Wednesday, August 3, 2011

3,000 Hits, 500 Homers or 300 Wins? Part II

Ever since the first home in professional baseball history was recorded, a ball hit by Ezra Sutton on May 8, 1871, fans have displayed a captivation with power.  Home runs were not considered a vast part of the game and did not receive it’s publicity until Babe Ruth came upon the scene during the height of American’s newspaper culture.  During that time about 10 New York papers gave first hand accounts of Ruth’s distinctiveness during Yankee games. Ruth was able to set levels of performance that would be compare with ensuing generations. Power hitters have always been at the top of the hierarchy of most popular players. Offensive production numbers via the home run has the most pronounce effect .

Hall of fame benchmarks were established many years ago, but I tried to pinpoint exactly when the 500-homer milestone was introduced. The answer I have not found. However, it’s safe to assume that Ruth’s prodigious power was used as a frame of reference. I would imagine the logic transpired this way: A player who hit between 300 and 400 home runs is considered noteworthy; a player who hit between 400 and 500 home runs is considered to be an elite player and Hall of Fame worthy; and a player who hits between 500 and 700 home runs has genuinely historic power and has written himself a first class ticket to the hall of fame. 

Today’s pitchers routinely throw at over 90 miles per hour and rarely on a straight line. To hit 500 home runs takes ability and skills and sustained longevity.  Although power hitters come to bat only a handful of times during a game they can impose their will and be in a position to change the outcome of a game.  Since the beginning of baseball and throughout the subsequent decades, baseball has been blessed with many great sluggers who possess legitimate power. There are many variables interlaced with hitting home runs. However, it doesn’t matter by what margin a batted ball clears the wall, it’s a home run and fans will not need any additional inducements to maintain the allure with the long ball.

Graph: Sabernomics.

This graph represents the number of home runs hit per game over time. Home runs per game were essentially stable in quantity from the 1960s to the early 1980s. In 1993, home runs per game jumped
by 23%, and in 1994 they jumped 16%. There was a huge spike in home run production from 1999-2001. 

Home runs per game are the standard measure and it uses player’s at-bats. It is not sensitive to the number of teams or the length of the schedule; it is still imprecise because every game is different. At-bats don’t account for every opportunity hitters have to hit a home run (if a player is walked or hit by a pitch, then a plate appearance does not count as an at bat…) Low-scoring games have fewer plate appearances than high-scoring games. Some games go into extra innings. Others end prematurely due to rain. Tallying up the number of home runs hit per year is misleading because there are more teams than before (30 to 16), and the schedule contains more games than it used to (162 to 154).

There are so many events that have affected the way the game has been played. The importance of the 500 home run club has taken a dramatic character hit and steroids are a big part of the equation. Particularly, since out of the ten most recent additions to the 500 home run club, some  have been tied to performance enhancing drugs. It’s apparent in the public’s eye that the historic benchmark seem to have lost some of the the exclusive holiness.

From 1988-present, there was roughly 98,600 home runs hit. Prior to this era there were 146,500 home runs hit (1901-1987).  The average home run per season during the “Steroid Era” is 4,482 and prior to that is 1,495. At face value, these stats reflect that more home runs were hit during the the “Steroid Era”, considering that the home run number prior to 1988 is comprised of 88 years.  The trend is clear to the naked eye, but was steroids the sole culprit for the sudden outburst of home runs?  Even after the testing and consequences were in place home runs haven’t entirely gone away. 

This was not the only time in baseball history with a booming offensive effect.  We have the 1950s, which was as dramatic as any decade in baseball history.  In the 50’s home runs per game increased by 32% from 1949 to 1959. Triples per game declined by 29%, Walks declined by 22% and Strikeouts increased by 41%.  In the entire history of MLB prior to 1950, a batter had a season of hitting less than .250 while hitting 20 or more home runs a total of seven times. In the 1950s this happened 27 times. The 50’S was an era of great sluggers.

From 1999 through 2009, 10 players became members of the 500 home run club.  At first glance this sudden growth seemed to be interweaved with suspicion – considering the club only had 15 members in a 70 year period. But, this isn’t the the first time in baseball history that such an expansion has occurred so expeditiously. From 1960 through 1971, eight players eclipse the remarkable yardstick: Ted williams (‘60), Willie Mays (’65), Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews (’67), Hank Aaron (’68), Ernie Banks (’70), and Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew (’71).  This occurrence lends to the plausibility that PEDS are not the only culprit in this phenomenon and proof that there can be an explosive home run hitting trend without artificial help.

There are other elements and differences in the game that formulate a conducive environment for hitting home runs and one single attribute like performance enhancing drugs should not be solely assigned to the onslaught of home runs in the last 20 years.

Home runs were few and far between at the older parks.  Today the stadiums are smaller. 22 of baseball’s 30 teams have built new stadiums, making home runs an enticing idea and easier to hit.  What used to be warning track flyballs are now home runs. In all three cases above, the new stadium has smaller dimensions than the old. This has been a representative pattern.

The Major League balls are manufactured in Costa Rica and have a compressed cork sphere per the specifications. The factory turns out as many as 2.5 million baseballs a year, all assembled by hand. The Minor League balls are manufactured in China. Samples of 1998 MLB baseballs were tested and they had a batted-ball distance of 400.5 ft. In the “Deadball Era” a single baseball would often be used an entire game. The ball would become misshapen and discolored by the later innings and as a result, hitting for power was extremely difficult. In today’s game the average lifespan of a ball is between 3 and 6 pitches and in an average game more than 45 balls will be used. Naturally, a livelier ball will have the effect of boosting the travel distance.  The configuration of the baseball matters.

Increase offense makes sense withing the context of expansion in baseball, which has occurred several times since 1961 (16 to 30 teams). Inexperience pitching staffs could conceivably cushion opponent’s statistics whereby the best hitters could take advantage of diluted pitching.  For example,   From 1988 through to 1992 (pre-expansion), 593,975 times a batter had a plate appearance in which he put bat to ball (i.e., all PA, excluding strikeouts, walks, hit batters, interference and sacrifice bunts), and 16,001 went for home runs. That's 2.7 percent of all contact PA going for homers.  From 1993 through to 1997, there were 584,918 contact PA,  with 21,019 home runs, for a rate of 3.6 percent.

The strike zone has been redefined more than once over the years and it’s possible that the league redefined the strike zone into a more compact area to increase offense. Even the more recent attempts to expand the zone with the help of computer monitoring haven’t dampened offense.

As nutrition, medical care, and living standards improved over the 20th century, the average person became larger and larger. It makes sense then, for players to increase in size along with the general population. Modern players also train year-round. It was a rarity for players to so much as lift a weight in the old days. Off season training regimens were almost non-existent, since low salaries required most players to take second jobs in the off-season.  Rosters now feature players from all over Latin America, Japan, Korea, and China.


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Geo Ginrosge