Baseball team and player performance examined realistically and accurately.Search this site, or just roll your cursor over the colored boxes below the pictures.
"It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense
than to put out on the troubled seas of thought."
—John Kenneth Galbraith
Quick page jumps:
The arguments—one can scarcely call them discussions—in baseball about the undeniable and significant increase in offensive statistics across the board, which discussions and (presumably) any such "explosion" date from the early 1990s, have produced much heat and little light. In the course of those "discussions," a great number of red herrings have been dragged across the trail to the truth, the biggest and smelliest being so-called "performance-enhancing drugs". Retired pitchers in the broadcast booth used to tell you (and some still do) how it's the ineptitude of the current pitchers; retired batters would tell you (same caveat) that it's the bigger, stronger hitters of today; or it's the new crop of ballparks with changed dimensions; or it's expansion that has "diluted" pitching; or it's global warming. And, as noted, now—because it's sensational—we hear it's a plague of steroids. Next, I suppose, will be anti-gravity rays from the planet Mars. And so it goes. Only a few—a very few will admit that it is, or even might be, the baseball itself.
But, as the eminent physicist Lord Kelvin once famously put it, "Until your knowledge of a subject can be expressed in definite numbers, that knowledge is of a most meager and unsatisfactory kind." So great a thinker as Aristotle could proclaim that men and women have different numbers of teeth: to an ancient Greek, the idea of just asking Mrs. Aristotle to say "Ahhh" for a moment was—like the idea of a baseball "expert" looking at actual numbers—more or less literally unthinkable. Let us thus see if we can, after all, find some knowledge in the form of definite numbers.
We ask that you be patient as we elucidate this knowledge here, because we want to develop our case slowly enough that we avoid any chance of the sort of problem illustrated at the right.
The very first thing we need to see—what the lawyers would call "the threshold issue"—is whether in fact there has been some sort of "explosion" in offense. Since the object of the offense in baseball is to score runs, presumably we can get an idea about overall offense by observing overall run scoring. Let us do so, starting with some very simple raw data. Shown below are the average runs scored per game played in each league and all of major-league baseball for the years from 1977 through 2014, inclusive.
|* shortened season|
Well, when we look at numbers like that, it gets a little bewildering: nothing exactly jumps out and bites us. OK, let's do a little cleaning up. The year 1977 was chosen as the startpoint for these data because that's the last year that the ball was officially modified (a new ball vendor was selected by MLB). And we know that the putative "explosion" supposedly began in the early '90s. So, let us take the averages (AL, NL, all-MLB) of run scoring for the years 1977 through 1992—more later on why that particular terminal year—and use those long-term averages as baselines for comparison. With those baselines, let's now look at each year's run scoring expressed as a ratio to the appropriate average for that 16-year baseline period.
|* shortened season|
Now something jumps out at you—or should. Run your eye down the table top to bottom and you see, especially if you watch the all-M.L. column—by how little the yearly values differ from 1.00 (which is to say how little they vary from season to season), until 1993.
Looking more closely, the first thing to hit you as you just run down the years is 1987; well, we all knew that was a funny year—and sure enough, 1988 and on pick up the obvious pattern of rather small deviations from 1.00—meaning they're all pretty close to the long-term average, to "normal." Then we come to the early 1990s.
In 1993, we see a pretty high set of scoring rates, though nothing beyond what we saw in 1987. But from 1994 on, it should be blindingly obvious that we are simply in a new world. Not only are the numbers all very high compared to the many previous years, they are strikingly consistent thereafter.
The alert will notice a tapering off from 2010 and on. Those who do not examine with care have concluded from those data that things are somehow "back to normal", and attribute it all to players ceasing to use them ol' demon PEDs. The truth is very different, as we will see a little farther down this page.
So that you can plainly see just how consistent they are, here are the same data presented in the same kind of way except that now the baselines we use are those of the 21-year period 1994 through 2014 (inclusive).
|* shortened season|
Now let's really drive the nails home. Here, side by side, are the 16 yars of known stability (1977 - 1992) on the left and the first 16 definite Silly-Ball seasons (1994-2009, inclusive) on the right. (That run was chosen to match the 16 years of the baseline period.) Note well that each table is normalized against the standards of its own period.
|* shortened season|
|* shortened season|
The points on exhibit here are that the typical variation in run-scoring in each era is modest, and that those variations are comparable from era to era, marking each as a stable period—as a period, that is, within which little to do with run-scoring changed.
