My previous post on the 1893 adoption of the 60 foot 6 inch pitching distance focused on the impact to pitchers. This follow-up post looks at batters and how their offensive stats were affected by the longer pitching distance. More after the jump.
To briefly recap, the 1892 season, the first with a new 12-team National League, saw teams score at a rate of 5.1 runs per game. The next year, the first with the new pitching distance, offense ballooned to 6.6 runs per game, then 7.7 R/G in 1894 and back to 6.6 R/G in 1895. From that point, runs drifted lower, returning to close to 1892 levels by 1898.
For this analysis, I’ll be looking at the 1893-95 seasons in comparison to the preceding years, using a study group composed of the 60 batters with 1000 PA from 1890 to 1892, and also from 1893 to 1895. Here are those players, listed alphabetically, with their rate stats for those two periods.
So, just about all of these players posted better results in the second period, with 57 of 60 posting a better BA, 51 a better OBP, 55 better slugging and 53 a better OPS. Fully 49 of the 60 players were better in BA, OBP and SLG. But, it’s a different story for the context adjusted oWAR measure, with barely a third of the players (21 of 60) posting a better result in the 1893-95 period.
The charts below will give you an idea of the magnitude of those improvements.
A bit more than half of the players saw their BA improve by up to 40 points, and another 40% improved by more than 40 points. Similar story for OBP with half improving by up to 40 points and a third by more than 40 points. Almost two-thirds saw their slugging increase by up to 60 points with more than a quarter improving by more than that. All of that added up to an OPS increase of 100 points or more for 30% of the players, and by 50 points or more for another 30%. Improvements in ISO were more “isolated” with almost 60% seeing either a decline or no more than 15 point jump. But, a different story for WAR, with almost two thirds seeing a drop in their oWAR per 100 PA, including 40% who saw a drop of 0.1 or more (or more than 0.5 oWAR for a full season).
Some will have already surmised that there were more differences between these two periods than just the pitching distance. Indeed, each of the three seasons in the 1890-92 period was quite unique, with three leagues and 25 teams in 1890, two leagues and 17 teams in 1891 and one league and 12 teams in 1892. With those contractions, one would presume that the level of competition was a good deal stiffer in each succeeding season. So, to provide a more apples-to-apples comparison, here is what the same charts look like comparing the 1893-95 period to just the 1892 season for our 60 study players.
All of our study players saw action in 1892, with 50 compiling 500+ PA, 56 over 400, and only one below 300 (Dave Foutz at 234 PA). As the above charts illustrate, the 1893-95 improvements previously seen were even more pronounced when compared to the more modest totals posted in a stronger 1892 NL. Improvements in WAR, though, were only a bit better with just 40% recording a higher oWAR per 100 PA in the 1893-95 period.
To give you an idea of the degree of improvement by the leading players, here are the top and bottom five of the 60 study players in improvement in each of these 6 metrics, comparing the 1893-95 period to 1890-92 and to 1892 alone.
- Sam Thompson, Ed Delahanty and Billy Hamilton led the offensive powerhouse Phillies who scored over 1000 runs (in a 130 game season) each year from 1893 to 1895. Alas, the Phillies didn’t have the same prowess on the mound and could finish no better than third.
- Thompson recorded three qualified seasons with 1.25 RBI per game, two with the Phils and one for the 1888 Detroit Wolverines; no other player since 1876 has even one such campaign.
- Delahanty recorded a .400/.500/.600 season in 1895, one of only four such qualified campaigns since 1876.
- Hamilton’s 198 runs scored in 1894 is the all-time record as are his four seasons with 100 or more steals. Hamilton twice posted triple figures in runs, walks and steals; Rickey Henderson, with three such seasons, is the only other player to do so even once.
- Hughie Jennings was the star shortstop on the Orioles teams that claimed three successive pennants from 1894 to 1896. Among his talents was getting plunked, leading the league in HBP five straight seasons, including 3 times with more HBP than walks.
- George Davis and Honus Wagner, both shortstops, share the record total of 16 seasons with 20 doubles and 20 stolen bases. Davis likely would have reached those marks a 17th time in 1903, but lost that season when ruled ineligible to play for “jumping” back to his old Giants team.
- Bill Joyce was possibly the most feared slugger of this period, drawing 284 walks from 1894 to 1896 (second to Billy Hamilton) while leading the NL with 47 round-trippers, many of them tape measure jobs. Joyce, who sat out the 1893 season in a contract dispute, totaled 31 WAR from 1890 to 1898, the most in a career of fewer than 10 seasons.
- Jesse Burkett‘s 240 hits in a 130 game season in 1896 was the record total until surpassed by Ty Cobb in 1911. No player in the modern era has matched Burkett’s 1.8 hits per game in a qualified season (or even in a season of just 50 PA).
- Ed McKean was Mr. Consistency for the Spiders, recording 258 to 284 total bases, 45 to 50 walks and 118 to 125 OPS+ each season from 1893 to 1896. McKean, Jack Glasscock and Germany Smith are the only players with 1500 games at shortstop before the modern era.
So, that is our study group. But, how representative is it of the majors as a whole? Here is our oWAR measurement for the study group and for MLB for this period.As expected, our study players who consistently commanded regular playing time performed well above the average major league player. As our study players aged (by 1895, more than one-third were aged 31 or older, and more than 20% were 35 and above), that gap narrowed from just above 70% better than the MLB average for 1890-92 to slightly below 40% better for 1893-95. Most of that narrowing, though, occurred not when the study players were oldest, but early in the study period, in 1891 and 1892. As noted above, those two seasons saw significant contraction in MLB teams, the effect of which is illustrated in the next chart.
To fill those extra roster spots in 1890 and 1891, teams were turning to younger players, with those aged 25 or under actually getting more playing time than the age 26-30 group that is normally the “sweet spot” for the highest level of player performance. By 1893-95, the playing time for the under-25’s had declined by one-third from 1890-91 levels, while the 26-30 group had increased by about the same amount. The next chart illustrates how that reallocation of playing time was reflected in performance.
Note the large deviations in oWAR relative to the MLB average that are seen for 1890-92, with the under-25 group having the worst results and driving down the MLB average oWAR, paradoxically resulting in the age 31+ group performing above that average. With a more normal age distribution in 1893-95, the variance in oWAR between these age bands shrinks considerably (indicating a more uniform level of major league performance), with the age 31+ group now the weakest in performance as would normally be expected.
So, which hitters adapted best to the new pitching distance? The chart below of our study group players suggests that batters who were willing to go deep more often benefited their teams the most.The top results of 0.6+ oWAR per 100 PA (about 3+ oWAR for a full season) mostly belong to those recording at least 100 points of isolated power, There were 15 study players in this sweet spot for 1893-95 compared to just 10 for 1890-92. Note also that the top 6 ISO results for 1893-95 all surpass the leading result for 1890-92. Looking at ISO change from 1890-92 to 1893-95 shows this same relationship.
The above chart shows that increasing ISO, regardless of its starting point, generally results in more positive WAR, with the same 0.6 oWAR per 100 PA “sweet spot” corresponding to a 40 point ISO rise.
This increase in power was not seen only in our study group, as shown in the chart below of the number of MLB players in the 12 team NL with 200 or more total bases.The increase in these seasons starting in 1893 would have been more pronounced had the 150 game schedule used in 1892 not been reduced to the 130 games used for the next five seasons (1893-97). Some other indicators of increased power hitting are shown in the chart below.