Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

Punctuated Home Run Equilibrium: Part I

Posted by dannmckeegan on May 25, 2010

J.C. Bradbury's chart of Home Runs per Game since 1921. In its original place, it can be found by clicking the article link below. Notice the general upward trend over time, but ignore the black line segments snaking their way through independent data points. Resist the urge to find a pattern. You'll see why later this week.

Browsing the shelves of my local library recently, I happened upon J.C. Bradbury’s The Baseball Economist: the Real Game Exposed.  So far, it’s not doing a ton for me, but I’m willing to finish it and see if it can pull off the comeback.  The author’s angle is a cousin of sabermetrics.  He is attempting to look directly at baseball through an economic lens.  I went over to his website and began to browse some previous entries.  In late January of this year, he asks “What caused the steroid era?”  Unconvinced that steroids are that big a factor, he looks to a number of issues ranging from juiced baseballs to talent dilution via expansion as potential factors in addition to the gas.  Here is a short text excerpt, alongside the above chart to which I will be referring for the remainder of this week:

If steroids were the cause of the steroid era, then we should have gradually seen them enter the game. A few players use and then others slowly adopt their technique. But that’s not what we observe. Almost overnight, home runs jumped. If you want to believe home runs are largely responsible for the change then you have to believe that players all got together in 1992 and 1993 and said, “hey, it’s juice time.”

But even more convincing in my mind is the fact that the home runs haven’t gone away with steroid testing.

The last sentence betrays a bit of ignorance on the subject on the author’s part.  Anabolic steroids don’t just make muscles show up.  They allow muscle to grow faster and recovery to happen faster when one is working to build muscle.  The increases in strength and recovery – and possibly in the percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers such as those around the eyes and in the fingers – don’t disappear when one cycles off.  Sure, they’ll disappear if one trades the bench for a Barcalounger, but not if he trades in his needles for weight training alone.  Even if the drugs themselves have largely been removed from the game (something of which I’m doubtful), it is naive to think that their presence was not instrumental in the sea change of opinion about weightlifting as part of a baseball player’s training.  Steroids taint baseball.  And they also linger today as an influence on even positive behavior.  Players who did not use steroids themselves still had to hit the gym to keep up with those that did.

And most troubling of all in Bradbury’s argument is this idea of “expecting” anything to happen in baseball.  Baseball in 2010 has never happened before in history, nor will baseball in 1939 ever happen again.  We can project possible results from certain events or actions, but there is no way to say that something “should” happen.  Economists tend to do this projection thing, and that is when bubbles burst and leave them with egg trickling down all over their Teflon faces.  There never has been a period during which athletes were chemically enhanced (unless we want to count drunken Mantle).  One year to another is not a trend.  In fact, there are very few trends in any statistical layout of MLB history.  Why?  Because the modern era is only 110 years old.  We have only 110 data points to work with!  If there is some fixed repeatable or repetitive behavior, how quickly would it have to oscillate for us to see it multiple times?

That being said, the chart shows that home run rates ever since the strike have moved up and down, but not nearly as actively as during other periods.  Which is great, except there are clear reasons why rates fluctuated in the past.  Heck, five guys (seven if you count Tojo and Hitler) are responsible for some of the largest single-season differences.  This multi-part series seeks to inform the discussion with a simple analysis not of advanced metrics, but rather of what actually has happened.  To understand the post-strike era in context, we need to start with a few history lessons.  And we also must abandon the hopes of finding causation in correlative data.  Causation comes only from causes, not lately assembled data.  Either very specific or very general – the middle ground is always tenuous.

I will be spending the remainder of the week looking into different eras significant to HR/G rates to build a case, ultimately, for the importance of steroids in the steroid era.  They served a broader purpose and leave a larger legacy.  Once I make sense of that goofy and misleading chart (there should be no line between points – there is no 1934.25 baseball season between 1934 and 1935. There might be a few decent spots for best-fit line segments, but point-to-point is just silly.

Individual season-to-season changes in home run rates are rather insignificant for the most part.  From 1920 to the present, home runs have more or less tripled on a per game basis.  Home runs saw their biggest leaps in the following periods:

* the late 1920s

* post-World War II 1940s

* the mid 1980s

* the mid 1990s.

These four eras, as well as the present time, will be discussed in detail with due diligence being done.  Enjoy your day, and let’s beat the Dodgers.

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