But the difference between the norms for those two periods is substantial: to the two decimal places we are using here, each league's SillyBall scoring rate for the 16 years shown is about 1.123 times its pre-Silly-Ball rate—that's 112+%, folks, an over 12% jump in run-scoring occurring in what amounts to a single discrete step.
(And, as promised earlier, we will soon deal with the modest declines after 2009, and see that they are not related to the baseball itself.)
What all those tables tell us is simple, and utterly beyond doubt: as regards offense, baseball between 1977 and 1992 was, on the large scale, one unchanging game, and baseball since 1994 through the present is also one consistent game—but those two games are drastically different games.
That 1993 is so in-betweenish is very probably owing to the new-style baseballs gradually coming into use as the supply of older ones was used up, though it is possible that the change was a sharper divided within that season—one might try tracking the month-by-month all-MLB data to see, but we consider it too likely to suffer from small-sample-size problems.
Consider what has to be involved in baseball as a whole increasing its run-production rate by about over twelve percent from one season to another (and not for one freak year, but for a steadily maintained basis). Over any one winter, the change in men making up all of major-league baseball is inconsequential compared to a 12 percent change in something as fundamental as run-scoring. If, for example, 10 percent of player personnel (just to pick a number) change over one winter, the new men would have to be either producing 223% as much as the men they replaced or the new pitchers would have to be yielding 223% as much as the men they replaced. Does anyone think that the new men in 1993 or 1994 were all an average of about two-and-a-quarter as good (for batters) or as bad (for pitchers) as the men they replaced? Even if we assume that somehow all the new pitchers were awful and all the new batters superb, so that they split the causative factor evenly, we're still talking about men about 112% better (for batters) and 112% worse (for pitchers) all arriving in one season never duplicated since. Patently, no matter how you jobby the assumed percentage of men replaced, within the bounds of even remote plausibility, you will always get comically impossible requirements. So please, let's not be silly, even if we are baseball reporters.
(For the arithmetically challenged, here are simple numbers: if all of MLB was producing, say, a round 20,000 runs a year, then 10% of the batters were, on average, producing 2,000 runs a year; now, if the next year MLB produces 12.3% more runs—22,460 runs—since the holdover 90% are still producing their 18,000, then the new 10% must be producing 4,460 runs, which is 2.23 times the 2,000 their predecessors produced. OK?)
The dramatic sharpness of the increase in run scoring over one winter, and especially its step nature—flat before, flat after—utterly eliminates any theory that relies on gradualness: increasing batting abilities, decreasing pitching abilities, and suchlike. The magnitude of the change makes any theory like that impossible. And so does attributing the change to alterations in parks. Even adding The Joke In Colorado to the National League could only have raised overall League run scoring by maybe a percent or two, and in any event both leagues jumped simultaneously. And the remarkable consistency of the new level over all the years since eliminates any intermittent cause, such as unusual weather patterns (believe it or not, there were some pundits claiming that for the reason).
(More simple numbers for the arithmetically challenged: in 1992, there were 12 NL teams, each scoring, in round numbers, about 4 runs a game; assume that of the two teams, and thus parks, added in 1993, Florida's park was average but Colorado's was a full 20% more run-generating than average. The Colorado average would be 4.8 runs a game, so the new NL average would be 13 x 4 plus 4.8, all divided by 14; that's 4.057 runs a game, or 1.0143 times the old average, an increase of 1.43% for the NL alone—for all MLB, the increase would be about half of that. The approximations here are, of course, very crude, but they suffice to demonstrate that a huge one-park difference still translates to a pretty small overall difference.)
