The Evolution of the Fastball

It is a scientific fact: Man evolved to throw and to hit baseballs. Even before we were advanced toolmakers, we were proficient throwers and clubbers. These skills and the anatomical specialization to perform them well are uniquely human. Our nearest cousins, chimpanzees, will occasionally toss sticks and rocks around but they cannot direct them accurately. Many paleontologists believe that the development of the ability to throw and to swing sticks with accuracy and authority marked a major turning point in hominid evolution. These capabilities enabled early hominids to escape the tedium of playing soccer and had enormous social advantages as noted by Professor Richard Young:*

“The best throwers and clubbers in a community would rise in the male dominance hierarchy and thereby obtain more breeding opportunities.”

Any evolutionary advantage that confers a rise in the male dominance hierarchy and greater access to breeding females is sure to spread rapidly through the species and to be continually refined by competitive pressures. The relative advantages of exceptional throwing and batting skills persist to this day, as a quick glance at the seating section for ball players’ wives and girlfriends confirms. (More evidence could be cited easily but this is a family-friendly blog.)

The critical evolutionary developments for throwing and hitting came in the shoulder and hands. The shoulders of other apes are designed so that the socket accommodates vertical extension of the arm – handy for hanging from trees but not so good for pin-point control from the mound. The human shoulder has the greatest degree of rotational movement of all our joints and it is also the most vulnerable to injury. Baseball made famous the rotator cuff, the bundle of muscles and tendons that hold the upper arm and shoulder together. The fellow below is doomed to hang around in the bush leagues.

Our hands and fully opposable thumbs are far better suited for throwing and especially for gripping bats and racquets than those of chimpanzees whose hands likely resemble those of our common ancestor. Even the fatty tissues or pads on our hands are positioned and sized to absorb the impact shocks of clubs and bats colliding with skulls and baseballs.

Our throwing ability has come pretty far in the past 500,000 years or so. The Baseball Almanac lists 27 pitchers whom have reached or exceeded 100 miles per hour in a game since Nolan Ryan cranked it up to 100.9 in 1974. The fastest speeds on that list belong to Mark Wohlers a former Atlanta Braves’ closer, who recorded 103 mph in a 1995 spring training game and Joel Zumaya, a Detroit Tigers reliever who reached 103 mph in 2006. The current record is held by The Cuban Missile, the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman, who was recorded firing a baseball at 105 mph in 2010.

Evidence on a pitcher’s velocity was very spotty in my dad’s day and not much better in mine. For the most part, the relative speeds of pitchers were judged subjectively by other players. Technologies such as photovoltaics and slow motion cameras that used frame counts to estimate speeds had progressed somewhat when I started paying attention but they were primitive compared to the radar guns that became standard in the 1980s.

Before the radar gun became a fixture at ball games, pitchers had to travel to laboratories, often weapons facilities with the expertise to measure projectile speeds, and use various paraphernalia to measure the velocity of their throws. In 1917 a Bridgeport Connecticut weapons laboratory using a device called a gravity drop interval recorder** clocked Walter Johnson at 91.36 mph, Christy Mathewson at 86.59 mph and “Smoky Joe” Wood at 84.55 mph. I suspect that, like a stop-watch, these devices were triggered by human action and the tiny delay this entails accounts for the relatively low measured velocity.

The recently deceased Bob Feller, the great Cleveland Indians’ pitcher of the 1940s and 50s who was known as Rapid Robert was especially eager to measure his heater. A famous black-and-white film shows Feller throwing a baseball past a speeding police motorcycle at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Although the test is inherently flawed, Feller claimed that he was measured at 104 mph. In 1939 Feller and teammate Johnny Humphreys threw baseballs into a 2-foot square hole cut in the side of a trailer in which photovoltaic tubes spaced 5 feet apart measured the balls’ velocity. Rapid Robert’s reading that day was a less-than-spectacular 81.14 mph, significantly slower than Humphrey’s 86.59 mph which equaled Mathewson’s earlier trial.

How fast can a ballplayer throw? We might already be at or near our natural physiological limit. At this point in our evolution, the human elbow is likely be the limiting factor in how hard a pitcher can throw. Glenn Fleisig, a scientist at the American Sports Medicine Institute, tested cadaver elbows (the first thing most kids ask when told this is “how do you get a bunch of cadaver elbows?”) and found that their ulnar collateral ligaments (UCLs) snapped at about 80 Newton meters (about 59 foot-pounds for those of us who have adopted non-metric standards – Myanmar, Liberia and the USA) which is approximately the same rotational torque as experienced by a professional pitcher’s elbow in throwing a fastball. UCL replacement is better known as “Tommy John surgery,” named after the first pitcher to undergo the procedure. Curiously, many pitchers return from UCL replacement surgery throwing faster than before. This raises the issue of whether discretionary surgical arm enhancement might be pursued in the future and how it ought to be treated relative to chemical enhancement.

