bullpen catcher (that was the second-string catcher, or the starter on his of-days). The team "trainer" was usually a volunteer from a high school athletic program. Frequently, an older player nearing the end of his career (Ted Beard; Warren Hacker) would work some with the younger players in addition to being on the player roster. A few "advanced" teams would have roving minor league instructors. My memory of the late 1970s (when I was back in Indianapolis after a decade away) is that things hadn't changed much. The Indianapolis Indians now have a manager, a full-time pitching coach, a full-time hitting coach, a full-time (certified and degreed) athletic trainer, a strength and conditioning coach. The Pirates also have a minor league hitting coach coordinator. (I'm a but surprised they don't have a minor league pitching coach coordinator; I think many MLB teams do.)
7:36 PM Mar 18th
 
Jack
I for one would enjoy seeing a kilt in the batter's box.
4:52 PM Mar 18th
 
 
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