Sunday, July 10, 2011


Marc Carig, typing away for the Newark Star-Ledger, is trying to get down with the "sabermetric revolution." He really is.

But he's trying way too hard. His column this morning suggests that Moneyball (that goes-good-with-everything fashion accessory masquerading as deep thinking) has raised the level of "walk-consciousness" through the roof, and is encroaching on the possibility that anyone will ever reach the 3,000-hit milestone ever again (now that Nate Silver's backgammon partner, Derek Jeter, has crossed over).

What do they put in the water back on the East Coast, anyway? Or is it that Marc is just rushing to be "hep" (as they used to say before the invention of be-bop)?? A glance at the three-year averages for walks per game over the past hundred or so years will rapidly point out that walk totals were a good bit higher in the 1990s, well before Moneyball was a gleam in the eye of Michael Lewis's bank account.

(And, of course, if only Carig could have been there in 1949 to see what real walking was all about--especially in the American League. Bill James, showing admirable restraint when characterizing the style of play embodied by late 1940s baseball--"the baseball of the ticking time bomb"--didn't jump on the bandwagon and declare the short-lived walk mania in this time frame as a "golden age" of baseball. (No, a different set of New York-based sportswriters did that, mostly because the teams they wrote about were dominating the game to an extent that was unprecedented.)

Carig would have clearly seen the demise of the 3,000 hit player in 1949, when walks really were catching up to hits. Our pumpkin-colored area chart (not meant to be any kind of veiled reference for the consistency of the matter inside Carig's skull...) demonstrates that the hit-to-walk ratio has been a good bit more consistent over the past fifty years once the walk spike ran its course. And the chart also demonstrates that we are in no danger of walks encroaching on hits (even as hits become a bit more scarce overall, as batting averages experience a downturn over the past several years).

Of course, if we'd been looking at this trend in 1949, we might have jumped to the same conclusion that Carig has--and the direction of the chart at that time would certainly seemed to have supported such an interpretation. Such a conclusion would have been proven wrong by subsequent events--strike zone adjustments, the rise of power pitching, etc. Baseball history suggests that an extreme condition will eventually relent and move back toward the center (though this may never happen with some features in the game, such as complete games).

We might have thought in 1949 that there could never be a 3,000-hit player again, what with the relative decline in hits and the ascending importance of walks. As our chart of 3,000 hit players shows (above), there was a curious lull in the lively ball era, a kind of paradox where rising batting averages produced fewer 3,000 hit careers. Despite a rise in the number of players with 1600+ hits in their career through the age of 31, no one was crashing through to 3,000 hits any more. Some of this was exacerbated by World War II, of course. But at the end of the 40s, only one of 34 such players (1600+ H at age 31) had reached the 3,000 figure--Paul Waner.

And though Stan Musial broke through in the 1950s, the incidence of 3,000-hit players remained scarce (only 5% made it out of what we might call the "eligible population").

Suddenly in the sixties, however, this all changed. Over the next four decades, eighteen players joined the 3,000 hit club. The percentage of the eligible population making it to 3,000 hits reached its all-time high at 28%.

Now, interestingly enough, we are at a point where a lot of eligible players made the list in the last decade (17 players had 1600+ hits by the age of 31), but their follow-through, like those players in the 1920s and 1930s, has not been good at all. Whatever the reason for this, one thing is clear: it has absolutely nothing to do with drawing too many walks.

The summary totals by number of hits by age 31 tell an interesting tale in themselves. Players with 1900 or more hits have three times the chance of reaching 3,000 hits (24%) than those less than 1900 hits (just 8%).

Some trivia questions--who is the player with 3000+ hits who had the fewest number of career hits at the age of 31? How many more hitters are out there who got 3000+ hits but who had less than 1600 hits by the age of 31?

Answer to question one: Cap Anson had only 1290 hits at the age of 31.

Four other players had less than 1600 hits at the age of 31 and made the 3000 club: Paul Molitor (1557), Dave Winfield (1568), Honus Wagner (1576), and Wade Boggs (1597). You could make a pretty good infield out of that squad (yes, Winfield played eight games at 1B!).

To get back to our indiscriminate bashing, let's conclude by noting that Marc Carig is no historian. If he were, he might understand that the adjustments made in the game of baseball in the 1960s helped a series of players with less clearly defined superstar skills (read: power) develop long, productive careers and add to the ranks of 3,000 hitters. Players such as Lou Brock, Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Tony Gwynn, and Rickey Henderson.

While folks will inevitably carp about how a singles
hitter can be the "best" in the game,  it wouldn't
hurt to have a time frame where someone like
Rod Carew could legitimately be considered as
"the best"--baseball needs that variety...
There's a chance that this type of player will develop over the next twenty years. With the game moving toward a greater reliance on balanced hitting after a surfeit of home runs, "scientific singles hitters" may yet reemerge. Of course, they are not any more valuable than power hitters with 30-40 less hits per season (more walks and greater isolated power), but if they reemerge, they will start racking up 200+ hit seasons.

And that is the surest way to produce more 3,000 hit players.

Exciting "middle way" players have become exceedingly scarce: it's time they made a comeback. These guys have been more than just popular--they have been downright lovable (OK, not Pete--but he's the exception that proves the rule). A little of that quality can go a long way. Paging the next Rod Carew...