There has been some recent discussion that human athletic performance is peaking. Records last longer and many believe that we’ll soon exhaust our native potential. I’m not so sure, the performance enhancing drug era proved that we could exceed normal constraints with a little help from chemistry. The next era of enhancement may be surgical improvements to what Nature has given us.

Footnotes:

*Richard W Young, Professor emeritus, Department of Anatomy, University of California Medical School, Los Angeles, California, “Evolution of the human hand: the role of throwing and clubbing,” Journal of Anatomy, 2003 January; 202(1): 165–174. Professor Young’s article focuses on evolution of the hand for throwing.

**I have tried unsuccessfully to find out what a “gravity drop interval recorder” was.  Ballistics experts and physicists I have asked have not heard of the device.  I suspect it was a contraption that utilized the known and constant rate of acceleration due to gravity to time a ball over some course but have no idea how the beginning and termination of the ball’s flight was captured by the machine.  If a reader knows about this apparatus, I’d appreciate learning more about it.

Posted by Bob

That’s Why They Play the Games

Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics’.” Mark Twain(1)

Felix Hernandez, the workhorse ace of the hapless Seattle Mariners, was awarded the 2010 American League Cy Young Award despite having, at 13-12, by far the worst winning percentage among the candidate starting pitchers and the lowest number of wins by a starter in the history of the award. Hernandez won a lot easier on the ballot box than on the mound, collecting 21 of the 28 first place votes cast by baseball writers. The election set off a debate about the purpose of the award and the appropriate bases for selecting the winner. Many traditionalists, while acknowledging Felix’ enormous talent, are uncomfortable declaring that a barely .500 pitcher is the best in the league. Others, many of them in the sabermetric community, are trumpeting the selection as a triumph of scientific analysis.

For our purposes, I will accept the notion that the Cy Young Awards are intended to honor the best pitchers in each league and will concede also that the voters honorably and conscientiously seek to interpret the candidates’ records to determine who is best. I do think they have become overly mesmerized by the sabermetricians’ efforts to distill the pure essence of individual performances.

Historically, our definition of best pitcher emphasized the number of wins credited to the pitcher. For context, I have reproduced below the ESPN Cy Young Predictor developed by Bill James and Rob Neyer, based on a statistical analysis of past winners(2). As you can see, Hernandez tied or led all of the leading starting pitchers in every major category except won-lost record.

The N-J formula projected the Yankees’ CC Sabathia the winner followed closely by Tampa Bay’s David Price with Hernandez a distant sixth. I am not endorsing the N-J predictions, but I am using them because their research reflects the historical pattern of voting and is reasonably representative of the type of calculations, explicit or implicit, that most of us fans perform when determining our favorites for the award. My preferred candidates were David Price and John Lester. (I do not consider relievers valid Cy Young candidates so I never examined the three listed by N-J.) My impression based on listening to sports radio and TV was that Sabathia was the leading choice among commentators. So I was more than mildly surprised when Hernandez won by a landslide.

The N-J formula is the weighted sum of various statistics: Cy Young Points (CYP) = ((5*Innings Pitched/9)-Earned Runs) + (Strike Outs/12) + (Saves*2.5) + Shutouts + ((Wins*6)-(Losses*2)) + VB. (3)

Wins are the single most important factor in the N-J formula with a multiplier of 6 while innings pitched (divided by nine) is next with a multiplier of 5. Wins seem to have been the least important factor to the Cy Young voters. Using the N-J formula, had Hernandez been able to convert four of his losses to wins (17-8) he would have gained 32 points and passed Sabathia. Three conversions of losses to wins (16-9) and he would have passed Price and been only 3 points behind CC. Either a three or four game swing would put have put Hernandez in the same general range as that of Tim Lincecum who won the 2009 NL award with a 15-7 record and Zach Greinke, the winner of 2009 AL edition for a 16-8 season. But 13-12? To the extent that N-J captures accurately the historical consensus weighting of performance factors – what would justify such a large departure from traditional patterns? If Felix had been 12-13 with otherwise identical statistics, would the voters have still given Felix the reward? I can’t prove it, but I suspect that a losing record for a starting pitcher would be a non-starter. But, if we accept, as many do, the superiority of the granular statistics over the won-lost record, why not so award a losing pitcher?

