Friday, March 18, 2011


Back here we gave you a look at how the 1995-2010 time frame affected the record book for hitters (using both basic single-season counting stats--hits, runs, doubles, triples, homers, RBI, total bases, walks, extra-base hits, runs created--and single-season rate stats--BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, ISO). The effect on the record book was considerable, but patterned in an interesting way.

Now we are going to do the same thing, but we are going to pretend that we are writing all this seventy-five or so years ago, in 1935. (Imagine what the world would have been like if folks in 1935 could have had their own blogs. H. L. Mencken with a blog? A most daunting proposition... )

In the earlier version (or should we say the later version...), we compared the record book after the 1995 season with the record book as it stands after the 2010 season. In this version (which was written later about times that were earlier...), we compare the record book after 1919 with the record book as it stood after 1934.

This time frame, conveniently enough, encompasses the first major sustained offensive surge in the liveball era. (We will, conveniently enough, ignore the 1893-1897 offensive "spike" as being sparked by major rule changes beyond alterations in the baseball--and we can do what others in the present day do with respect to other essentially irrelevant issues, which is to blame the president. So nuts to you, Grover Cleveland.)

As with our last batch of record book comparisons, we'll order them in terms of the least amount of change (as measured by the ∆  column, which measures the rate of change in 1934 from the 1919 baseline, which is set at 100).

The five stats that changed the least in terms of record book thresholds from 1995 to 2010 were: runs, hits, triples, BA, and OBP.

Four of these are also the stats that changed the least from 1919 to 1934. Those four: runs, triples, and batting average.

Note, though, that the rate of change for these stats is markedly higher than the analogous rate of change for these stats from 1995 to 2010. Whereas the later stats move only a few tick marks (from 1-23% according to the measure), the same stats from 1919 to 1934 move from around 20% to 70%.

That means that the comparative rate of change in these stats is much higher in the 1919-1934 period than was the case in 1995-2010.

Some of this is explained by the passage of time, of course. Even with nearly four times as many hitters, the increasing quality of play tends to dampen the ability of players to reach elite levels in single-season performance. It only stands to reason that such feats were easier in the 1919-1934 time frame, since there had only been forty-plus years of baseball records (and fewer seasons yet with at least 154 games) at that point in time.

So we will see some massive shifts in these data points as we move forward.

Before we move on, though, let's note that triples are the stat (or "event") that has been on the steepest extinction gradient, and that steep slope of descent comes into being in the 1920s. While there are still a lot of triples being hit in that time frame, the incidence of "high-threshold" single-season performance goes into freefall.

The next group of stats were in what we called the "moderate change group". In 1995-2010, the stats that resided in that group were: BB, OPS, and SLG. The grouping for 1919-1934 is somewhat different: hits, doubles, BB, and OPS.

Now even these "moderate change" groups in the 1919-1934 time frame wind up producing new single-season records in these stats (George Sisler sets the hits record that stood for eighty-plus years; Babe Ruth sets the BB and OPS records that stood for nearly eighty years; Earl Webb sets the doubles record that still stands).

This change group is registering between 260% change in the lowest "elite threshold" to nearly 500%. Kind of mind-numbing to think of that as "moderate change," but there you go.

On to the "pronounced change group." In 1995-2010, the three stats that were in this group were the ones that various incarnations of baseball analysts have valued, rightly or wrongly, as a shorthand for overall contribution toward offense: RBI, TB, and RC (runs created, in case you've been in asynchronous orbit for the last three decades).

For 1919-1934, this threesome is right back in this change level, but with a special guest: SLG.

It kind of makes sense that SLG would be more pronounced in that time frame: HRs, which as we're sure you've noticed haven't shown up as yet (meaning that they're in the "high change" group) go up so far so fast that elite SLG levels go through the roof. This is precisely the point of the transition to the modern game, and looking at the record book in this fashion captures its magnitude more dramatically than any other set of measures.

Finally, onto the "high change" group (which, in this context, might best be called the "massive massive massive change group"--though the focus group was somewhat queasy about double repetitions...). In 1995-2010, this group contained the following stats: doubles, homers, ISO, and extra-base hits.  Back in 1919-1934, doubles had dropped out of this change level, leaving only "the big three": homers, extra-base hits, and ISO--the three fastest ways to add to what Eric Walker called the "power factor": total bases divided by hits.

Moon in the seventh house: also the schematic
for the various "cut fastball" angles. A zodiac
is only as good as its seams...
In order for us to see any kind of distribution pattern at all, we've had to drop the HR threshold down to 20. (We didn't go below 40 in the 1995-2010 data.) A similar, but less dramatic need to drop the threshold occurs with XBH (down to 75 from 85). The known universe of these stats goes through something analogous to a red shift. It was the dawning of an age (regardless of whether or not the moon was in the seventh house).

It's interesting to see where some of the "gaps" in the thresholds reside. Some of the distributions are orderly (check out HRs), while in ISO there's Babe Ruth (bringing across the three .400+ ISO seasons) and everybody else. Ruth, of course, strides across this era like a colossus, in much the same way that Barry Bonds did in the past fifteen years.

So the record book literally had its seams unstitched in 1919-1934, except for triples. If we had the level of information available to us now back then, there certainly would have been a congressional investigation into the sinister, subversive, downright unAmerican destruction of the "inside game," and the old-timey traditionalists would be depth-blogging the bejesus out of us even as we rush to put the period on the sentence.

That would be hard to take, but what's harder to live with is the 99.9999999% certainty (sorry, we get paid by the number of numbers to the right of the decimal place just the same way that Repoz at BTF gets paid by the number of posts his high-fat links generate...) that we will never see a serious challenge to two offensive records that blend power and speed: doubles, and--of course--triples.

Ubu: "Hola! Say, I know second base is
around here somewhere!!!"
Can anyone even imagine what it would be like to have a hitter heading into September with 30 triples? 60 doubles? That these records are held by non-descript players (Chief Wilson, Earl Webb--two used car salesmen...) only increases the charm of these orphaned accomplishments. As astonishing as the changes in the record book have been, we need something beyond astonishing: we need something anomalous, absurd.

Ubu Roi: 69 doubles!