Catching Up (07/29/00)
Looks like I picked the wrong month for a vacation. Every other year nothing happens at the trade deadline. This year, everyone went crazy making trades. I apologize for not being here to sort through the insanity. However, I do have a pretty decent excuse: I was in Hawai'i on my second honeymoon.
Anyway, whenever someone found out what I did for a living, they'd always ask me, "why are there so many home runs?" The first couple of times, I gave people the generic answer: that the hitters were bigger, the ball was wound by machines instead of people and the ballparks are smaller. But that just didn't add up. Ebbett's Field (296' down the right field line, 352' to right field power alley, 376' to right center) was a bandbox compared to some of the parks today, as was Philadelphia' Baker Bowl (281' down the right field line and 300' to the right field power alley). And Camden Yards and Wrigley field didn't suddenly get smaller. And the Rockies have been playing at high altitude since 1992. So it's not the ballparks. Hitters didn't suddenly get bigger in 1994-95. And while the hitter's are bigger on average today than they were 50 years ago, I don't think anyone in baseball history was as big as Frank Howard - 6'7", 255 lbs - and he never hit 50 homers in a season. And simple physics will tell you that, while a machine is more efficient in making a baseball, the added elasticity of the ball would be measured in fractions of a percentage point, accounting for maybe a foot or two of extra distance. So it's not all ball either. So what is the real reason?
Then it hit me, like a Roger Clemens "slip". There are two significant reasons why we are "enjoying" the most offensive era in baseball history: thin bats and "bad" pitchers.
Bat speed is the key to hitting a ball far. Ever tried the strongman challenge at a carnival? Y'know, where you use a sledge hammer to smash a little seesaw, propelling a weight about 30 feet in the air to hit a bell. Anyone who has done that successfully can tell you that it's not how strong you are, but how fast you can whip the head of the sledge hammer through the air to impact the lever that makes the weight ring the bell. The same principle is at work in baseball. Look at the bats hitters used for most of the 20th century and you'll find the circumference of the handle is anywhere from 1/2 to 1/4 the size of the barrel. Now look at the bats players are using today. Most of them shave the handles down to close to 1/8 the size of the barrel. That extra wood shaved off saves them a couple of ounces of weight. It also improves the aerodynamics of the bat by giving it a smaller profile and shifts the weight of the bat more towards the end, making it easier to accelerate the head through the strikezone. The result: 2-5 mph extra velocity, which, when transferred to a baseball traveling at 85-90 mph in the opposite direction, is enough energy to make the difference between a warning track flyball and a home run.
The other factor is the pitchers. Two expansions meant more opportunities for pitchers. This meant more teams looking for ways of getting quality pitching. Rather than trying someone else's old news, many teams are looking to their own young blood from their farms. Teams pay as much or more in signing bonuses to draftees and international signees as they do bench players on their big league clubs. As the numbers tell you, most of these pitchers simply don't pan out. Injuries play a key role but a lot of them simply can't master the skills necessary to make it to the big leagues. Inconsistency is probably the biggest problem for pitchers to overcome. When a pitcher shows some promise, however, the big club usually promotes him as quickly as possible, hoping to get a return on it's investment, often times at the expense of experience. So rather than a pitcher getting 75-100 starts in the minors, guys are only getting 50-60 starts. This causes two problems, the first of which is that guys don't know how to pitch - how to set up hitters, how to pitch inside, etc. They also make more mistakes where hitters can hit them. The second problem is that this indirectly leads to increased chance for injury. As you might imagine, pitching in the minors is a lot less stressful than pitching in the majors. You think your boss is tough? Imagine your boss on a bad hair day after a few beers, watching your every move... now multiply that by 20,000... Now that's stress. Many scientific studies have shown that excessive stress leads to physical breakdowns. Throw in the fact that the pitching is not an act that your arm was physically designed for, and then add the lack of knowledge and experience necessary to minimize that stress from repeating that action, and you have a perfect recipe for injury. More pitching injuries mean fewer experienced quality arms.
So there it is: (Fewer quality arms + inexperience) * faster bat speeds = lots more homers.