The voters seem to have concluded that Hernandez should be judged only on, as an AP writer said, “things he could fully command.”(4) So voters discounted (ignored) his won-loss results and focused on the other measures with ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts weighted most heavily. The sabermetric community is reported to have emphasized Wins Over Replacement Player (WARP), a measure of calculated wins relative to those credited to a player of slightly below average major league quality, often a triple-A player of the sort likely to be called up to replace a player (pitcher in this case).

I love to compare and debate player statistics as much as anyone but I do want to point out something that is too often neglected – baseball statistics don’t really measure individual performance. The pitcher has total command over absolutely none of the factors measured by statistics though his influence is relatively greater in some areas than others. For example, the pitcher is relatively more responsible for his strikeout and walk numbers than for his won-lost record. In this sense, emphasis on granular statistics such as ERA can provide some insight into the relative performance of pitchers.

No one will be able ever to develop a perfect measure of a player’s contribution to his team’s success. Not because of the fact that teams win or lose together, as your old coach told you (although he was correct) and not because it is a difficult analytical challenge but because it is logically and mathematically impossible. This is because a baseball team is engaged in what economists call joint or cooperative production and it is impossible to determine precisely the marginal value of an individual team-member in a joint production setting.

Pitchers are the most obvious examples of joint production of outs and runs. Baseball is fairly unique in that outputs are produced jointly by the defense and offense. A hit or an out is produced jointly by the batter and the pitcher and, in most cases, his fielders(5). In fact, in the early days of the game the pitcher’s explicit function was to put the ball in play by throwing it “for the bat” and then later to throw either above or below the belt as directed by the batter. Today, some batter-pitcher combinations are more “efficient” at producing hits (to the chagrin of the pitcher) and thus the manager is interested in the historical rates of success his batters have had against that day’s opposing pitcher.

The team’s final output is a win or a loss. Wins or losses are the result of the intermediate products called runs and outs. These final and intermediate outputs are produced jointly by the team members whose efforts comprise the team production function. Any team production function involves at least two inputs and is not separable into the sum of two input functions. In other words the output of team members is not additive and this has serious implications for estimating functional relationships. This point, made by Armen A. Alchian and Harold Demsetz in 1972 is not a trivial or esoteric technicality but a fundamental basis of our modern understanding of the nature of firms and the role of managers.

Alchian and Demsetz observed further, “In team production, marginal products of cooperative team members are not so directly and separably (i.e. cheaply) observable. What a team offers to the market can be taken as the marginal product of the team but not of the team members (emphasis added). Clues to each input’s productivity can be secured by observing the behavior of individual inputs…” The impossibility of perfect measures of individual performance and contribution in a team setting is the primary reason that human managers are important; judgment based on experience and observation is a necessary ingredient.

Team or joint output whether it be runs or wins cannot be attributed precisely to the efforts of the individual team members. The fact that the batting order matters is evidence of the joint nature of producing runs. The manager seeks the batting order that maximizes the joint production of his hitters. Therefore responsibility for output or runs is shared. Branch Rickey recognized long ago that runs batted in (RBI) could be a very misleading measure of individual contribution because it depends greatly on the success of the preceding batters.

Statisticians and sabermetricians using regression analysis must assume the separability (additivity) of the baseball production functions. (Even non-linear regression is really a set of linear regressions covering portions of the observed data.) The typical multivariate regression formula seeks to explain the dependent variable, Y, as the weighted sum of the independent variables, xi, where the weights or coefficients, Bi, represent the proportional influence of each independent variable plus a residual.  If the underlying function is not additive then the use of a linear or additive regression technique introduces bias into the estimate. The severity of the bias depends on the underlying form of the production function. Another layer of distortion or bias comes about when sabermetricians use regression coefficients to build composite models such as Wins Above Replacement Player. The true WARP (if such a thing exists) is almost certainly non-linear and so constructing a linear representation of it using biased coefficients based on linear representations of other non-linear functions seems capable of introducing serious distortions into the analysis. I am not saying that the modern statistics are not useful; many are intriguing but all contain a measure of distortion and their use involves some bias and it cannot be said they are necessarily more objective than some of the old stand-bys.