And the absurd attribution of the effect to steroid use? Sigh. It just demonstrates that there is nothing so stupid that some bozo won't go repeating it—as the French say, un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l'admire. One used to hear regularly in dugouts and press boxes (before all this nonsense started) that "if muscles made home runs, Arnold Schwarzenegger would be the home-run king." (None of that is to say that no ballplayers used steroids and suchlike stuff—probably quite a few tried some substance or t'other. So what? It's just like corked bats: it's illegal, and using it is trying to cheat, but ironically it doesn't accomplish much. But sots are never in short supply.)
(As we repeatedly note, this flapdoodle over steroids, hGH, and suchlike got us so riled we made a whole separate web site, Steroids, Other "Drugs", and Baseball, to deal fully and dispositively with the topic; please visit there sometime, because knowing the truth about this stuff is important.)
So was there anything at all besides a changed baseball that could account for a sudden change in run-scoring at about that time? Yes, of course: expansion—which is why those who (for whatever mysterious personal reasons) refuse to acknowledge a changed baseball cling so tenaciously to the theory that "expansion diluted pitching." (What such fools make of the data from just before and just after the 1998 expansion, only they could say.) Of course, the numerical arguments for expansion's effects are just as puerile as those about the effects of the new parks that expansion necessarily entailed, but let's set even those facts aside for the moment.
(Presumably the first questions even a child would ask are "If expansion diluted pitching, why didn't it dilute batting too? Wouldn't they kind of even out?" Well, pundits don't have to deal with issues like logic—in fact, it is said that their Union has rules strictly forbidding it.)
If we wanted to attribute an explosion in run scoring to some consequence of expansion, the first thing to do, it would seem, would be to look at the effects of prior expansion; that folly has been perpetrated more than once, you know. We have already seen clearly that the 1993 change was not only a big step up, it was a big step up to a new and stable level of run scoring, one that has lasted fifteen going on sixteen years now. So, let's look at prior expansions using, in each case, averaged run-scoring data for the five seasons before the expansion and the five seasons after the expansion, and see what has happened when this sort of thing was done before.
The first round of expansions cut run production by 4 to 7 percent. The second round, while it raised scoring, only did so by about 5 percent. (And, while we don't want to seem to be minimizing real data, do look sometime at the records for those years: 1968—the year just before Round Two—was an unusually low-run year for its times, while 1970—the second year after Round Two—was unusually high for its times.) In any event, the average effect of all four league expansions was precisely zip—a ratio of 1.000.
Moreover, since the advent of the SillyBall, we have the additional evidence of the 1998 expansion, which would seem to really have screwed down the coffin lid on even that deathless vampire, Count Expansion:
(Here we use only three years because in 2001 strike-zone differences had a significant impact on scoring.) Ratios only 2 to 3 percent different make explaining big run-scoring increases by "expansion" an idea that is, as a certain sportscaster might put it, "Juuusst a little bit outside."
Finally, those Big Bad Steroids. The excrutiating folly of the whole fuss is, as we keep saying, examined in meticulous and exhaustive detail at our sister web site Steroids, Other "Drugs", and Baseball. But here, let's just take a brief, breezy look at the numerical assumptions involved. We can begin by generously assuming that either no pitchers use it or that it doesn't affect pitching ability at all (that's generous of us, because otherwise improvements in pitching ought to at least in part offset improvements in batting). Next, we'll generously assume that every batter using steroids started doing so in 1993 or so—none did before and no more did after (that's generous because otherwise we'd have to posit even wildly higher numbers than those about to come up, so as to explain the size of that one-time jump)—and note also that we must further assume that new batters coming into the leagues afterwards must have been using the stuff at exactly the same rate as the men they replace (do we already see how dumb this is?). Now let's guess how many batters might have, all at once that year, started using steroids: fifty percent? That seems somewhat excessive, but let's try it on for size anyway. That means that steroids must make an immediate 25% or so improvement in the average batter's ability to power the ball. When we get to assumptions like 50% of the batters in baseball, all at once, and instant 25% jump improvements—well, surely even a baseball reporter can figure out that that is, ah, a tad on the insane side as a proposition? (But perhaps not: never underestimate the folly of pundits.)
