I'm departing a bit from my typical focus on statistical analysis with this post (sort of), but here are a few things that I've been mulling over during the past few weeks:
What do we mean by Modern Baseball?
Typically, when folks refer to modern baseball, especially in the context of records, we refer to baseball played after and including 1900. But does that make sense? 1900 baseball bares very little resemblance to today's baseball--it was the "dead ball era," and no one had ever hit more than 27 home runs in a season. I'm not even sure if they were using gloves yet(?).
Another option might be to declare that modern baseball began in 1920, when Babe Ruth doubled the all-time home run record with 54 in his first season with the Yankees. Then, at least, we were starting to see offensive levels that approached what we see today.
Tom Tango, however, argued a few weeks back that we might be better served declaring that modern baseball began in 1947. That, of course, is the year that Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues as the first African-American ballplayer. All of the sudden (well...at least within 20 years...), the population from which modern baseball players could be drawn increased dramatically--and with it, the level of competition increased as well.
This talent pool, of course, has continued to increase ever since. The infusion of Latino talent has been the story of the past several decades, and we're probably still just beginning to see the invasion of Asian talent in the game. And all signs indicate that this will continue as the game becomes more global. But the start of this expansion in available talent--and the huge increase in level of play that it has brought with it--can probably all be traced back to the presence and actions of Jackie Robinson, with a hat tip to Branch Ricky for helping make it happen. Quantitatively, there may not have been a big jump around that time in the level of competition. But from a social and historical perspective, 1947 seems to have been the turning point.
So count me as one on board with this notion--if it happened before 1947, it wasn't not modern baseball. Sorry, Babe.
How do MLB's activities affect the Dominican Republic?
On a somewhat related note, a few weeks back, I made a comment about Edwin Encarnacion's status as a ballplayer from the Dominican Republic, and what that likely means for what he has been through to arrive at this point in his still-young career. While I still haven't found much on Eddie's personal history, I did spend an evening doing a bit of research on Dominican ballplayers in general...and found some disturbing things.
The story we tend to hear about Dominican ballplayers are the success stories--the Miguel Tejada's and David Ortiz's, and to a lesser extent, the Edwin Encarnacion's, who have made it off the island and onto major league rosters. Even making the league minimum, for example, Encarnacion's annual salary of $390,000 is an enormous sum of money compared to what I hope to make upon finishing grad school in a few months. ... And is an outrageous sum of money compared to what one might hope to make in the D.R., which ranks 73rd in per capita income in the world, with an value just 20% that found in the USA.
But what we don't hear about is impact of the far more frequent cases of young boys and men from the Dominican Republic who fail to make it even off Hispanola. This article by Dave Zinn, while somewhat dated, reports that boys in that country often quit school at 10-12 years old to join baseball academies. There they stay for several years before being discarded, with little education or other additional skills, in their late teens. And even of the small number that do make it to the the US minor league system, only a small fraction of those individuals will ever arrive in the major leagues and start earning good money. While there are rare successes, Zimm insinuates that the activities of Major League Baseball are causing more harm than good to that country's people. In fact, he calls it strip mining.
I'm having a hard time confirming the extent to which this is true. There are a few other articles like this scattered about the internet, but none seem to incorporate enough quantifiable numbers or hard sources to make me feel confident that this is the case. Major League Baseball certainly has focused on the positives related to its activities, such as how they pull these kids out of poverty, give them clean sheets and English lessons, and teach them discipline as well as baseball. I may try to do some searches in the academic literature when I have some time...
But if Zimm's argument is true, it's a genuine problem that we, as fans, need to be aware of. And the Reds, one of many teams with an academy in the Dominican Republic, will be partly to blame. Hopefully more will come to the surface on this issue in the future--like most problems of social justice, it will most likely need to be the people (in this case, the fans) who drive the institution to make a change in its practices, and that won't happen without information.
What does pitcher hitting ability tell us about level of competition?
Major league baseball is the pinnacle of competition in the world, and the increase in the available talent pool we've seen over the years--not to mention improvements in training, strategy, nutrition, and medicine--keep pushing that level of play to higher and higher levels. As the level of competition increases, it makes sense that any one player would find it more difficult to excel in all aspects of the game.
Such is the case with pitchers, which is apparently why few of them can hit particularly well. Pitchers are the ultimate specialists in baseball--their value is determined entirely by their performance on defense, with no attention paid to their ability to hit. As such, it makes sense that as the level of play increases over time, the typical offensive performance of a pitcher should decrease. Dan Fox recently demonstrated this. The following figure, from his blog, plots park-Normalized OPS for pitchers divided by park-Normalized OPS for hitters from the 1800's through the mid-1970's (he stopped the figure with the advent of the DH):
Note that a pitcher was about 70% as good a hitter as a position player in the 1920's, but by the 1970's they were only about 50% as good. As Fox noted, this makes Rick Ankiel's return to the major leagues as a hitter (0.296/0.367/0.667 in his first 30 PA's) all the more interesting.
I wonder what this might tell us about converted minor league outfielders like relief pitchers Coutlangus or McBeth? Were such conversions easier in the past than they are today?
I wanted to close by thanking Greg Gajus for breakfast this morning. He was in town for a convention, and it was really fun to get together and chat with a Reds fan out here in Phoenix, especially one as knowledgeable as he is. Greg was one of the other two individuals (the third being myself) cited in the Erardi article from a few weeks back.