My other, and in many ways more important, concerns about discounting wins and losses are that the pitcher often contributes to a team’s wins in ways that are not evident even with the most granular of statistics. Winning a ball game in the major leagues is very hard, winning around twenty games is extremely hard and to do so a pitcher must overcome a number of specific moments or threats where a single pitch can have significant consequences. Some pitchers seem to make those pitches when they most need to and so win more games than do pitchers with similar skills and statistics. Pitchers’ effort is somewhat elastic; a pitcher with a big lead will tend to bear down less than one in a tight game. This is rational; the return on full effort adjusted for the cost of potential injury or arm fatigue is not as high with a five run lead as with a one run lead and a man on second. This is true of games as well, a pitcher who can win late in the season with a postseason spot on the line or in the postseason with a title on the line has often to perform at a higher level to overcome the extra intensity of his opposition at those times. Those wins, in my opinion, reveal more about the pitcher than do wins earlier in the year. But if we discount all wins as “being beyond the control of the pitcher” we sacrifice that value and information. So, until we have a rigorous and unbiased model of the baseball production function and means of imputing personal performances into that model, I think we should continue to give a lot of consideration to the actual results of games played.

****************

Posted by Bob

Footnotes (for the appearance of scientific rigor):

1.There is some evidence that Twain misattributed the origin of the line to Disraeli, see http://www.twainquotes.com/Statistics.html where Courtney and perhaps Carlyle are suggested as possible antecedents.

2.The Neyer-James model seeks to predict the award winner based on historical evidence and patterns; it does not necessarily reflect either observer’s own judgment as to who should win.

3.Saves almost always accrue only to relief pitchers. The VB term is a bonus to reflect the historical tendency to recognize pitchers from league-leading teams but did not come into play this year.

4.Felix Hernandez wins AL Cy Young, November 18, 2010 http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/news/story?id=5820623

5.The catcher is involved in the sense he is necessary for the pitcher to perform his part of the process so it would be reasonable to say a hit involves 3 players. An out, whether by strikeout, force-out, throw-out or caught fly, involves at least three players. Other forms of out, such as pick-offs, usually involve three or more players to produce.

Pepper

Many ballparks have signs admonishing “No Pepper Playing.” Even a seemingly trivial thing like this reveals the diverse cultural roots of baseball traditions and the subversive power of markets. When I was first asked about the signs I knew about the game of pepper but wasn’t sure why it was banned and knew nothing about its origins. In recent years the game has fallen into disuse and I have wondered if those signs have something to do with it. I even speculated that the same spoilsports that banned playground jungle gyms and evicted Coca Cola from the school cafeteria – but left the mystery meat – had erected the signs. I had no idea it was a product of America’s historical tradition of utopian communities and free-market baseball.

Those who have observed the sign’s ban for their entire life, may not be familiar with the game. Pepper typically involves a row of 3 to 6 players facing a single batter about 10-15 feet away who bunts or punches a ball to the fielders who catch it and toss it quickly back to the batter who in turn tries to return it to the fielders. The objective is to keep the ball alive by preventing it from hitting the ground. It’s a good warm-up exercise and skilled players can keep the ball in play for quite awhile. Some more accomplished players return the ball with tosses behind the back, through the legs, etc. In my youth we competed to see who could keep the ball alive for the greatest number of hits. A good sequence might go 15-20 plays.

In my dad’s day and, to some extent when I was a young fan, pepper was a popular warm up exercise for major league ball players. The appropriately but only coincidentally nicknamed Pepper Martin of the St. Louis Cardinals put on dazzling pre-game exhibitions of pepper. Fans would come early to watch the players perform trick throws and feints and, and make deceptive tosses to the batter. Martin ended his show by walking across the field bouncing the ball off his bat in one hand and tipping his hat with the other.

Some baseball historians trace pepper’s origin, or at least its popularization, to the fabled House of David baseball team. In 1903 The Israelite House of David religious colony founded by the Messianic preacher Benjamin Purnell moved to Benton Harbor, Michigan and set about its mission of gathering in the 12 lost tribes of Israel and awaiting the Millennium. While they were waiting, they sponsored up to five barnstorming baseball teams to earn money, proselytize, and, presumably, look for the lost tribes. The ballplayers, discouraged by the sect from cutting their hair or beards, traveled throughout the country in the 1920s to late 1930s playing local clubs and other barnstormers. The House competed against Negro League teams such as the Kansas City Monarchs, major league teams including the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Athletics, and played an annual match with the Chicago Cubs. Originally made up entirely of colony members, the club turned to hired players (ringers) as the quality of competition increased.

The House of David’s pepper games, usually played after the 5th inning, were said to be worth the price of admission. The exhibition involved three players and a batter tossing and returning the ball Globetrotter-style with ingenious passes and clever sleight-of-hand tricks, sometimes seeming to lose the ball in their long beards or tresses.