(The actual jump in scoring was 12.3%; for 50% of the men in the game to produce it, their individual offensive abilities need to have jumped by twice that amount, or about 25%. If we imagine instead that only 25% of players started using mysteriously powerful drugs at once—"only" 25%!—they'd have to have averaged a 50% jump in abilities. And if we imagine that the fraction was 10%—which is still on the high side of the estimated 7% or so in the real world—then the juice must have more or less instantly pumped each up by an average of 125%, that is, far more than doubled their productivity [a 100% increase is doubling]. Sigh.)
There is only one remaining thing that can cause big and sudden changes in run production: the baseball itself.
The occasional stunts—there is no other word for them—that some sports magazines—not to mention the, ah, geniuses at MLB itself—pull at times when the possibility of a change in the ball is discussed are to make a cat laugh. Anyone with the remotest idea of how industrial product sampling and materials testing is done may need medical attention after reading one of those stunt articles. And of course—of course!—major-league baseball itself (and the ball vendors) always claim that they have been keeping a good, trustworthy eye on the situation and that there is no reason to believe in changes in the baseball. Of course, ladies and gentlemen, we believe you on your bare word: you've never misrepresented anything to the public before, have you? Of course we believe you. Doubtless it's just the Easter Bunny who keeps sneaking all those extra runs into the annual stats.
But since this paper was first written, there have been credible scientific examinations of baseballs, two in fact: one was at the University of Rhode Island, where half a dozen professors labored on and off for six months doing a host of tests on balls from several eras; another was under the supervision of two professors from Pennsylvania State University's Imaging Lab, and consisted of CT scans of a number of balls from quite a few different years. You can read a lot more about those studies at a page on our sister site, the page called Changes in the Baseball. But the long and short of it is that the results agree excellently with the analyses here and in other places.
There are also indirect ways of examining the baseball. While one would think that direct physical examination would be best, in reality while it is easy to see changes and note the sort of change they would induce (that is, an increase or a decrese in liveliness), it is hard to clearly relate those visible changes to exact changes in the net performance of the livelier balls. Indirect methods, while they are, well, indirect, have the great advantage of dealing with what we are ultimately after, the effects in the game of the baseball.
(Much of the following material is taken almost direct from our sister site on Steroids, Other "Drugs", and Baseball, because that site was updated and expanded greatly from the original version of the page you are reading; but that site goes into a great mass of other aspects of possible drug use in baseball and their probabilities and consequences, and so should be visited even by those who are reading this page.)
The claim that there has been a developing "explosion" in offense over the past quarter-century or so translates to a claim that power numbers will show a matching sort of increase over that period. Besides the (irrelevant) point that the extant arguments for the "explosion" are all focussed on power, there is the (highly relevant) fact that run-scoring and pure power numbers track almost perfectly, as the graph to the right makes abundantly clear (saving the one small downtick R/G took in 2001 vs PF, the lines would virtually overlap). We use the PF (as defined and discussed elsewhere on this site) as a measure of power because we want, as we put it a moment ago, a "pure" measure of power. Let us, for clarity (remember Step 2), dilate on that point.
To properly measure power levels in baseball, we need something that is independent of other performance data. We cannot, for example, simply count home runs—for a batter, a league, or all of major-league baseball—because home-run figures can change substantially with no change in power. To understand that, realize that power determines how far a ball will go when struck well; for a given level of power, with all other factors constant, a certain proportion of all hits will be home runs. Still keeping all else fixed, more power means more home runs, less means fewer. But suppose all else is not constant. Suppose, for example, that the strike zone as called by umpires were to change materially one way or the other over time (which has actually happened, as with the rapid and substantial 2001 expansion); clearly, the number of hits gotten would also change materially. So, even with no change in actual power, batters would get materially more or fewer home runs as a consequence.
Moving from a straight crude count to a rate measure is no improvement. If hits were to go up for reasons unrelated to power—as, for example, by strike-zone size changes—so would the rate of home runs as measured by home runs per plate appearance or home runs per at-bat. (So also, we must remember, would total scoring.) To successfully measure power per se, what we need to do is relate well-powered balls to hit totals. We could use the ratio of home runs to hits, and that works quite satisfactorily. But, because not all "well-powered" balls necessarily leave the yard—doubles and triples are also, to some extent, indicators of power—we use the overall Power Factor number. Lest anyone think, however, to sneak in irrelevancies such as speed, the graph at the left shows that home runs per hit and Power factor are essentially the same thing; we here use the PF primarily because it is a measure familiar to readers of these pages, but home runs are the overmastering aspect of power.
