How Offensive    (10/10/00)

During the course of a discussion concerning the merits of Bernie Williams as a potential Hall of Famer, a colleague of mine touched on the fact that we are witnessing a pretty offensive era in baseball.  That is, a lot of runs are being scored.  I submitted that this is indeed an offensively minded era.  In fact, I argued, we are experiencing the most run friendly period in the annals of the game.

To wit, the 1930's are widely considered to be the heyday of hitters.  League average in 1930 was over .300.  Hack Wilson drove in 191 RBI that year.  During the 30's the Yankees scored over a thousand runs 4 times and scored over 900 in every year of the decade but 2 (1934, 1935).  Indeed, it was a time when offense was king.

But no more so that today.  From 1927-1939, 25 teams scored 900 or more runs.  Since 1996, the beginning of what I call the New Era of Offense, 22 teams have scored 900 or more runs.  Yes, there are nearly twice as many teams as there were back then, but 5 years (1996-2000) is less that half of the 13-year period from 1927-1939.  As a ratio, from 1927-1939, 25 of the possible 208 team years resulted in 900 runs scored or 12%.  Remove 1927-1929 from the equation - 5-900+ run seasons in 48 team years - and the ratio drops to 10.6%.

From 1996-2000, 22 of the 146 team years yielded 900+ runs seasons, or 15%.  So there are at least 3% more 900+ run seasons now than there were in the "most offense era in baseball history".

Looking at the average runs scored per team yields a similar result.  In 1930, the average runs scored per team was 855, the highest in any one year in history.  However, the rest of the decade wasn't nearly as prolific.  In 1931, the average per team was 743.  In 1932, it was 757.  In fact, when one averages the numbers for the decade, the average runs scored per team was 759 runs a year.

Last year, the average runs scored per team was 823.  This year, the average was 832.  In 1998, it was 776.  In 1997, it was 771.  In 1996,
the average was 815.  So the 5-year average of runs per team for the last 5 years is 803 runs per year.

Ahh, but they play more games per season now than they did in the 30's.  Back then they only played 154; today they play 162.  No problem.  Even breaking the numbers down to a per game bases if runs scored, the average team scored 4.9285 runs per game in the 1930's.  Today the average is 4.9567.

The modern game, at least in terms of offense, has the advantage of having the DH in nearly half of the games played.  But that only affects the argument in one way: it lessens the value of current player's statistics because they can generate offensive numbers without playing the field.  It may very well be the deciding factor in the difference in runs scored between the two eras but it does not diminish the fact that a lot of runs are being scored, with or without the DH.  Even without the DH, this current explosion of offense compares favorably to previous eras.

So what happened with the Williams discussion?  It's important to remember when evaluating a player and his chances for the Hall of Fame that the context in which he played should be a significant factor in how he should be considered.  My colleague asserts that he is a mortal lock for 350 homers and probably 3000 hits.  Impressive numbers.  However, I'm not as confident in those projections.

Williams finished the year with 181 career homers, 1463 hits and a .304 batting average.  Those numbers really don't tell you a lot about his overall offensive value, but until more sportswriters start looking at different, more indicative stats, that's what he will be evaluated on.  Williams is 32 years old.  He probably has 3 to 5 more productive years before a steady decline to retirement.  With few exceptions, players show declining production beginning around age 35.  But we'll give Williams the benefit of the doubt and assume he'll be productive longer than the average, or in this case, above average player.  If he maintains his current rate of production for the next 5 years, he will have 312 homers (having averaged a little better than 26 per year for the past 5 years) and 2288 hits (averaged 165 hits per year for the past 8 years) when he turns 37.  He could have a few more productive years after that, but not likely as good as he's doing now.  So it's quite likely that he'll end up with about 330 homers and 2500 hits.  Nice numbers but not that much better than those of Rusty Staub (292 homers, 2716 hits).  Considering that Staub played in the one of the toughest periods in history for a hitter - the 1960's and early 70's, where the average team scored nearly a run less per game than they do now - and hasn't really gotten much support in his bid for Cooperstown, and Williams has played in the most hitter friendly era in history, I'd say that Williams' chances are fairly slim.