Like so many other utopian and religious communities, the House of David suffered a schism. A breakaway group led by Judge Harry Dewhirst formed a competing colony and, of course, rival baseball team. Dewhirst’s team was captained by Grover Cleveland Alexander a Hall of Fame pitcher who recruited Satchel Paige and his long-time catcher Cy Perkins in 1934 to play in the prestigious Denver Post Tournament (called the “Little World Series”). The Denver tournament drew teams from across the country including powerful touring clubs such as the all-black Kansas City Monarchs. Dewhirst and Alexander’s break with the original community’s exclusion of blacks paid off when Paige pitched the team to a championship. Once again, competitive logic and economic incentives prevailed over the self-inflicted costs of prejudice when a record 11,120 fans watched  Paige defeat the great Monarchs in the title game to earn the $6,400 prize. In one of the greatest ecumenical lines of all time Denver sportswriter Leonard Cahn wrote, “The Bearded Beauties banked everything on Satchel and the colored Whizbang did not disappoint.”

The old barnstorming teams represented a period of free-market and relatively tolerant baseball compared to the cartelized major leagues. In most instances the free market teams, their players, and their fans were more concerned with winning than segregation. Any entrepreneur or community could form a ball club and compete for players. The players were free to move to the highest bidder and did. The market power of the major leagues and their satellite minor circuits, facilitated by radio and television and enforced by an indefensible but persistent exemption from anti-trust rules, was able to stifle competition, enforce bigotry, and provide a lower quality product than free market forces would have. But even the hobbled and vestigial free market teams and leagues were able to keep the flame of tolerance alive and to undermine the majors’ claims of unalloyed product superiority. Events such as the Denver tournament gave fans evidence of the damage the majors were doing the game by excluding many of its best players. The free spirits and free agents of the unregulated game spread the word. Satchel Paige was a particularly promiscuous mercenary and, wittingly or not, his perambulations increased American’s exposure to the quality of black ball players and contributed to awareness of the compromised major league product and the eventual breaking of the color bar that Satchel was able to only briefly cross late in his career.

But, as those signs decree, you and your kids won’t see pepper played before a major league game any more. My spoilsport theory has been discredited and two other reasons are given now for banning pepper at ballparks; balls might go into the stands and injure a spectator, or frequent playing damages the grass. In these litigious times I lean toward the safety reason but Joel Hawkins of the House of David Research Project and an authority on the early days of the game told me that he favors the sod damage explanation. On balance, the “No Pepper” signs are much better than the “No Colored” signs that once staked out sections of major league ball parks and to the removal of which pepper made a tiny contribution.

Posted by Bob

Galarraga, Keynes, and the Prince of Persia

When replays showed that Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga, covering first on the last out of a perfect game, caught the ball before the Indians’ Jason Donald touched the bag, a national debate erupted over whether Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Selig, ought to reverse Umpire Jim Joyce’s inaccurate call that Donald was safe. In most cases the appeals were coupled with a demand for expanded use of instant replay. I write this note to clear up any confusion this unfortunate event may have caused.

I begin by setting out the ground rules which govern something as significant as changing an umpire’s judgment call. First, we consult the economics of the issue and recall that John Maynard Keynes noted that, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Second, we refer for context to the popular culture, represented in this instance by The Prince of Persia a fantasy movie centered on the ultimate instant replay device – a sacred dagger that reverses time and allows its possessor to change the past but at some danger to the world. Our task then is to determine if the facts changed and if so, whether the situation justifies the Commissioner of Baseball pulling his dagger and changing the past. The answer to both questions is of course no and so Armando Galarraga pitched the most famous one-hitter since the Mets’ Tom Seaver beat the Cubs 4-0 on July 9, 1969.

We all agree on the class and grace of the principals. Peggy Noonan applauded both Joyce who had the integrity to take responsibility and Galarraga who had the discipline to finish the game and the grace to accept the distraught umpire’s apology. Detroit Manager Jim Leyland endorsed the reconciliation by sending Galarraga out to present Joyce with the line-up card for the following game, and the Detroit players recognized Joyce’s integrity with back slaps and kind words. Joyce, Galarraga, Leyland, the Tigers and a few others demonstrated why baseball on the field is a microcosm of life – only better and more finely drawn. In this case, the principals were more noble than the popular culture that focused on Galarraga’s “victimization” and drew their daggers on Joyce.

Galarraga accomplished the nearly impossible and Joyce’s failure denied it to him and then both rose above it. This is why the ruling should stand. We live in a world where, as in baseball, imperfect men make imperfect decisions that affect our lives and we cannot appeal to instant replay. Unlike the Persian prince, we don’t get mulligans in life. Baseball, as many commentators seem to have forgotten, is a game. It is governed by rules, one of the most important of which is that judgment calls, which include whether a base runner is safe or out, cannot be appealed. The umpire’s judgment constitutes the relevant fact. No replay can change that fact so Keynes can rest easy. By accepting the rules and going back to the mound to finish the job that he started, Galarraga showed high character. In a world where rules were overturned whenever the outcome was unfortunate, Galarraga would not have been called upon to demonstrate his mettle. Joyce would have had no need to display his integrity. We witnessed something far more important than a perfect game. Let it stand.

