Proliferation

Ted Williams hitting

I remember back when the 1960 baseball season began one of the great storylines was Ted Williams’ pursuit of 500 home runs. He had 492, one short of Lou Gehrig, needed eight for 500, and had only 20 to go to pass Mel Ott for third place on the all-time home run list (Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx were the others above him). As you know, he made it, finishing with 29 home runs and 521 total. The public and the papers were going crazy that there were now four, count ’em, four, men with 500 home runs. It was unheard of, unthinkable, amazing. Today, just over 50 years later there are 25 men with 500 or more home runs. In April 1960 there were three men with 500 home runs, now there are three with 700.

An obvious question is, “What happened to lead to the proliferation of home run talent?” How did we go from four in 1960 to 25 in 2012? In 52 years MLB added 21 new members to the 500 home run club, about one every 2.5 years. There are a lot of reasons. Here are some that I think should be heavily considered as answers to the “what happened” question.

1. Population. There are simply a lot more people available today. Surely some of them can hit a baseball with authority. Additionally segregation of black ball players has finished and a larger pool of players is available. In 1960 black Americans had been playing Major League baseball exactly 14 years, hardly time for anyone to reach 500 homers. Add to that the recognition of foreign players as never before, especially Latin players and East Asian players, and the talent pool continues to grow. All this gives us more people with the talent to rise to the top in power hitting.

2. Expansion. There are now more teams available for players. Now I presume that someone able to hit 500 home runs is going to make the roster when there are only 16 teams (the number available in 1960) as easily as he can with 30 teams available. What I mean here is the increased number of pitchers available, some of whom are at best marginal major leaguers. Of course an increased population also means there are more excellent pitchers available, so I don’t think this is one of the more important factors in the proliferation of home runs. It, however, cannot be discounted. And none of that even mentions the idea of the closer which changes the dynamic of late inning pitching.

3. Better training methods. Players today train fulltime. There is film to study to determine what’s wrong with a swing or how to pick up a pitcher’s tendencies. You can break down a swing frame by frame if necessary, something difficult to do in 1960. There are weight training regimens and better nutritional plans available for players. All these lead to players who are better able to take advantage of their own skills and the weaknesses of pitchers. Whether they take advantage of these methods is another story.

4. Higher salaries. A lot of old-time players had to hold down offseason jobs just to make ends meet. With higher salaries, it’s possible to do the fulltime training mentioned above. It’s kind of tough to be training when you’re trying to sell someone insurance or a used car.

5. Better medical skills. A bad knee or a torn muscle could keep pre-1960 players out of the lineup of days or weeks. If you can’t play, you can’t hit home runs. Today’s medical advances make it possible for players to spend less time on the disabled list and more time on the field. This is particularly true in the American League where the designated hitter can also allow an injured player a chance to recover and play at the same time. Of course some of this is obviated by the tendency of some teams to put players on 15 day disabled lists for hang nails.

6. Steroids. Let’s admit it, steroids have been part of the reason there are more 500 home run hitters. It’s a shame, but it’s true and well have to live with that knowledge. This is not a comment on whether a steroid user should make the Hall of Fame, but merely an acknowledgement that steroids have aided players in the drive for 500.

Are these the only reasons? Of course not. I do think, however, they are among the most important.

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8 Responses to “Proliferation”

  1. William Miller Says:

    I would add that I think the stigma of striking out is pretty well gone, so many more players are simply swinging from the heels today, even when down two strikes. In the old days, at least a few more hitters would choke up on the bat to avoid being struck out.
    Very thorough analysis,
    Bill

  2. w.k. kortas Says:

    I’m trying to remember exactly what Bill James said about it, but he said that the architecture of bats had changed–to piggy-back on what Bill said, guys stopped using heavy thick-handled bats designed for “bat control” and started using lighter, thin-handled bats that they could get through the hitting zone as hard as possible, focusing more on as much bat speed as possible, and not worrying about making contact.

  3. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    The totally one-sided psychological advantage that the batter is given today (over the pitchers) is kind of a pet subject of mine, so please forgive me if I ramble.

    The psychological advantage that the batters have is hardly ever (if ever) brought up in discussions about the increase in home runs and, in general, swinging from the heels. In addition to the steroids, the better training equipment, the smaller ballparks (look at Philadelphia’s or Milwaukee’s stadium—- RIDICULOUS!), the lack of choking up on the bat and other factors, and it’s a very significant one: The umpires don’t give the pitcher the inside of the plate, anymore. Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, and Sal “The Barber” Maglie would be angered by this. I can just see Gibson muttering and cussing while watching a game on television at the great advantage that the batters are given today. The pitchers aren’t given a break AT ALL.

    So the batter can just lean in and have less fear while at the plate, because the fear factor is lessened. He knows that the umpire will give the pitcher a warning about giving the batter “chin music”, and that’s one less thing that the batter has to worry about. So the batter definitely has a psychological advantage over the pitcher these days.

    Plus, don’t forget that since the 60s, everyone was wearing batting helmets (except for those, like Tony Taylor, who didn’t wear a helmet but wore a protective thing of some sort UNDERNEATH his cap while at the plate; he had the option of doing this under a “grandfather clause”.

    AND, until the 90s, you NEVER saw a batter wearing a shin guard on his front leg while at the plate. Whether this was not allowed in the old days or not, I do not know, but I do know that I never saw anyone wearing one.

    So all of this adds to the psychological advantage that batters have today, which makes it easier for them to bat with more confidence and will stand closer to the plate and be able to lean out and hit those home runs, without nearly as much fear of being hit by a pitched ball.

    The only thing that I can think of that was close to a batter having a shin guard on while batting was kamikaze batter Ron Hunt’s habit of wearing a wet suit (it’s really true!!!!) underneath his uniform so that when he got hit by a pitch (which was his specialty), the wet suit would absorb much of the blow.

    I think that the psychological advantage that the batter is being given is screwing up the game, because, for one thing, the games are too long because of too many walks, too many full-counts, too many hits, too many homers; thus, there are more pitching changes, as well. This is largely why the games tend to be significantly longer than while I was growing up in the 1970s.

    Glen

    • verdun2 Says:

      Wouldn’t disagree with that. (didn’t know about the wet suit)
      v

      • William Miller Says:

        Glen, while I think what you’re saying is generally true, some of the greatest pitchers and some of the greatest seasons enjoyed by pitchers have taken place over the past 15-20 years. We’ve had Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and now the young pitchers like Strasburg, Kershaw and some others. I would say that for great pitchers, they still have the psychological advantage simply because of their overwhelming talent.
        I think it is the mediocre-to-poor pitchers who have suffered the most over the past 20 years, and I think your reasons about psychological advantage do apply to them. While once they could rely in part on the intimidation factor to hold onto their jobs in the Majors, now they have to find craftier ways to get batters out, and many of them (Joe Blanton comes to mind) are just not up to the challenge.
        Cheers, Bill

  4. footinthebucket Says:

    I agree, Bill, but those pitchers are far and few between.

    I really do long for the days of complete game shutouts and no “pitch counts”.

    I also miss the days of absurdly high-scoring games not being such a regularity.

    Glen

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