The things other than the baseball's innate resilience that can influence the Power Factor of a league or baseball as a whole are not many, none subject to significant shifts in any short term. Indeed, they are just the sorts of things—improving muscularity of batters, changing abilities of pitchers, varying standards of ballpark layout, and so on—that those who, for their own mysterious reasons, refuse to acknowledge the modern Rabbit Ball try to use to explain the phenomena which we have already seen above can only (because of their suddeness) be attributed to the ball. Such things can influence, and probably have influenced, gradual long-term movements in league-wide Power Factors—but never sharp, short-term ones.
To better appreciate that assertion, let's begin by examining at how the Power Factor has looked historically. It looks like this:
That is a raw PF graph of all of major-league baseball for the entire "modern" (post-1800s) era, from 1900 through 2007 inclusive. Let's begin with a quick tour through the seasons to see what it shows. (The 2007 is because that's when the graph was made and we are not graph-making mavens, so it stays as is for now.)
Two things quickly become obvious: one, that for most of the century there appears to be a fairly steady upward trend to power; but two, that at certain points there are sudden discontinuous jumps. (That is even ignoring the expected dips and jumps that represent the starts and ends of WW I and WW II, which are labelled on the graph.) Those discontinuities separate readily recognized distinct eras in the game. The slightly upslope red lines represent the long-term averages of the years that they span, smoothing out the minor year-to-year zigs and zags.
Those discontinuities are extremely important to an understanding of power results, so let's look more closely at them.
The very first discontinuity (not annotated on the graph) is 1910/1911—a relatively modest one by later standards—which marks the introduction of the cork-center baseball.
The next of the discontinuities, and perhaps the most famous, is the advent in 1921 of the so-called "rabbit ball", a ball juicing that resulted from the immense popularity of the emerging hero, Babe Ruth: the Babe's homers made the turnstiles rotate, so what was good for the Babe was made good for everyone. After that, one can see clearly—if the anomaly for WW II is mentally smoothed out—that the rise in power production during the four decades from 1921 to 1961 was remarkably steady.
The next obvious discontinuity is in 1977, the year MLB switched ball makers from Spalding to Rawlings; the new ball was substantially livelier. But if we again mentally "splice out" that jump, we see a continuing downtrend from the mid-60s, one that ran for about 20 years, to 1981 or 1982, before easing. (The spike of 1986/1987 was an anomaly no one has yet explained, but it was brief.)
The last discontinuity is the ball juicing of 1993 - 1994, which apparently ensued from a change made then in the ball-manufacturing process (it looks as if the change introduced the new ball roughly mid-1993). Subsequent to that jump, the trend looks like a continuation of the gradual upward movement.
MLB has steadfastly denied all of those ball juicings, no matter their obviousness or the actual events (manufacturing processes, for example) associated with them. Mind, except for (probably) the original rabbit ball, it may well be that the jumps were unplanned—incidental effects of innovations in the manufacturing process. But to deny that they did happen, when they happened, and that they were definite, discrete events requires a massive dedication to belief in the Tooth Fairy.
The point of noting the discontinuities is that they are extrinsic factors—that is, they are completely unrelated to player performance. Batters hitting the same as ever showed more power after each discontinuity not because those batters magically became more powerful over that winter but because they were hitting a "springier" baseball that would travel materially farther for a given force applied by a batter.
So, if we want to see what player power results look like, we need to "splice out" the spurious jumps from ball juicing, so that we are dealing with the actual trends in player power rather than external effects from changes in the ball. We don't have to squint at the graph and make estimates: we can just re-draw the graph with the effects of the artificial jumps removed. That very graph appears on the left, with notes on how it was made. (If the "splicing" concept perchance still confuses you, there is a page on our sister site that demonstrates the concept in detail.)