Posted by Bob

Switching Sides, Part I

As regular readers of this blog are aware, Jim has been practicing some very good economics in his recent posts while I have been silent.  But I turn now to an important and often overlooked issue.  While debates have raged over whether the country is shifting to the left or to the right, most of us have overlooked a dramatic rise in the number of citizens who go either left or right, depending on the circumstances. I refer not to bi-partisans or independents but bi-dexterous batters, a k a switch hitters.  This post is a progress (or lack thereof)  report on a work-in-progress on the boom that occurred in this population during the latter half of the 20th century.

While working on a baseball book that addressed questions that my children and those of my friends asked including, “why do some batters switch-hit?” I sensed that there seem to be a lot more switch hitters today than in my youth. I often find that recollections of my youth do not survive encounters with data but as the graphic (click on to enlarge) illustrates, the population of major league batters swinging from both sides increased from two or three percent in the 1950s to over 20 percent in the late 1980s and 1990s before settling back down to around 15 percent in this decade.

Having confirmed that the phenomenon was real, I began to explore why this dramatic shift took place. I scanned the literature and was unable to find a research paper on the topic. Lee Sinin, the extraordinarily knowledgeable proprietor of The Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, indicated that he was also unaware of any research into the topic. So, with dreams of accolades from the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), I decided to look a little deeper.

Since I was looking at the percentage of switch hitters, I didn’t expect there to be a strong direct relationship between expansion and switch-hitting.  But it is conceivable that expansion’s temporary dilution of hitting and pitching talent might have in some way encouraged switch-hitting. The vertical lines drawn on the graph indicate expansion years and the number of teams added. Interestingly, the line does seem to accelerate following the early 1960s expansion, then increases in 22 of the next 31 years until the 1993 NL expansion, then fluctuates around 19 to 20 percent until just before the 1998 expansion, and has declined in 9 of the 11 years since then, currently sitting around 15 percent. What accounts for this pattern?

I have been unable to identify a testable hypothesis that would explain the pattern in terms of pitcher and/or hitter talent dilution related to expansion. One obvious problem with linking the phenomenon to expansion is that most (but not all) switch hitters learn the art in their youth typically, as in the cases of Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose, prompted by their father.  This means that new switch hitters would have to be in the pipeline somewhere around eight to ten years before they made it to the majors.

The anecdotal evidence about fathers teaching sons to switch hit does suggest a sort of halo or role model effect that might fit with the timing of the first upturn. It is possible that Mantle’s early success may have inspired some ambitious young players to become switch hitters in their early to mid teens and that cohort began appearing in the early 1960s. I plan to explore that possibility by identifying what is available about the background and motivation of the players in that first wave of new switch hitters reaching the majors in the early 1960s.  Other possible areas of inquiry include the suggestion by Dekkers Davidson that I examine the possible influence of artificial turf which might have encouraged weaker right handed hitters to gain a step down the line against right-hand pitching. Dekkers also suggested it might be worthwhile examining the possible effect of the DH by exploring comparative AL and NL data.

In the meantime I am posting the basic data and inviting comments and suggestions from our freinds.

Posted by Bob

Ground Rules for Fans

Pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in a month so now is a good time to review the baseball rules of etiquette. I offer below “Bob’s Ground Rules for Fans”. This is an abridged version from my draft book, Deep Flies.

11.01 Stand and remove your hat for “The Star Spangled Banner” and “O Canada”

Some American sports fans appear to be in a race to the bottom of the European soccer fan barrel. Every year it seems fans become more inconsiderate and obnoxious.  Poor behavior begins with the churlish refusal to remove caps during the anthem. It’s important to begin the game with a sign of respect for the country and the game so closely associated with it.

Ball players are sometimes criticized for fidgeting and scratching their privates during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner but they are impatient to play and hear it nearly every day. Not always cheerfully. Jim Leyland, then Pirates manager, recalls, 
”I knew we were in for a long season when we lined up for the national anthem on opening day and one of my players said, ‘Every time I hear that song I have a bad game’.”

If your team is playing Toronto, remember to take your hat off and stand respectfully through O Canada because disrespecting Canadian national symbols can be disastrous for your team. At the second game of the 1992 World Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Atlanta Braves, the U.S. Marine Corps color guard presented the Canadian flag upside-down. Apparently Canadians prefer that the stem of that big red maple leaf point down – who knew? The Blue Jays responded with a rare display of Canadian nationalistic fervor; down by one game, they won that night and then went on to win the Series.

