Analytics has given us new numbers to level the playing field between players of different eras. And we’re all for that. But we love the old-school stats, too, and how they’ve gone in and out of style over the past century.
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Strikeouts are through the roof. Batting averages are in decline. Home runs? Still plenty of those. It’s all part of the roller-coaster ride that is baseball history.
Being a .300 hitter was once so important, Cap Anson wanted it inscribed on his tombstone. But now, with stats like WAR, WPA and OPS, what should today’s hitters aim for? We have the answer.
As the game changes through the years, we gets peaks and valleys in our stats. The National League once hit over .300 as a league. In 1968, just six batters hit .300. Then batting averages went up again … only to fall again.
Baseball statistics do tell the story of the game, always shape-shifting and always interesting. They reflect the history, the styles of play, the makeup of players, the strategies.
Below are some of the signposts along the way, as we chart the average numbers through the decades put up by qualified regulars and pitchers, and glance at the signature players of each era.
Here’s how we got to here.
1. Home Runs: The Long Ball Lives
When home runs hit a 22-year low in 2014 and runs scored dropped to their lowest levels in more than 30 years, everyone freaked. Had pitchers become too dominant?
Home run averages by decade (per qualifying hitter)
Well, home runs are back, bigger and almost better than ever. Last season saw the second-most home runs ever hit, as teams averaged 1.16 home runs per game, just short of the 1.17 mark of 2000. Thirty-eight players hit 30 or more home runs and the early returns in 2017 suggest we’re headed for similar figures.
There have been three other eras when home runs spiked. The live ball era began in 1920 — when dirty and scuffed baseballs were thrown out of play — and home runs doubled from 1920 to 1929. Still, that game was built more around high batting averages than power, as 30-homer seasons remained rare (in 1933, only Jimmie Foxx, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig topped 30 home runs).
Home runs climbed again after World War II, for reasons including a new spate of sluggers like Ralph Kiner and Mickey Mantle; a redefined strike zone in 1950; bandbox parks; and an emphasis on what we now might label “Earl Weaver baseball” — walks and three-run homers.
Other than the infamous rabbit-ball year of 1987 when home runs reached a then-record 1.06 per game, the next spike came in the steroid era. In 1996, a record 17 players hit 40 home runs. In 2000, a record 47 players hit 30. In 2001, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs. It wasn’t just the steroids. The new ballparks were smaller than the pitcher-friendly multipurpose stadiums of the 1970s and ’80s. Some would say the balls were as juiced as the players. Thinner bat handles helped generate more bat speed. Slap-hitting middle infielders were becoming an extinct species.
Now, everyone swings for the fences.
Decade-by-decade leaders 2. Stolen Bases: Where Art Thou, Rickey?
Stolen bases are hardly dead, but they are down from the per-game figures we saw in the 1980s. There were 0.55 steals per game in 2016 and five players stole at least 40 bases. Compare that to 1987, when there were 0.85 steals per game and 14 players swiped 40-plus bags. We also don’t see the ridiculous individual totals of the 1980s: Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman both topped 100 three times and Ron LeFlore, Omar Moreno and Tim Raines all reached 90. Jonathan Villar led the majors in 2016 with 62.
Stolen base averages by decade (per qualifying hitter)
Peak steals actually came in the dead ball era, when home runs were nearly nonexistent, so teams had to scratch for runs. As offense increased in the 1920s, steals began a nearly 40-year decline. Players like Luis Aparicio, Maury Wills and Lou Brock helped bring the steal back in the 1960s, and the advent of those Astroturf stadiums in the 1970s led to an emphasis on speed.
Since then, several factors led to another drop in steals, including the slide-step for quicker deliveries to home plate; sabermetrics teaching that the break-even rate for steals was around 70 percent (success rates in