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Offensive Evolution (Part 2)

Posted by Andy on June 18, 2010

Part 2 in the series looks at players with OPS+ of at least 130 in qualified batting seasons.

Back in Part 1, we saw that the fraction of qualified batting seasons with an OPS+ below 70 has gotten generally smaller and smaller over the years. I expected to find that the same was true for qualified batting seasons with an OPS+ of 130 or better. My thinking was that competition is much more even today than 100 years ago and therefore performances are generally clustered more around an average score of 100 than they used to be. Hence I expected fewer seasons with OPS+ under 70 and also fewer seasons with OPS+ of 130 or better. I was wrong.

The red line on this graph is the same data as from Part 1 of this series. The purple line is the same calculation, but for qualified batting seasons with OPS+ of 130 or higher. As I wrote above, I expected this line to decrease similarly over time, but it does exactly the opposite.

Comments and analysis:

  • In 1922, qualified players with an OPS+ of under 70 were actually more common than players with an OPS+ of 130 or better. That's the only year since 1901 where this has been the case. Here are the 10 players who topped 130:
    Rk Player OPS+ Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS Pos
    1 Rogers Hornsby 207 STL 154 704 623 141 250 46 14 42 152 65 50 .401 .459 .722 1.181 *4
    2 Babe Ruth 181 NYY 110 495 406 94 128 24 8 35 99 84 80 .315 .434 .672 1.106 *79/3
    3 Tris Speaker 177 CLE 131 516 426 85 161 48 8 11 71 77 11 .378 .474 .606 1.080 *8
    4 Ty Cobb 171 DET 137 612 526 99 211 42 16 4 99 55 24 .401 .462 .565 1.026 *8/9
    5 Harry Heilmann 171 DET 118 527 455 92 162 27 10 21 92 58 28 .356 .432 .598 1.030 *9/3
    6 George Sisler 170 SLB 142 654 586 134 246 42 18 8 105 49 14 .420 .467 .594 1.061 *3
    7 Ken Williams 164 SLB 153 678 585 128 194 34 11 39 155 74 31 .332 .413 .627 1.040 *78
    8 Ray Grimes 158 CHC 138 596 509 99 180 45 12 14 99 75 33 .354 .442 .572 1.014 *3
    9 Bing Miller 136 PHA 143 582 535 90 179 29 12 21 90 24 42 .335 .371 .551 .922 *897
    10 Tillie Walker 131 PHA 153 645 565 111 160 31 4 37 99 61 67 .283 .357 .549 .906 *78
    Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
    Generated 6/17/2010.

    And here are the 14 guys who didn't reach 70. Lots of middle infielders:

    Rk Player OPS+ Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS Pos
    1 Walter Barbare 42 BSN 106 408 373 38 86 5 4 0 40 21 22 .231 .272 .265 .537 453
    2 Ralph Young 53 PHA 125 538 470 62 105 19 2 1 35 55 21 .223 .309 .279 .587 *4
    3 Goldie Rapp 54 PHI 119 551 502 58 127 26 3 0 38 32 29 .253 .299 .317 .616 *5/6
    4 Joe Mulligan 55 CHW 103 423 372 39 87 14 8 0 31 22 32 .234 .278 .315 .593 *5/6
    5 Ernie Johnson 57 CHW 144 673 603 85 153 17 3 0 56 40 30 .254 .304 .292 .596 *6
    6 Ike Caveney 66 CIN 118 453 394 41 94 12 9 3 54 29 33 .239 .301 .338 .638 *6
    7 Everett Scott 67 NYY 154 613 557 64 150 23 5 3 45 23 22 .269 .304 .345 .649 *6
    8 Muddy Ruel 67 BOS 116 414 361 34 92 15 1 0 28 41 26 .255 .333 .302 .634 *2
    9 Ray Schmandt 67 BRO 110 429 396 54 106 17 3 2 44 21 28 .268 .306 .341 .647 *3
    10 Larry Kopf 67 BSN 126 528 466 59 124 6 3 1 37 45 22 .266 .332 .298 .630 *465
    11 Ivy Olson 68 BRO 136 595 551 63 150 26 6 1 47 25 10 .272 .306 .347 .653 *46
    12 Shano Collins 69 BOS 135 504 472 33 128 24 7 1 52 7 30 .271 .289 .358 .647 987/3
    13 Roy Leslie 69 PHI 141 567 513 44 139 23 2 6 50 37 49 .271 .320 .359 .679 *3
    14 George Cutshaw 69 DET 132 556 499 57 133 14 8 2 61 20 13 .267 .300 .339 .639 *4
    Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
    Generated 6/17/2010.