Now we can see that baseball has really had, so far as power goes, only three major eras. Naturally, within each there are jigs, both up and down, from year to year, but they are (saving perhaps the 1986 - 1987 bump that no one seems to understand) relatively small jigs on the overall scale of the graph. The tilted red lines are the intra-era average movements in PF
If we look at those intra-era average movements, something has to jump forcefully out at anyone: from 1962 on, true power has been declining. (Here, "true power" means simply power exclusive of the artificial boosts from those isolated, big-jump changes in the baseball itself.)
The rate of decline from 1962 on through 1981 was dramatic; we don't need here to speculate on causes, because that's not relevant to our investigation. From 1982 on through the present, power has been nearly flat (it looks like a slight downtrend only because the bizarre 1986/1987 spike "front-loads" the average, but I didn't want to arbitrarily smooth out those years).
It thus becomes quite impossible to believe in any theory that speaks of "boosting" power in modern times, simply because there has been no such boost. To absolutely, positively hammer home the point, below is a blow-up graph of the major-league Power Factor through the period of the so-called "offense explosion" (nowadays referred to, as if dispositively, as "the steroids era"). It starts at 1982, because the infamous "Mitchell Report" refers to PED influences from about 1980 on, but 1981 was a strike-shortened season and thus not a good data point.
Understand, please, that nothing in this graph has been adjusted save the single ball juicing of 1993/1994 (whether 1993 was or was not post-juicing is still debated); the numbers on the left would change were earlier splicings and wartime smoothings dropped, but the shape and scale of the graph would be unchanged.
|Can anyone look at that graph and see some "power jump" somewhere?!?|
If there had been, not the manifestly missing "explosion", but even just a clear uptrend in offense, we would expect to see a corresponding clear long-term uptrend during this period. But we don't: we see a nearly flat line that, if anything, slopes slightly down. The "boost" just isn't there. But that doesn't seem to stop anyone from talking about it.
At this point, anyone who can believe that anything but a juiced baseball introduced in 1993 is responsible for the past several years of hyperinflated offense is simply beyond the power of reason to sway; maintaining anything else would, as they say, make a cat to laugh. Game over, man, game over.
OK, the graph ends at 2007, and the runs-per-game tables farther above ended at 2009. The conspiracy theorists who just know that steroids and suchlike underlie the matter, all the data and common sense above notwithstanding, are claiming these days that the recent falloff in offense (which does exist) is because "testing has stopped the cheaters". Well, let's see. Here are the all-MLB Power Factors for the entire 21st century, through the All-Star Break in 2015 (which is when this addendum was made). To further emphasize the results, below the actual PF numbers (grey background), we also show each relative to the all-MLB average PF for 194 through 2014 (inclusive), which is 1.584 (blue background). It all looks like this:
2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 1.616 1.616 1.594 1.597 1.608 1.584 1.603 1.577 1.578 1.592 1.565 1.564 1.592 1.564 1.538 (1.569) 1.020 1.020 1.006 1.008 1.015 1.000 1.012 0.996 0.996 1.005 0.988 0.987 1.005 0.987 0.971 (0.991)
We would have added this on to the graph, but we aren't very good with graphics, so we made this table. But the reality remains obvious: there is no marked change in PFs in recent years.
So what has happened to reduce offense? We don't assert this as the necessary answer, but it is what we believe: the strike zone has changed, expanded, and it has done so as a direct consequence of the fairly sudden advent of widespread use of the automated pitch-tracking systems (the things underlying those little "pitch boxes" you often see on TV), which anyone can look at online soon after a given game ends, and which umpires have to review after each game and on which they are in good part now rated. (Rob Neyer has written an interesting article on this point.) Terrible umpiring still exists, but it is materially less terrible that it was before all the world could see which calls were correct and which weren't. If you have a better theory, good for you, but very obviously it has nothing to do with "PEDs".
Was the ball juicing deliberate? As the mystics say, "Those who speak do not know and those who know do not speak." But for assigning blame (why blame and not simply responsibility? We'll get to that . . . ), original causes are no excuse. That is, it doesn't matter whether a desk somewhere picked up a telephone and called the baseball factory in the Caribbean and said "Wind 'em tighter" or whether the factory, for business reasons of its own, just happened to start doing it one day. (Aside: we say "a desk" instead of a person because offices seem to be magically self-operating these days; one never hears that "the Commissioner said so and so" or "the Commissioner did so and so"—it's always "the office of the Commissioner", just as memos come "From the desk of . . . .").
