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The Juiced Baseball


“Can’t you see that I’m only advising you to beg yourself not to be so dumb?”

– The Satyricon,
Petronius

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The “Explosion” in Baseball Offense

Sense and Nonsense

For quite some years now, people in and around baseball—and some not really either (such as the Congress of the United States)—have been, as the British might put it, getting their knickers in a twist over the so-called “explosion” of offense in the game, with virtually all blaming it on some sort of “steroids era”. That last point is so nonsensical yet pervasive that we built a whole web site—which has gathered a lot of attention in some circles, some kindly, some not so much—showing where the blame really lies.

The arguments—one can scarcely call them discussions—put forth 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 was 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.

Science cartoon about being careful to show all logic steps.

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.

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Just the facts, Ma’am

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: average runs scored per game per season. To better keep focus, we will just look at the period from 1977 through the present (2019 as this is written). We choose that starting year because it was the first season in which MLB used the Rawlings-manufactured ball; previously, they had used the Spalding-made ball, and the two were manifestly different in resilience: more on that later. Here is the graph:

If we are looking for “explosions”, they are there to be plainly seen; we say they because there are manifestly at least two of them. But let’s be more exact: an “explosion” in offense is just that—a very sudden, major change that thereafter persists, and thus marks the beginning of a new era in run scoring.

That said, the two clear explosions were the one in 1993 and the one in 2015. The year 1993 was apparenly a transition year: 1992 and before are very different from 1994 and on, but 1993 is roughly half-way between them. On our hypothesis that all this comes from changes in the baseball, one would reckon that the new balls were being introduced throughout 1993. But it is obvious that there was indeed an “explosion” at that time.

The second explosion was in 2015, though looking at 2016 and beyond, one wonders if 2015 was not another transition year, since the rise continued in 2016. But either way, there is clearly another “explosion” there, and one of which we are still seeing the consequences. And (as discussed more farther below) there may have been yet another explosion in 2018.

All very well, but what is there to demonstrate that those explosions derive from the baseball? We’re glad you asked.

The one statistical indicator of power, pure power, is what we (following Cook in this) call the “Power Factor”; it is nothing arcane, just Total Bases divided by Hits: the average number of bases per base hit. It doesn’t depend on strike zone sizes, batting averages, or indeed on very much of anything save two things: the force with which the batter’s bat strikes the baseball, and the resilience of that baseball. Let’s now take a look at all-MLB annual Power Factors from 1977 through 2019 (inclusive; the graph is below, with the same years flagged as on the Runs-per-Game graph.

Well, well, well: they are virtually identical (save for scaling). In fact, let’s make them smaller and show them side by side (this may not work for you if you’re looking at this on a very narrow screen).


What do you think? What we think is that it is blindingly obvious that run-scoring closely follows the Power Factor—which ought not to be at all surprising. The higher the Power Factor, the more home runs, and run-scoring depends heavily on home runs, and has since the days of Babe Ruth. But mention of Ruth brings us to another matter.

To further illustrate the effects of explosions in the Power Factor, here is a graph of the all-MLB Power factor from 1900—traditionally taken as the start of the so-called “Modern Era” of baseball—through the present (again, 2019 as this is written).

Going from left (earliest) to right, we clearly see first the point at which the so-called “Rabbit Ball” was introduced: 1919. The jump from 1918 to 1919 was and is obvious and remarkable (and it continued in 1920 and beyond, fulfilling the requirement of initiating a new era in the game). The changes were almost risible, leading to the widespread usage (still common today) of the phrase “Rabbit Ball” (or “Jackrabbit Ball”). The widely accepted cause was the notice taken by the Lords of Baseball of the immense popularity of Babe Ruth, and especially of Ruth’s home runs (at that time a scarce thing indeed: a player was nicknamed “Home Run Baker” because he once hit a then-astonishing 12 in one season). Well, the Lords reckoned, if home runs make the turnstiles spin, by gad, let’s see to it that every mother’s son in the game can make ’em spin. And so they did.

The pale-green vertical lines bracket the time of World War II, when athletic young men were required on fields other than those in ball parks. The huge dropoff in Power factor is obvious, as is its immediate restoration after the war. We note it only to explain that big dip in PF.

The rise in PF, which (allowing for WW II) was more or less steady from about 1910 on plateau’ed in the middle 1950s, then began an almost equally steady decline through the ’60s and ’70s; whether the Vietnam War had anything to do with that is conjectural, and we do not demark that war on the graph. But the falloff was starting to worry the Lords.

In 1977, the Rawlings baseball was first used; before that, all MLB baseballs had been made by Spalding. The issue was—surprise, surprise— money. Spalding was getting too expensive. But, as it turned out, the changed baseball affected a good deal more than team costs: it rescued the declining Power Factor (and thus home-run hitting and run scoring) because it was made in such a way as to be more resilient than the old Spalding balls. The jump up from, 1976 to 1977 is immediately obvious, and its effects were sustained in following years, making it another era-defining change in the baseball.

