Whether you believe in Darwin’s theory or not, what we can all agree upon is that things are evolving around us on a daily basis. Some of these transformations take a matter of minutes before we as humans can see the changes as in the case of a mutating virus or bacteria strain becoming resistant to drugs. Other changes take thousands of years and we as humans will never see the effects, like a river or waterfall slowly eroding a hillside or cliff. The game of baseball is no different although the time it takes to realize the changes is a window of just 100 years or so. Much of this change can be attributed to our development as human beings and subsequently the athletes who devote their lives to the sport.
As technology develops, humans are using it to get faster, bigger and stronger than ever before and its having an effect on the game of baseball – but not in the way that anyone could have ever imagined. Team sports, such as baseball, are measured in vastly different ways than individual sports such as track & field, golf, or swimming. As athletes become more proficient in their individual sports, we see records being broken all the time. A new fastest 100m dash, a new low course score, a new record every day.
But in team sports, as athletes on both sides of the ball become more proficient, these effects tend to balance each other out. People say, “Well imagine if ‘old timey athlete’ had this kind of weight training or had as much film available to analyze as athletes do today. They would have put today’s players to shame.” Perhaps – if they were the ONLY ones analyzing film or hitting the gym. The truth of the matter is that even if Walter Payton had been able to run faster or bench press more, the linebackers and safeties he was facing on a weekly basis would be improving on a comparable scale.
So then what do I mean by baseball evolution? If the end result is that everyone is becoming more balanced and even, then how does the game evolve? In order to see the evolution of the game of baseball, you have to scratch below the surface. We will take a look at three components of the game that have been around since its inception: Runs, Steals and Home Runs. Every year, the per-game averages for these stats are different, but there are some definite trends that need analyzing to see just how the game is evolving before our very eyes.
Runs per Game Analysis
First, Second, Third, Home – it’s as easy as that. If you can touch all the bases your team gets a run. Score more runs than the other team and you have yourself a nice little victory. Historically, the average amount of runs scored per game in the American and National leagues has remained surprisingly constant. Over the last 110 years, American League Teams have averaged 4.48 Runs per Game. The National League is a little behind, but close enough at 4.3 Runs per Game. Ok, so these numbers are all good and fine, but in the grand scheme of things, where do they lie?
This tells us that even at its best and at its worst, Major League Baseball has never strayed more than 1.4 runs/game from its average. Throughout the last 110 years, Major League Baseball has been nothing but consistent with its scoring outputs.
The game has to be changing somewhere. But where?
Home Runs per Game Analysis
In looking at the home runs, we should be able to see some definite shifts. Athletes are bigger, stronger, and the parks are getting smaller. This is where we see our first real noticeable shift in how the game is played. The American League and National League have averaged a little more than half a homer per game (0.66 and 0.63 Respectively) which is surprisingly close. But again, averages over 100 years tell us nothing.
There was a time, in the game of baseball, when teams would have to wait more than 10 games before they saw a home run. Can you imagine that today?
The shift towards home run increases began first in the early 1940’s, but leveled out and even began to decrease up until the mid 80’s where we saw another spike. That spike eventually came crashing back down, but only for a few years. 1993 was the last time we saw the American league hit less than 1 Home Run per game on average. The National League has provided such anomalies, but only on an intermittent scale of the past 15 years.
But despite these daily feats of strength, the run totals have stayed within the same range in both leagues. Where are the runs going?
Stolen Bases per Game Analysis
Let’s go back to the formula for scoring a run in baseball. First, Second, Third, Home. Hitting homer lets you take it easy on your trip around the bases, but even with the increased total, the home run is still one of the least common ways of reaching base (aside from a triple). Most commonly runners either walk or reach base on a single. Getting from first to home is tough without taking some shortcuts, which is why the stolen base was developed. It allowed teams to move a runner from first base to subsequent bases without having to sacrifice outs – although there was still the ever-present risk of getting thrown out.
Runners standing on third base have an easier time scoring than runners standing on second base, and obviously first base. So you’d think that in order to increase runs, you’d have to increase the ability for base runners to score by moving them into scoring position. Well this is a facet of the game that has actually taken a step back. Think back to physics class where we learned that for every action (home run increases) there is an equal and opposite reaction (stolen base decreases).
Surprisingly, over the last 110 years the American League has been slightly more proficient at stealing bases than the National League, eking out a slim 0.57 to 0.56 advantage.
Again, just like with the home runs, we see a pretty large disparity between the high and low points for these data sets. A quick look at the following chart will show us the trend that we all expected to see.
Pretty much since the early 1920’s, stolen bases have been on the decline. The 80’s saw a resurgence thanks in large part to Ricky Henderson, but the Majors as a whole just arent stealing bases anymore. The figures are eye opening, but not necessarily surprising.
Putting it All Together
I will let the graphs do much of the talking here since pictures are worth a thousand words, and graphs are worth probably even more.
Watch as the stolen bases and home runs per game in both leagues cross paths while the average runs per game stays relatively even. Sure there are upticks and valleys, but runs are even – if not a little bit down compared to the early part of the 20th century.
But there has to be an explanation as to why we see all of these changes under the surface of baseball but on top of it all, nothing changes. Think of it like a whale and a sail boat. The whale swimming under the water is churning up all sorts of things, moving the water around, turning fish, plankton and krill upside down and every which way. But even if this is happening directly below someone sitting in a sailboat, the sea can be just as calm as it was 10 minutes before the whale arrived. Not all evolution is visible, but that doesn’t mean that its not occurring.
Humans have advanced, there is no doubt about that, but the advancements have a ceiling and where we have hit that ceiling is becoming apparent. Aside from some outlying phenomena, pitchers might have reached the ceiling with regards to how fast they can throw, how much break they can get on their curve ball and so on. We will call that our constant. The variables then are the size of the ball parks and the power that a hitter can generate with their swing. It is unclear at this point whether hitters have reached their capacity on that level and this could be why we are seeing so many more home runs. The pitchers are stuck in an evolutionary dead end while the hitters are trucking along on a 7 lane superhighway.
In terms of baserunning, there are constants and variables here as well. The constants are going to be the distance between the bases, and apparently the speed at which a player can run. Our variable in this case is the catcher’s arm strength and reaction time. With better coaching and training tools at their disposal, catchers are getting better each and every year. When both the baserunning and defensive catching components max out, catching will almost always win. Good catchers are hard to find, but more and more, teams are sacrificing offensive output from their catchers for proficiency behind the dish. It doesn’t matter if you hit sub .250 as long as you can throw runners out. And its because of this that the runs per game averages have remained steady. There is more than one way to win a ball game – good pitching, home run barrages, small ball, and so many more. The outcome is always the same, but the tiny evolution beneath the surface is what separates average teams from champions. Teams are struggling to get their piece of the pie because they know that when all is said and done, there arent going to be any extra runs to be had – so do what you can to score those runs. These days it seems easier to score them through the home run of one man, rather than the small ball method which depends on multiple guys getting on the same page just for one measly run.
As a baseball fanatic, I cant even say that I’m upset with how things are transitioning. In fact, I love to see how the game changes and evolves. It keeps a centuries old sport fresh, relevant and exciting. I can only wonder what the next decade of evolution will bring.