Put the best possible face on it and assume that the Rawlings factory just found it easier or better or cheaper or maybe for no real reason started making materially more resilient baseballs a few years ago. (As it happens—we now know—they switched from hand manufacture to machine manufacture of the cores, and the machines wind those cores notably tighter than the women previously doing the work ever did.)
At some point, though, surely by no later than mid-1994, it would have been—and was—obvious what was happening. That no one stepped in at that point and said "Hold it, let's fix this" is sufficient to justify blame. Moreover, it very strongly supports the idea that this juicing was not just a random accident allowed to proceed unchecked.
One must never lose historical perspective. This wild ball-juicing did not come in the midst of an otherwise-calm era for the game. Rather, it dropped into the middle of the fiercest and most fanatic labor battles the already war-torn sport had ever seen. And, as we all know, American sports fans were voting with their feet—their feet, their dollars, and their TV tuners—against baseball. Isn't it utterly wonderful how coincidentally a huge boost in stats—a boost that has shattered long-standing and revered records left and right—just happened to drop into the game at a moment when fan interest was waning sorely? Utterly wonderful. God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform; humans are typically more obvious.
You perhaps recall that a little earlier we remarked that one researcher wrote that Babe Ruth, playing under the conditions Roger Maris played under, would likely have hit 77 home runs his best season? With today's ball and season of today's length, Ruth might well have hit 84 or even 85 home runs. We are not trying to run down either Roger Maris or Barry Bonds: we just want everyone to understand clearly both that Babe Ruth was the literal "one of a kind" and that the sudden spurt of shattered records we have seen and will continue to see for a while are ridiculously tainted—but not by anything players have done. (Not to become a conspiracy theorist, but it is worth musing on that MLB might be said to have an interest in promoting, or at least not resisting, the theory that PEDs have pumped up numbers, because it defelects thoughts about how MLB's nonfeasance or misfeasance—if not actual malfeasance—has in fact done all the pumping actually in evidence.) And that's a shame, not only for the memory of the players of the past, and for the fans, but for the excellent ball players of today who know that their achievements are oranges being compared to apples; if the Lords Of Baseball could have left well enough alone, records of various kinds could and would eventually be made and broken—but by men who wouldn't have to go to sleep wondering how real their new records actually are.
Tainted records are only one of several consequences of an over-juiced baseball. As we see it, the fundamental problem is that baseball today—very much unlike even the fairly recent past—is owned and operated in large part by men and women who neither understand nor even very much like baseball. They buy teams for business or ego reasons (or, most likely, both). As to business, you may safely ignore all the crocodile tears about big annual operating losses; quite aside from the wonders and marvels of modern accounting wizardry (of which we all of a sudden lately know a lot more), there remains the fact that any team for sale is eagerly bid for by a long line of very rich folk. If you think that such folk, or their business experts, buy a ballclub with the thought that they're going to lose money on it, you need a keeper. As the extraordinarily canny Bill Veeck once put it, "You don't make money running ball clubs—you make money selling ball clubs"; and Veeck bought and sold more than the usual. In years gone past, though, while there was virtually always profit available, it's only in recent times, with the obscene television dollars, that buying and reselling a ball club (with all the tax benefits, too) has become so attractive a business deal as to draw investors as much for the money as for the intense ego gratification involved. (A must-read: Andrew Zimbalist's Baseball and Billions.) There's no need to name names: even the casual fan will have read the assorted and too-frequent horror stories about this owner or that showing their complete lack of grasp of even the rudiments of the game.