11.02 Unless you are Morganna the Kissing Bandit stay off of the field

Invasions of the field by drunks and exhibitionists are much more common today than in my youth. It seems that some beer-fueled idiot tries to run across the Fenway outfield every few weeks or so. Thankfully the craze for streaking seems to have waned – much to the relief of park security staff who have to tackle the bums.

Some historians believe that today’s on-field invasions were sparked in part by Morganna, an exotic dancer whose Hall of Fame stats were 60-23-39 (you may decide to not share those figures with your children but I thought you would want to know). During her storied career Morganna was busted, so to speak, almost 20 times for sprinting on to the field to kiss ballplayers including Pete Rose, Don Mattingly, George Brett (at least twice), Nolan Ryan, and others.

11.03 Do not reach into the field to interfere with the players.

During the 1996 American League Championship Series, 12 year-old Yankee fan Jeffrey Maier reached over an Orioles outfielder and into fair territory to catch Derek Jeter’s fly ball. The ball was ruled—incorrectly—a home run, tying the game and making possible a Yankee victory.

However, if the ball is clearly both in the stands and an opposing player is reaching for the ball, it is perfectly okay, in fact it is a fan responsibility, to contest the ball. In July 2006, Ben Affleck, celebrity occupant of Fenway Park seats near the Red Sox dugout, was roundly booed for wimpily contesting Angels’ first baseman Howie Kendrick’s catch of a foul pop-up. It may have been Ben’s worst performance since Gigli.

Severe penalties are meted out for interfering with a home team fielder. Consider Steve Bartman, a Cubs fan who may have prevented Cubs’ outfielder Moises Alou from catching a ball during a 2003 playoff game. Reprieved, the Marlins’ staged a comeback victory. Bartman had to be escorted out of the park by security and later received death threats and had to leave Chicago. The now disgraced Ron Blogadovich, then Governor of Illinois, suggested that Bartman leave the state permanently and Jeb Bush, then-Governor of Florida, offered him asylum.

11.04 Heckle well or not at all

Philadelphia fans are famous for booing Santa Claus. Pitcher Bo Belinsky, an underachieving pitcher who heard his share of boos, maintained that, “Philadelphia fans would boo funerals, an Easter egg hunt, a parade of armless war vets and the Liberty Bell.”

In 1948 The Sporting News published the “Rules of Scientific Heckling” composed by Pete Adelis, Philadelphia’s  legendary 280 pound, “Iron Lung of Shibe Park.” The Yankees so admired Adelis they once brought him to Yankee Stadium, all expenses paid, to heckle the Indians. Sadly, Pete couldn’t follow his own rules and when he was hired by the Phillies as a jeer leader to taunt Jackie Robinson and other black players he disgraced himself and the Phillies.

Boston fans are especially erudite. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous 1860 comment that “New York is a sucked orange” has been abbreviated to “Yankees Suck!” My older son’s favorite heckle came during a 1990 Yankees-Red Sox game as Dennis Eckersley faced Yankee Scott Brosious. A man seated behind us had kept up a steady and creative patter all evening. But when Brosious stepped into the batter’s box, the inebriate outdid himself. “Something smells Brosious in here,” he sneered, his intonation good enough that nearby fans instinctively sniffed. But it was when Eckersley looked close to finishing off the pinstriped batter that the heckler loosed his finest: “Super-calli-fragilistic-Eck-will-get-the-Brosious.”  That’s the sort of art to aspire to.

11.05 Don’t be a Rickey – let kids catch the balls hit into the stands

Never knock over a child to get to a ball. If a youngster has a play on the ball, let him or her have it. TV cameramen have gotten pretty good at filming the morons who bowl over kids to get a souvenir ball, and – invariably – hold the ball aloft in triumph.

If the ball is coming right at your head and you don’t have to move, of course you have to catch it, but you don’t have to leave your seat to dive into a scrum for a ball landing three rows down. The only possible exception might be when you have a fiduciary responsibility to snag a particularly historic ball such as Barry Bonds’ 756th homer but, on second thought,  that might be a bad example.

A surprising number of adult males are willing to embarrass themselves to snag a souvenir that retails for $12.99. This urge isn’t just felt by ordinary fans. Watching a May 7, 2007 Mets-Giants game, Hall-of-Famer Rickey Henderson caught a foul ball and kept it instead of handing it to a young fan. Henderson said “Everybody was asking me for the ball, I said, ‘You’re not getting this ball.’ I always wanted to get a foul ball. This one’s going on a shelf at home.”