  • The fraction of players with 130+ OPS+ peaked in 1968. I assume this is due the low scoring in MLB that year--the overall lower offensive production means that the top players had their OPS+ values pushed higher because of the wider gap between their performance and average MLB performance.
  • Since 1980, both types of seasons have been pretty constant, with 130+ seasons around roughly 22% and <70 seasons around roughly 4%. With roughly 150 qualified seasons per year these days, that means there are just a handful of players across MLB who qualify with an OPS+ under 70 and about 1 player per team with an OPS+ of 130 or better.

The bigger question is: why do the numbers look like this?

There is only one possible explanation: managers are now putting much more emphasis on giving at-bats to more talented offensive players. Since we know the average OPS+ each season is 100, the much increased prevalence of qualified 130+ OPS+ seasons and decreased prevalence of qualified 70 OPS+ seasons means that the overall OPS of qualified seasons has gone up. The corollary is that the OPS+ of non-qualified players, such as bench players, has gone down. That's the only way the overall league OPS+ can stay at 100.

This means that on average as the years go by:

  • Bench players who can really hit become starters who qualify for the batting title. The great-hitting bench player is much less common in modern times.
  • Everyday players who don't hit well get relegated to the bench and don't qualify for the batting title. This has always been the tendency but it's much more common today, i.e. managers have a quicker hook. It used to be that a player could possibly hang on as a starter for 2-3 years after he became a poor hitter. Not so these days.
  • Defense is no longer the distinguishing factor it once was. This can't be seen directly from the data, but the implication is that there are increasingly fewer players who are playing every day due to something other than their hitting ability. Since defense is the other big component,  I assume that defense is now a distant secondary factor to offense. This could be because managers care less about defense, or perhaps because defensive differences among players are smaller than they used to be and the marginal value of playing a good defender is less than the loss from giving up the good bat.

One further thing to keep in mind is that the trends seen in baseball over time aren't necessary logical. Stat people like us have long argued with the ways that managers use players (not to say that we are always right--in fact I often think there are factors beyond the numbers that are worth a lot more, such as the psychology of the team.) When I say that there is less emphasis on defense nowadays, that doesn't necessarily mean that the contributions of defense to winning are less than the contributions of hitting--it just means that this is how managers are determining who gets to play. One would like to think it's based on the stats, but it certainly wouldn't be the first time if not.

In the finale of this series, I'll fill in the rest of the data for other OPS+ values.

This entry was posted on Friday, June 18th, 2010 at 7:53 am and is filed under Season Finders. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

18 Responses to “Offensive Evolution (Part 2)”

  1. Detroit Michael Says:

    Other possible explanations:
    - There is a stronger correlation between offensive skills and defensive skills in the modern game than in the past.
    - Today's minor league system does a better job at getting the most talented players to the majors. When the right hand portion of a bell curve distribution is in the majors, which may be closer to what actually happens today than in the past, we expect more players will be 15% above the average than 15% below the average, especially once we impose a playing time minimum.

  2. Dvd Avins Says:

    I think the underlying driving factor is increasing pitch velocity, leading to more strikeouts, leading to less need for defense from position players.

  3. [...] offense among regular players in baseball has changed through the years.” Part 2 can be found here. Good [...]

  4. Good stuff, Andy. You're spot-on: managers don't give away starts to poor offensive players as often anymore. The bad PAs are spread out over more players - guys get benched, sent down, brought up.

