Breathe deeply baseball fans: Today’s baseball players, those who play the field, those who are designated hitters, those who pitch and those who are relief pitchers, are not – and let me emphasize that – not better than players of the past. In fact, players of the past might actually be better than today’s players!
My quest started simply enough. I was watching an excellent Jonathan Hock documentary titled Fastball. The film explores the combat between pitchers and hitters (batters) and how fast a fastball can be thrown and how talented and skilled a batter has to be to hit such a pitch.
The fastest fastball ever recorded and the one that is in the Guinness Book of World Records was supposedly thrown by Aroldis Chapman and clocked at 105.1 miles-per-hour in 2010.
In the past certain elite fastball pitchers were also timed.
Two of baseball’s greatest were Bob Feller (1936-1956) and Nolan Ryan (1966-1993). Note that these two pitchers cover seven decades for their combined careers and were supposedly the fastest pitchers of their times (at least the fastest ever recorded).
Feller was recorded at 98.6 miles-per-hour and Ryan was recorded at 100.9 miles-per-hour. It would appear that Chapman has wiped the floor with those two. But in truth, he hasn’t.
You see the method used to test both Feller and Ryan was different from the one that tested Chapman—and that difference creates a false comparison. Chapman’s fastball was clocked in the first 10 feet of his throw—some 50.6 feet away from home plate. Both Feller and Ryan’s tests were of the fastball as it came over the plate. In short, Feller and Ryan’s fastball was slowed down by the air it went through in those 50.6 feet of travel.
The Fastball documentary makers clocked Feller and Ryan’s fastballs using the same method used with Chapman, and guess what? Feller’s fastball came in at 107 miles-per-hour and Ryan’s came in at a remarkable 108.5 miles-per-hour! Both of these estimates leave Chapman in the dust.
Today, of course, all pitchers have their throws clocked on each and every pitch – and the speeds seem outrageously high; some are clocked at 95 to 102 miles per hour. (Chapman regularly throws this latter speed). Still these speeds are based on the modern 10-foot metric, not how fast the ball actually goes over plate.
What if we measured today’s pitchers using yesteryear’s metric? To do that, we reduce today’s speeds by 8 percent (combining Feller and Ryan’s increase in speed using the 10-foot rule). Today’s pitchers throwing 102 miles per hour are actually throwing 93.8 miles per hour and those throwing 95 miles per hour are actually throwing 87.4 miles-per-hour – as the ball crosses the plate. Those speeds are not record setting. The air influences them just as the air influenced Feller and Ryan.
That calculation started me thinking; perhaps today’s players are not as good as yesterday’s players or perhaps yesterday’s players are just as good as today’s.
The usual analysis of pitchers is their ERAs – earned run averages; that is, how many runs they give up in nine innings of pitching. Are the ERAs better today than in the past?
If we look at the team ERAs, we can see that teams from 1920 to 2017 have similar ERAs. That’s right. Even though today’s starting pitchers rarely pitch nine innings anymore, and relievers have become essential for modern teams, the total ERA of the entire team resembles the ERA of past teams.
Let me give you a few examples to prove this point.
- The top five teams from 2016 had ERAs of 3.13, 3.53, 3.57, 3.64 and 3.71.
- The top five teams from 1927 had ERAs of 3.20, 3.36, 3.54, 3.57 and 3.65.
Not much of a difference, although the ERAs from 1927 are somewhat better.
- The best five teams from 2016 had ERAs of 5.09, 5.08, 4.91, 4.91 and 4.63.
- The worst five teams from 1927 had ERAs of 5.36, 4.95, 4.72, 4.27 and 4.22.
Not much of a difference, although the ERAs from 1927 are still better.
Now what of the hitting? Were the hitters of the past as good as or better than the hitters of today?
Again, let me take 1927 versus 2016 and only strictly at batting averages.
- In 1927, the major league batting average was 284.
- In 2016, the major league batting average was 255.
So you have slightly better pitching and somewhat better batting averages in 1927 than you do in 2016.
Now, there are many records for many accomplishments, good and bad, in baseball. It is indeed a sport of statistics. You can argue that Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs were achieved with beer and hot dogs as performance enhancers while Bonds, McGwire and others allegedly achieved many of their records with steroid use.
I’ll leave it to you to argue the points.
Still, if you take a broad picture of “back then” and “right now” you discover that today’s players are not really superior to those of the past.
In my opinion, if we could transport the top players of yesteryear to today we would find that:
Joe DiMaggio would still be able to hit in 56 straight games.
Lou Gehrig would still be the hard-hitting “Iron Horse.”
Willie Mays would be, well, the incomparable Willie Mays.
And Babe Ruth? Babe Ruth would still be the best player in history based on his hitting, fielding and, yes folks, his amazing pitching!
To me, the baseball past is not dead. It’s just not appreciated.
Frank Scoblete’s latest books are I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Craps, Confessions of a Wayward Catholic and I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack. Available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.