Staturday: And Then There Were Three ...

Blez seems to find himself scraping the bottom of the barrel, but here I am, front and center. I have neither song to sing nor any stories of alien invaders, bent on imposing rationality on the statistical world to amuse you. I merely offer some numbers – simple numbers – that will hopefully paint an interesting picture of trends over the last several decades in Major League Baseball.

For some completely unknown reason, offensive output has increased fairly dramatically over the last couple of decades. Explanations abound – juiced baseballs, smaller parks, expansion, more optimal strategies at the plate, improved workout regimens, global warming  ... perhaps other factors as well ... {ahem} ... one in particular. Other than simply "more offense", though, how have those various factors affected the game?

Many have chosen to assume that it was merely a handful of muscle bound behemoths that had figured out how to best take advantage of the warmer summer days caused by the build up of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. While some, notably among them, Jose Canseco, have argued that virtually all of Major League Baseball was likely to have availed themselves of global warming’s bounty.

I wondered, though, how did this play out in the numbers? How did the behemoths (defined as those in the top 10 in HRs each year) compare to the 130 pounds weaklings (everyone else)?

I looked at the changes in several stats – home runs, doubles, hits, strikeouts and walks – over the last 38 years (1970-2008 with 1994 omitted), comparing the trends of the two groups. The distinctions, I will grant you, are arbitrary and the stats rather basic, but the picture it paints I find quite interesting.

And since a picture is worth a thousand words – and, given the wonder that is Microsoft Excel, it is oh so much quicker to produce than the three hundred or so that I have already written – the bulk of the article from this point forth will be in graph form!

Each graph has two lines, the average of the top ten players per 154 games and the total number of the statistic in question for all players in the league, except for the first ten divided by the total number of games played, divided by nine, times 154 – effectively the average player per 154 games.

But too many words ... words are so boring ... not really, but who doesn’t like a nice graph? I know I do. So here’s the first one:

Lets get right to the nitty gritty – when we’re talking about global warming’s effect on baseball, we’re talking about home runs. Not surprisingly, the top home run hitters hit quite a few more home runs than everyone else. They have hit home runs at roughly triple the rate of the rest of the league. Both groups of hitters have shown a surge in home runs over the period in question, but the sluggers have seen a substantially larger one. Their average has increased at 180% of the rate of the rest of the league. And suddenly HollywoodOz and the countless journalists who have wanted to burn at least one but no more than seven players at the stake for their role in the ruination of our great and oh so pure national pastime.

But, wait ... there’s more.

Lets stay on the question of power for a moment more and take a look at doubles next.

The sluggers have historically had a much smaller lead in doubles – only about two per season, with a number of seasons when they were out doubled by their punier teammates. Also, notably, the little guys have seen their doubles increase at a greater rate (by about 9%) than the big guys.

Interesting ... interesting. So, perhaps the gains in power have not been nearly as pronounced. The big guys are still holding a commanding lead, though.

Let me show you another stat in which the big guys have lapped the field. Walks. Now, whether it is attributable to the pitcher’s fear or a greatly improved eye, the big guys are taking a ton more walks these days.

Already walking far more frequently than the rest of the league, the big guys increased their walk rate at more than twelve times the pace of everyone else. Twelve times ... that’s a lot. It stands to reason that as summer afternoons get hotter, the big guys would want to take every opportunity they can to beat the heat by avoiding running.

But here’s where it starts to get really interesting ... with the third of the three true outcomes. The standard formula for the classic power hitter – a ton of home runs, a ton of walks and a ton of strikeouts.

And they do strike out – quite a bit. They’ve also increased that number at a substantial rate. The little guys, though, have increased their strike outs at more than double the rate of the big guys and, if trends continue, are threatening to overtake them in a couple of years.

Here’s one more of my very pretty graphs, this one on base hits:

Somewhat surprisingly, despite their substantial increases in strikeouts, both groups also showed significant increases in hits. Actually, when we consider the first graph, it makes perfect sense. While ‘neutral’ BABIP may have changed a bit over the years, the great majority of these extra hits were not of the IP variety ... perhaps even too many ...

Which brings me to my final graph.

The graph portrays the results of a very simple equation and its dramatic change over the years – for one group, anyway. The number of the big guys’ hits that left the yard was virtually unchanged over the course of this study. The little guys, though, saw a substantial difference. In the early 70s, roughly one out of every 12 hits left the yard. By the turn of the century it was up to one in eight.

The picture my study paints is an interesting one – contrary to what I perceive as the CW, power hitters have not become better power hitters over the last several years. The power of the sun does not serve to give their balls any additional loft. Rather, the best power hitters have become better all-around hitters – more walks, more hits both of the variety that leave the park and those that don’t. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the league, whose other skills have actually declined, but whose pure power game has gone a long way towards closing the gap with the big guys – at least on the increasingly rare occasion that they manage to make contact.

Any promises of a return to the ice age appear spurious. While there was a brief reversal of trends in the early 2000s, recent years seem to be point to continued offensive increases into the future.

So there you have it, 1,200 words and six pictures for a total value of just over seven thousand. I hope you have found this interesting, enlightening ... and far more concise than a seven thousand word article on the same topic might have been.

Until three Saturdays from now, I bid you, adieu.

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