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Friday, December 18, 2009

Steroid decade?

Earlier this month, Alex Remington of Yahoo Sports Big League Stew posted his Ten noteworthy offensive statistics from the 2000s.

As baseball fans might expect, the list is dominated by sluggers -- notably the PED-tainted hitters Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez:
I've tried to avoid the impulse to make this an entire list of Barry Bonds stats, but even though he stopped playing before the end of it, Bonds dominated the decade like no other player has ever offensively dominated, since Babe Ruth himself.
Remington notes that the 2000s featured 12 players hitting 300 or more home runs, "the most ever. (There were 11 in the 1990s, five in the 1960s, and no more than three in any other decade.)"

While those numbers for the last two decades certainly sound inflated by steroids, it is worth noting that major league baseball included 30 teams throughout the 'aughts, but only 16 teams from 1900 until the 1961 expansion. The 1960s ended with major league baseball at 24 teams. Two teams were added in 1961 and 1962 and four teams were added in 1969, so figure just under 20 teams per year that decade. There were fully one-third more teams in the just-completed aughts than in the 1960s. The 1990s featured 28 teams until 1998 when two expansion teams were added.

Incidentally, with expansion, major league baseball increased the length of the season from 154 to 162 games. That's about a 5% increase and people typically remember it when they think of the controversy surrounding Roger Maris in 1961.

If someone like Remington had noted in December 1969 that the 1960s featured 5 players with 300 or more homer runs and no other decade had more than 3, he would certainly have been reminded about expansion and the longer season. The number of teams had grown by 25% in 1962, 50% by 1969.

Until 1960, decades typically had 16 teams playing 154 games (ignoring rainouts, etc.). That meant about 1232 games (it takes 2 teams to play a game). In the 2000s, by contrast, 30 teams playing 162 games each tallied roughly 2430 games, almost twice as many. Observers could reasonably expect a doubling of certain kinds of counting statistics -- like the number of players who reach a particular milestone.

I'm not saying steroids had nothing to do with the recent home run explosion, but it is frustrating to see people write about baseball as if the structure of the leagues and seasons was the same throughout its history. This is not a knock on Remington per se, as I've even seen this in SABR conversations. Members sometimes like to highlight Hall of Fame arguments by noting whether a player finished in the top 5 or 10 of a desirable statistical category. They refer to the "black ink" or "gray ink" tests -- and they overlook the fact that it is much harder to do this now in an expanded player pool.

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