The immediately post-Rawlings era lasted 16 years, 1977 through 1992 inclusive. There was a freak spike in 1987, which some still attribute to another ball juicing, but that seems unlikely, inasmuch as it did not persist. On the graph, there is a horizontal dotted line between 1977 and 1992 showing the average PF during those years; it is clear that excepting the ’87 freakshow (for which no one yet has a good explanation) the level was reasonably consistent across that span.

The next explosion started in 1993 and was fully realized in 1994. That new era lasted 21 years, from 1994 through 2014 inclusive. There is a second horizontal dotted line on the graph for that era, and again we see reasonable consistency of the PF for the era.

By this time, it should be blindingly obvious that the idea of steroids (or any drugs) affecting run scoring and/or home-run hitting is pathetically absurd. From 1977 through 2014 inclusive, there was only one jump in power and in home-run hitting, and that occurred in 1993. In fact, from 1994 on threough 2014, power was actually slowly but steadily decreasing. The idea that in 1993 all the batters in MLB simultaneously decided to start using PEDs, and that none had ever done so before, isn’t even a good stand-up comedy joke.


If you want to read more detail about all these things, there are pages on our Steroids-and-Baseball web site. It hasn’t been updated in quite some years, but what’s there remains sufficient for its purposes. You can read there about the following topics (and more, if you care to explore).

Now, with MLB’s patent desire to make baseball as much like football as possible—and it’s already often difficult to tell a baseball-game score from a football-game score just by the numbers—they have again juiced the ball. How much and how often it was juiced it is too early to tell for sure, but clearly the first jump, from 2014 up to 2015, is the start. There was another big jump from 2015 to 2016; our guess is that 2015 was a transition year—just like 1993—and that 2016 is the first full year of this newest offensive (in several senses) era. Still, there was yet another major leap from 2018 to 2019, and it’s hard to know if that might be yet another juicing. (When little children get a new toy, they often play with it incessantly.) The 2020 season, however, looks compatible with the 2019 one.

(Worth noting is that in 2018 MLB purchased the Rawlings corporation, so now MLB manufactures its own baseballs 100% under its own control. Apparently—check the link—in the process, MLB admitted “that the composition of the ball had, apparently inadvertently, changed, reducing its aerodynamic drag, resulting in a record-setting spike of home runs over the past two and a half seasons.”) Also of related interest is this 2018 study from 538: We X-Rayed Some MLB Baseballs. Here’s What We Found..

Note that MLB stated that one of the explosions resulted from “inadvertent” changes to the baseball. OK, give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the change really was inadvertent. When they discovered it, however, where was the advertent (yes, it’s a real word) change back to fix the problem? This is supposed to be a sober scientific analysis page, but it is extremely hard to avoid a fierce desire to chant “Liar, liar, pants on fire” at full lungpower.

The Unavoidable Conclusion

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; then, baseball since 1994 through 2014 was another and different but consistent game. Now, baseball since 2015 has been a wild roller-coaster ride, and it’s hard to say yet whether there was or is any consistent era (or eras) from 2015 to the present or whether each season is its own one-year “era”. If this is how MLB thinks to keep its fans, much less bring new ones to the sport, they need to take another think. And stop slandering players with all that blether about “Performance-Enhancing Drugs”. (That goes for you, too, soi disant journalists.)

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Truth And Consequences

Truth

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. The same is true of the 2015 juicing, which even po-faced MLB admits happened and owing to a known cause, but one they did absolutely nothing to fix.

One must never lose historical perspective. This wild ball-juicing did not begin 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—or should know—in the early ’90s American baseball 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 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 tend to be more obvious.

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 deflects 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.

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Consequences

Defining the Problem

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 that in 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”, plus a general all-round dumbing down. 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?

Oh, and latterly a huge emphasis by the Commissioner, sock puppet for the owners, on shortening the length of games, using methods that shock hard-core fans. (Clocks? In baseball?). They must have read somewhere that young folk have short attention spans. Now here’s another clue for you all: so do not-young folk. And they all always have had. Yet baseball was, for many generations, well, “the American pastime”. By slicing and dicing it in accordance with half-witted misunderstandings of both the game and of its fans, current and potential, MLB is emptying both pistols into its feet as fast as it can pull the trigger.

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 their myriad horrid actions on the defensive without any least need to address the merits. (A Mr. A. Schicklgruber, a one-time house painter, was an acknowledged master of that form of PR.)

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Seeking a Solution

Putting aside much more 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 seven runs (perhaps 5-2) is almost surely the lower limit, while a combined total of eleven runs (say a 7-4 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 the baseline 1977 - 1992 period—that is, just prior to the 1993 juicing, scoring was probably just about right, maybe even a little high in the D.H.’ed (another snake needing killing) American League. 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 heartily disagree, 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 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 slowly, slowly fade to another fungible trashsport like stock-car racing, good for filling up the idle hours on ESPN between real sports events.

These are fixable problems: indeed, as easily unmade as they were originally made. Get some competent scientists in to reckon the exact effects of ball resilience on travel distance and manufacture the balls accordingly (and with specifications significantly tighter than the current rather comical ones). 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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