Posted by Bob

Tagging the Ump

As every baseball fan on the planet knows, Umpire Tim McClelland made one of the worst non-calls in baseball history during Game 4 of this year’s ALCS. When Angels catcher Mike Napoli tagged both Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano who were inexplicably standing near but clearly not on third base, McClelland called only Posada out. His brain cramp has led many to call for McLelland, who was man enough to face his critics after the game, to be dismissed and for Bud Selig to extend the use of instant replay. Both are bad ideas.

I might be reluctant to ask McClelland to call balls and strikes in a T-ball game but by all accounts he is a decent and competent umpire who had a very bad night in a season in which a lot of umpires’ mistakes have been exposed by the camera. Umpires are human. Let there be an investigation into the problems to surface better ways of making calls (perhaps one of the other umps probably should have offered assistance, and McClelland should have sought it.) but we’ve already gone too far down the road of injecting technology into the game on the basis of “getting it right.”

Antipathy for the men in blue runs deep and has been with us since the early days of the game. Hall of Fame Pitcher Christy Mathewson, considered one of the game’s finest gentlemen and the embodiment of virtuous fictional hero Frank Merriwell, once said  “Many baseball fans look upon an umpire as a sort of necessary evil to the luxury of baseball, like the odor that follows an automobile.”  (Christy spoke before the EPA and Prius but the sentiment remains.) It is embedded in our finest literature:

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

(From the poem “Casey at the Bat” By Ernest Lawrence Thayer, 1888)

We need a modern day Casey to quiet the technology-worshipping crowd that confuses baseball with a video game. When I was young, Thayer’s classic passage about killing the umpire didn’t strike me as anything noteworthy. I probably thought it was just hyperbole or they were using “kill the ump” in its affectionate sense. Today, I suspect anyone calling for the execution of the umpire would be escorted out of the ballpark. In some places it might even be a crime to utter such words. But many people, especially Angel’s fans at the moment, would like to perform a virtual execution and replace more of the umpires’ duties with a camera and a committee in the suites above the field. They are wrong. Baseball is a game played by and regulated by humans, to err is human, to scream at perceived injustice is human (or should be): leave the human element in the game.

Umpires perform a difficult job in front of thousands of people most of whom have extraordinary vision and an encyclopedic understanding of the rules. It is the fans’ right to offer guidance to the umpires so long as they observe the tradition of questioning – but never obscenely – only those calls concerning balls and strikes, whether base runners are safe or out, trapped fly balls, foul balls, and balks. I think we all agree that umpires do a pretty good job on everything else.  And when they do blow a call, it almost always makes the story better and more memorable. How many will remember the outcome of the game (Yankees won 10-1) years from now compared to those who will tell their children about the call. People are still talking about Merkle’s Boner and that happened 100 years ago and helped the Cubs (sic) win a World Series.

My dad told me that the umpires’ calls were a part of the game, that their calls evened out over time, and that resistance was futile. But today you may have a conversation with your children about whether umpires are really, as Christy thought, a necessary evil. Some umpires fear that instant replay, QuesTec, radar guns and other technology are threatening to de-humanize their job and turn the men in blue into Borgs. QuesTec, derived from U.S. military technology for tracking ballistic missiles and aerial mapping is already part of the Umpire Information System (UIS) used in the major leagues to monitor umpires’ ball and strike calls and to evaluate the performance of umpires. MLB seems enthusiastic about the system  and claims it is already improving the performance of umpires.  The 2008 decision to install instant replay for close and contested home runs  is seen by some as the first step in removing the human element from umpiring the game.

Robert Adair, the Yale physicist and baseball fan who wrote the seminal work on the physics of baseball, sees as inevitable the replacement of umpires with technology.  But if that happens, who would we yell at, who would a player turn to in disgust after taking strike three, and whose shoes would the managers kick dirt on?  Even Mathewson might prefer the “necessary evil” to be a human.

The cyber-umpire could communicate calls through the scoreboard, but my guess is that the secondary but essential roles require a cyborg or android presence on the field to convey decisions, endure tantrums, and perform the “yer outa here” spin-and-point toward the showers. But a great deal will be lost. It just won’t seem the same to shout, “Ump, your optical circuit is malfunctioning!”  There is also the very real possibility, especially if it is Windows-based, that fans will hack into the software and disable or re-program the androids to favor their team. What would Casey’s fans roar – “Unplug the ump, Unplug the ump”?

It will be enough to make real fans pine for Tim McClelland.

posted by Bob