Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Two quick data items to illustrate the impact of the inexorable, long-term, continuing transition toward a two-dimensional game glutted (and, increasingly, glutted strategically) by an over-emphasis on the long ball.

First, the source data for these. It's a series of extractions from the Play Index at Forman et fils, capturing all of the players with a three-year walk percentage (abbreviated BBP) of 12.5% or higher. (There have been just over 2600 instances of this since the three year period of 1900-1902 through the most recent, which, of course, is 2012-14.)

One of the things that protects the three-dimensional aspect of baseball strategy is that players can have characteristics that are seemingly contradictory in nature. In other words, things that might seem mutually exclusive--speed and power--can co-exist. Often these mutually exclusive characteristics do become truly and irrevocably separate: power and speed are well-known to separate by the age of a player, for example.

But they still tend to co-exist to at least some extent. Which is how the game perpetuates some semblance of three-dimensionality.

Another such area of "semi-mutual exclusivity" is low power and the ability to draw walks. As the game morphed into a version of itself where home runs were much more frequent, changes in how walks and low power co-existed came about. Our patented "telescope chart" (at right), which puts yearly data into a grid organized by decades, shows what happened with respect to "low power" hitters with well-above-average walk totals.

The shocking part of this chart is found at the bottom, where you can see that such hitters have literally disappeared from the game.

These players were always a rather small minority (the overall average for players with 12.5+% BBP and an isolated power average under .100 now resides at about 13% of all such hitters with a 12.5+% BBP), but even into the nineties these players continued to exist.

That is no longer the case--and this trend actually pre-dates the offensive downturn of the most recent years.

So perhaps some of our "pundit pals" who scoop up so many of our ideas (without giving proper credit from where they come from, by the way...) will be ready to mount the barricades with this one, given that it can fit into a meme about baseball is going back to the "second deadball era" (specifically, 1966-71, as captured by the "zeroes" on the above chart).

All that makes for a good headline, but it doesn't get at the fact that all this is a most interesting and baffling backfire for a sport suddenly inundated with "metrics" and "analysis." We have a lot of trouble keeping our food down when confronted with that first term, but we are (despite whispers to the contrary) not against the second term, particularly if it could be used for some long-overdue self-reflection on the part of its most flamboyant purveyors.

Our second data item: a more specialized look at how even more elite "walkmen" (the term we coined back in the nineties for glorious anomalies such as Max Bishop, Roy Cullenbine, Eddie Yost, Ferris Fain, and a few other folks who didn't hit with power but managed to take walks at a rate equivalent to the most feared power hitters) have inexorably been requiring an increasing level of isolated power in order to achieve ultra-high walk totals. (For this chart, players need to have a three-year average BBP of 15% or higher.)

Dave Magadan, attempting to explain to a young fan just what has
happened to all the low-power walkmen. 
As the arrow and the ovals demonstrate (see chart at left above), the power axis for walkmen has continued to climb. One wonders if it can go any higher before the game really starts to lose some of its second dimension along with its third.

Notice, also, down in the lower right corner of the chart--the complete absence of any sub-.100 ISO hitter with 15+% BBP. No one has done that over a three-year period since 1995-97.

Who was that last low-power "walkman"?

Why...Dave Magadan, of course. (Doesn't everyone know that??)