Though there has been an uptick in attendance recently, by and large over the last couple of generations at least, folk in and out of baseball have been worrying about sustaining its fan base, most especially among the young fans crucial to the future of the game, whom it seems to have been losing at an increasing pace that is becoming alarming. The causes are many and various, but competition for fan attention, and dollars, from the two other big sports—football and basketball, which have done far more and more intelligent marketing than baseball—are the core problem. Now it shouldn't take a Harvard M.B.A. to see that what baseball needs to do to compete effectively is to emphasize its specialness, which is considerable and delightful. (It is virtually the only sport played much in America whose basics of play cannot be described adequately to a complete stranger in a few sentences.) Instead, what we see is an almost mindless attempt to change baseball to eliminate as much of that specialness as humanly possible, on the theory that the only way to compete with football and basketball is to emulate them. To today's collective ownership, that means above all, BIIIIIG scores and "lots of action". It is now perfectly possible for a knowledgeable fan to mistake a baseball final score for one from football. Can basketball-sized scores be far behind?
The standard rejoinder to such remarks will absolutely, positively contain somewhere within it the word "purist," clearly used as an unsubtle synonym for "weirdo" or "nutcase." That is good PR by baseball; it automatically puts anyone who questions any of today's myriad horrid developments on the defensive without any least need to address the merits. (A Mr. Adolf Schickelgruber, a one-time house painter, was an acknowledged master of that form of PR.)
Putting aside much that could and should be said about the current state of the game, we can focus on The SillyBall in this way: there is such a thing as an ideal ballgame score, and The SillyBall takes us far beyond it.
What is an "ideal" score? It is a combined total of runs scored by the two teams in a standard 9-inning game such that: on the one hand, the scoring of a run is not such a rarity that the fan gets frustrated waiting for something to happen; but, on the other hand, is not so common that a run or two scored is a ho-hum, who cares? thing. Obviously, such an ideal score is the long-term average, and there will under any regime be some games that are extremely short on runs and some that are laughers; but those need to be the extremes, not the norms. The dangers of over-low scoring are well realized; the D.H. Rule was created expressly as a desperate response to a perceived shortage of offense. But the dangers of excess scoring seem to be much less well understood by today's Lords Of Baseball.
Exactly what an "ideal" score would be is to a certain extent a matter of opinion, but that extent is not a large one. A combined total of six runs (perhaps 4-2) is almost surely the lower limit, while a combined total of ten runs (say a 6-4 score) must be about the top. We like eight or nine combined runs, which happen to be the N.L. and A.L. norms from our baseline period—that is, just prior to this last juicing, scoring was probably just about right, maybe even a little high in the D.H.'ed American League (another snake needing killing). But surely the extremes of the range are about as set forth above. (Oh, and to be contemporary in our concerns: high-scoring games take longer, while three hours is claimed to be about the outside limit for fan comfort; we don't agree, but if game times are a concern, higher scoring just aggravates it.)
To hear an announcer refer, correctly, to a four-run lead in the seventh inning as a "close game" is, or should be, perceived as being just flat-out obscene. The essence of baseball is run scoring, and what cheapens run scoring cheapens the game itself. Fans who want big numbers for the sake of big numbers can go watch ten men in floppy shorts score 200 of them in an evening, 2 at a time. The things that make baseball great are the things of the mind: the chess-playing that goes on at every pitch, every situation—the need for qualities like wit, grace, and pluck. To reduce baseball to a brute-force machine mindlessly cranking out runs by having even the Before guy in a Charles Atlas ad rack up 25 or 30 home runs a season is to reduce the entire wonderful game to a batting-practice showoff exhibition. (The mid-season home-run derby now draws more TV audience than the All-Star game it precedes: think about that for a while.)
The folk who are the real fans of baseball, the ones who watch or listen to or attend numerous games, not just the All-Star Game or post-season (in short, that is, those who very literally pay the freight for baseball) are going to drop off—or rather keep dropping off—while the here-today-gone-tomorrow casual fans of brute force and/or big, big numbers are not going to come over, no matter how wild baseball scores get. That's because however wild they are, football is still more brute-force and always will be, and basketball is still higher-scoring, and always will be.
If The Lords Of Baseball continue their current follies, baseball will not go away or go out of business; it will just be reduced to another fungible trashsport like stock-car racing, good for filling up the idle hours on ESPN between real sports events.
There is a rather well-known saying about how and how not to treat geese that lay precious eggs. Would that that ancient wisdom be heeded.
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This page was last modified on Sunday, 9 August 2015, at 8:51 pm Pacific Time.