    When you get to Part III it will be interesting to see if there is a cluster of players in, say, the 90-105 range: players with one outstanding skill (defense, slap-hitting, speed) and one glaring weakness (not taking walks, zero power), sort of muddled together, doing enough to stick in a regular lineup but not enough to distinguish themselves. Call it the Juan Pierre zone.

  5. Downpuppy Says:

    Looking at the MVP voting in 1922, Cobb, Ruth, Williams & Speaker got 0 votes.

    Cutshaw got 1. It took a long time to drill into managers that infielders with no power who don't walk are replacable.

  6. Could it also be that contemporary strategy places a much higher emphasis on walks/OBP, a core element of OPS+? I don't think you'd find many Nick Swisher's in 1950 where there was more of an emphasis on swinging/putting the ball in play.

  7. The 1920-1921 dip might have something to do with one of two occurances:

    1} The sudden transfer of attention to the home run, a la Babe Ruth.

    2} The expulsion of some fine offensive players, like Joe Jackson, Happy Felsch, Buck Weaver, Hal Chase, et al.

    I would tend to lean toward the latter occurance as a cause, if for no other reason than the fact that the Browns were comparitively successful that year. Please note that there were only a few such times;

    1} At the beginning of the American League, when inter-league fighting and roster-robbing were common occurances.

    2} The immediate post-Black Sox era {early 1920s}

    3] World War II -- which had to be at it's height before the Browns could see a World Series game without buying a ticket.

    A second such dip occurred in 2007, when the Steroid crackdown began in earnest. Again, is that significant?

  8. Johnny Twisto Says:

    1950 was the peak of the Walking Eddies era! (Yost, Joost, Stanky)

    In the AL particularly, walk rates spiked for about ten years after WWII.

  9. Kahuna Tuna Says:

    Looking at the MVP voting in 1922, Cobb, Ruth, Williams & Speaker got 0 votes.

    IIRC, Cobb and Speaker were ineligible for the MVP award in 1922 because they'd won it in a previous season.

    Ruth played only 110 games in 1922, although his 35 HR and 99 RBI were darn good totals. I have no idea why Ken Williams didn't receive any MVP votes in 1922.

  10. Johnny Twisto Says:

    Downpuppy, Ruth was suspended for a large portion of 1922.

  11. Johnny Twisto Says:

    Kahuna, a new MVP award started in '22. I know players who won that won were ineligible later in the '20s. Were people who had won the old award in the teens ineligible for the new award? I guess you must be right, since neither Cobb nor Speaker ever got a single vote in the '20s. But that seems odd, because they did get votes for the old award after they had won one.

  12. Johnny Twisto Says:

    err, "won that ONE..."

  13. Johnny Twisto Says:

    And Walter Johnson won one in '24 after previously winning in '13. So no, they were not ineligible if they had won the old (Chalmers) award. They just didn't get voted for. Odd, since I think Cobb was widely considered the best player around, even for a long time after Ruth blossomed.

  14. Johnny T.,

    1922 wasn't "the Year of the Great Bellyache", was it? I thought Ruth only got suspended in '25 or '26, whichever year is was that he tried to throw Huggins off of a moving train.

  15. Johnny Twisto Says:

    '25 was the bellyache. '22 he was suspended for barnstorming. Not sure when the Huggins incident was, but I don't think it resulted in losing a major portion of the season, did it?

  16. DoubleDiamond Says:

    I had only heard of Shano Collins because in the 1970s, I had a trading card of a guy named Bob Gallagher that said he was the grandson of an earlier player named Shano Collins.

    For many years, Gallagher was believed to be the only major league player whose maternal grandfather played in the majors. These are harder to find than the ones whose paternal grandfathers were major leaguers because they usually have different last names. There's at least one more now - Jayson Werth.

  17. DoubleDiamond, I posted something about Shano Collins in the Shane Victorino bases-loaded triple thread a few days back. Andy, how has the average number of qualifiers per team fluctuated over the seasons? That might provide a little more context for all these excellent graphs.

  18. [...] you didn't see Part 2 of this series, start there, then come back to this [...]