Maybe Its Not Just Steroids

As what has come to be know as the steroid era may be winding down there are several interesting aspects of the how baseball evolved during these years that remain somewhat unexamined.  Steroids clearly helped power hitters more than other players, contributing to the spike in home runs and of offense more generally during the last fifteen years or so.  This changed the game as all kinds of league and individual records for home runs and other power numbers were set during this period.

It is tempting to attribute this dramatic increase in offense all to steroid use, or worse yet to demonize a few players such as Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez or Mark McGuire and hold them responsible.  However, the spike in power numbers is part of a bigger story, or evolution, of baseball, one that is reflects somewhat more positively on the state of the game.  The increase in home runs was not monocausal.  To suggest that it was is to ignore a number of other obvious causes.  The most prominent of these is that during the 1990s a number of teams built new stadiums, many of which were far better hitter’s parks.  So, the Astros moving from the Astrodome to Enron/Tropicana field or the Giants moving from Candlestick to PacBell/AT&T/SBC Park, also contributed to increased homerun, and other hitting numbers by the Giants, Astros and their visitors.  Other causes of increased offensive production which cannot be ignored include the increased use of protective equipment by hitters and the stricter rules against brushing hitters back.

There are also a number of explanations for increased offense that I have never found convincing including expansion, the corresponding decline in pitching or anything else suggesting pitchers a half century ago were better than they are today.  The numbers here never make sense because although there are more teams now, players are drawn from a much larger pool.

For me, the most interesting explanation for why baseball looks so different today from what it was only two decades ago is essentially that management, both on and off the field has gotten smarter.  One of the first major contributions of SABRmetrics to our understanding of baseball was that power wins ballgames.  More clearly, offenses built around homeruns and power hitting will almost always outperform offenses built around speed.  This was proven over and over by people like Bill James in the 1980s, but management tended to not understand this at that time.

Today, players like Juan Pierre who are fast with batting averages that are fine, but who draw very few walks are not very common, and rarely play central roles in their team’s offense.  Players like this were far more visible 20-40 years ago.  Omar Moreno, Ron Leflore, Mickey Rivers, Luis Aparicio and many others who had very similar skill sets were considered stars.  Teams sought speedy leadoff hitters and valued stolen bases more than on base percentage in the leadoff spot.  Today that situation has changed.  Over the last 15 years there have been considerably fewer players who steal many bases but don’t walk much playing major roles for good teams.

A related change in how baseball is understood by those who construct and manage teams is, to put it somewhat indelicately, that they now understand that defense is overrated.  Not only is it now much harder to win a starting job, even at a key defensive position, on defense alone, but good hitters are not pushed to less demanding defensive positions if they are sub par defenders.  Players like Manny Trillo, Dave Cash, Jim Sundberg, and many other similar but lesser players enjoyed long careers a generation ago without ever contributing much with their bat.  There are far few players like that today.

The most obvious example of players who would have been moved to another position if they had played a generation ago are Derek Jeter who remains at shortstop because of his bat, and Mike Piazza who a generation ago would have been made a first baseman within five years of reaching the big leagues.  Additionally, in the 1970s, many managers would have moved Jeff Kent, who was actually not a terrible defender, off of second base on the general principle that he was tall and hit a lot of home runs.

Today’s baseball is not like what it was a few decades ago.  Many of the people who run teams are familiar with people like Bill James and others who use serious quantitative methods to analyze baseball and understand the import of measurements such as runs created, or OPS that were considered quirky and strange a generation ago.  Of course, there are still plenty of baseball people who look down their noses at statheads who never played the game, but the game itself is changing too fast for these folks.

Thus, in the last decade and a half the steroid scandal has come to draw attention away from a major breakthrough in how winning baseball is understood.  Small ball is fun for some fans of my generation; a great pitching duel is still, for my money, the most exciting thing in all of sports; great defense is useful, but more and more baseball people now understand that lineups with a lot of home run hitters, and players who walk a lot win ballgames.  Accordingly, teams are built to reflect this.  The speedy shortstop with no batting eye gives way to the better hitting, but weaker fielding shortstop.  The second baseman who will never contend for a Gold Glove, but can hit, remains at second base so his bat can stay in the lineup. If MLB ever gets serious about combating steroids, fans and sportswriters may find that the offenses won’t change all that much because the basic understanding of strategy is not what it was before steroid use took off.  In fact, the steroid scandal may have accelerated that understanding, but getting rid of steroids won’t reverse it.