Theories revisited (02/26/02)

I've forwarded a number of theories and counter-theories on this site over the past year and I just wanted to take a look back at them and see how they've held up.

Tenacious O

Some of you have asked when I'm going to post the pitching equivalent of my age factor for minor leaguers.  Well, it looks like it's gonna be a while; several reasons stand out.

1) when I tried to reverse the runs created formula, it simply didn't yield a comparable result.  One of the problems was that I didn't have all the data necessary to include in the formula (doubles and triples allowed, double plays induced, etc) and using league average extrapolations just wasn't accurate enough.

2) The age factor for pitchers wasn't as clear as it was for hitters.  Unlike hitters, getting to the majors early wasn't necessarily a good thing.  In fact, given the injury rates for young pitchers with heavy workloads, it could be detrimental.

3) competence in the minors or a lack thereof doesn't necessarily yield a similar result in the majors.  While it seems clear from his minor league numbers that Pedro Martinez was going to be a star quality major league starter, it wasn't as clear from the numbers of pitchers like Curt Schilling.  To confuse the issue even more, pitchers like Bobby Jones looked like they'd become perennial AllStars based on the minor league numbers, yet have become little more than innings eaters.  My thinking is that the learning curve is much less evident in pitchers than it is in hitters.

In the end, I'm still a long ways away from coming up with a system that will statistically compare hitters and pitchers.  Oh well.  As for the hitters, we'll just have to see on this year's list.  Once the season gets going and I have more time, I'll apply the formula to previous years and see if the results were born out with the degree of major league success.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus

I may have come a little closer to the mark on this one.  The new prevailing theory was that there is no evidence for the existence of clutch hitters, because no one consistently hits better in the clutch from year to year.

My problem with that definition was that they were comparing how a hitter generally hits to how he performs in "clutch" situations.  My contention was that in order to accurately examine the issue, the comparison needed to be between the clutch situation and a situation that approximated "clutchness" but without the clutch pressure.  I suggested that clutch situations often involve the hitter facing a pitcher for the first time, so that might be a good place to begin.  I also suggested that hitters generally don't hit as well the first time they face a pitcher as they do the second and third time around, so that might be the reason there weren't many hitters who consistently hit better in the clutch than they do overall.

Fortunately for me (because it saved me a heck of a lot of work), ESPN started posting batting splits by times facing the same pitcher.  And as it turns out, hitters generally do tend to hit better the 2nd and 3rd time facing a pitcher.  And there are players who fairly consistently hit in clutch situations as well or better than they do in regular first at bats - Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez, Barry Bonds and Mike Piazza to name a few.  But I didn't find any who did it every year.  And generally, when the clutch numbers were better, they were not dramatically better.  Most were around 10 points better in batting average and 30 points better in OPS.  So while there doesn't appear to be any mild mannered utility infielder who suddenly becomes Superman when the game is on the line, there is some indication that clutch hitters are not entirely myth.

Watered Down Competition

This topic wasn't a column per se, but I've touched on it several times over the past couple of years.  There's an ongoing discussion concerning the quality of play in today's game.

One side says that the league has too many teams; that there are simply not enough quality players to adequately fill all the major league rosters with major league quality players.  They cite that the number of records that have fallen in recent years is almost entirely due to a massive infusion - 2 expansions, 4 teams - of watered-down talent.

The other side says that there has never been a better era for baseball, that today's' players are the best ever.  They cite that the ratio of available major league jobs to the overall population of potential players has never been more favorable for the quality of play.  They also cite the advances in medical and physiological knowledge and technology have kept the best players in the game far longer than they might have stayed in previous generations.

I'm afraid I have to come down somewhere in the middle.  Let me work backwards to explain why.

The population ratio is a decent argument.  But in who's ledger remains somewhat of a mystery.  The ratio of available major league jobs to US population is the lowest it's been since the late 50's/early 60's, when the infusion of African-American talent from the Negro Leagues was complete.  In other words, there are fewer major league jobs per unit of population, so therefore the level of competition should be higher.  However, that doesn't take into account one major factor: money.

Before the 1960's, baseball was about the only sport in which an athlete could make a decent living.  In fact, a number of athletes who were better at other sports, pursued careers in baseball: Jackie Robinson (football, basketball, track), Harry Agganis (football) and Jim Thorpe (track and field) to name several.  Had the opportunities that athletes have available today been open to them, it's doubtful any of them would have pursued baseball.  Baseball got the athletic cream of the crop.

Since the 1950's, however, other sports have risen to prominence.  In the 1960s and 70s football rose in popularity with the emergence of such stars as Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath.  In the late 70s and early 80s, basketball made enormous gains in popularity with stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan leading the way.  Likewise hockey, with charismatic stars like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux drew more and more fans in the 80's and 90s.  Even the Olympics, which 50-60 years ago was almost the exclusive domain of well-off college athletes, has gained increased popularity and sponsorship.

With popularity comes expansion.  Back in the 50's, there were only 16 major league baseball teams.  However, there were only 12 NFL teams, 8 NBA teams and but 6 NHL teams.  Today, baseball has 30 teams.  However, the NFL now has 32, the NBA has 29 and the NHL has 30.  So while the population may have been able to support an increase of 88% in the number of baseball teams, could it also simultaneously support an increased talent demand of over 100% in 3 other major sports, plus numerous other sports enterprises which athletes can now pursue?  Probably not.

However, not all is working in favor of the contractionists.  For instance, until the last 20-25 years, professional sports had a stigma: those who couldn't do anything else, played sports.  If someone was a talented baseball or football player in high school, generally, they weren't thinking, "I'm gonna become a professional athlete".  Most were thinking, "sports is gonna get me a college scholarship so I can study to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer and make some real money."  Needless to say, that isn't true any more.  Sports is no longer a means to an end, but a means in and of itself now.  So while baseball may have gotten more of the best athletes than other sports, not all of the best athletes necessarily went into professional sports.  Today, If a young man can throw a ball 85+ miles per hour, you can pretty much bet the farm he and his family are thinking million dollar baseball contract.  But how many athletes does this account for?  Before the advent of free agency and the million dollar contracts, how many decided that professional sports just didn't pay enough or offer enough guarantees to adequately take care of a family?  We may never know.  And because of that, we may never know how diluted or dense the pool of athletes actually is as compared to the ideal years of baseball.

Don't get me wrong, here.  I'm not talking about the stars of the sport.  With the possible exception of multi-sport stars, those players clearly have a special gift to play their chosen sport and would have gone into baseball or whatever sport they chose regardless.  I'm looking only at the quality of the league average player, the guys whom the stars are compared to; talented athletes who were good enough, just not simply good.

So where do I stand?  Well, I think anyone would be hard-pressed to suggest that the 1950 Athletics (52-102) or the 1952 Pirates (42-112) were loaded with a bunch of players who would be stars in today's game.  Yes, they had a few good-great players, but they were hardly an argument for fewer-teams-is-better.  Nor would I suggest that expanding by 4 teams in 5 years has necessarily made baseball more enjoyable to watch.  I'm inclined to believe that the current quality of the average player is certainly less than it was during the golden years of the sport (late 50s/early 60s), but better than most years.  But that's just a hunch.

However, I'm also inclined to believe that if the powers of baseball can just stop turning everyone's stomach with their ridiculous posturing and bald-faced greed, that the game can once again attract the best talent - young kids who are now trying to decide between going out for little league or peewee football or youth league soccer - to bring about a platinum age of baseball.  With the ongoing integration of the entire world into our game and the advances in physical well-being, baseball is in a prime position to again rise to sports supremacy.