I am in a sports group on Facebook that lets anyone talk and debate about sports in an open forum. I love it because the guys in the group are there for debate and can all have a level-headed conversation or debate about the topics presented, something more often then not is hard to come by. Because baseball started Thursday, one of the questions posed is probably from the most radical member of the group. He is a Cardinals fan (and he lets you know it) that is tight to his opinions, like believing his team is the most successful franchise in the history of the MLB and even going so far as saying baseball as a whole is the only sport to never have a single flaw in the way its game is played. While neither of those are remotely true (yes I went there), he still poses tough questions and engages in a manner that is nothing but respectable. His latest question troubled me a bit, and I wanted to reason it out just to see if anyone thinks I am that crazy. He said that the MLB players today are not nearly as good as their predecessors. Guys like Kris Bryant, Giancarlo Stanton, and Mike Trout he claims are not in the category of players like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., and Frank Thomas. I wanted to ask questions about this to him, but wanted to reason my way out here just to see if it all makes any sense. Let’s get to it.
To compare players across decades to me is both fair and also unreasonable. I say it is fair because that is what we as fans are naturally born to do and also why we care so much about statistics. I mean, after all, stats were created for the purpose of measuring out a better way to track a player’s contribution and progress through a season to see how he is matching up with other players. Comparing them through the years is something we naturally do, but it never can truly take into effect how different the game has been played and what it has been played with throughout each decade of its existence. Comparing the power surge in the 90s to the dead ball era in the 40s through 60s is unfair because of the rampant steroid use by those sluggers compared to the squishy ball that was tough to hit anywhere in those days. Stolen bases today should presumably be higher due to improved uniform technology, cleats getting better, and diamonds that are taken care of better than any patch of sand on the planet. To me, it is aspects like this that make it hard because the game has changed so much from its inception to what we see today.
I think fans today have seen the gap between the worst and the best players shrink so heavily from what we have seen in previous years is that we don’t see everything put in off the field. The amount of training that goes in between the cage, weight room, kitchen, and even the road is lightyears in advance of where it was 50 years ago. The equipment players use today and technology available to them allows even players without the raw talent to do it all to train and prepare themselves better, so that when the time comes, they have given themselves whatever tools needed to make up the gap. Babe Ruth probably never practiced and was known for spending all of his time away from the field in the spotlight of New York City or in the bedroom with the woman he chose for the day. The guy spent so little time practicing that he missed almost an entire season because he was rumored to have slept around so much and contracted syphilis. His natural talent was literally too overpowering for opponents as he mashed his way to 714 career home runs that no one ever thought could be broken. As players and stadiums changed, Hank Aaron broke that mark as stadiums brought in their outfield walls to make home runs more attainable, pitchers started throwing harder, and players could launch the ball by just going up to the plate and hitting for contact. Aaron wasn’t a powerful slugger by nature (he never hit more than 50 in a season), but he was a great contact hitter who took more powerful fastballs over the fence by simply getting the barrel of the bat on more pitches. Barry Bonds was more of a slugger and did it because he was really good and hitting the ball a long way* (* – I think he was on the juice for most of the last decade of his career but was never caught for it.) Times change and records are meant to be broken.
As far as pitching goes, I’ll look at the difference between three key players. Walter Johnson is my favorite example from early baseball. He held most records for pitching, outside of career wins, because of his electric stuff and the way baseball was played in that era. At the time, starting pitchers usually averaged 8+ innings per game and as long as you had a shutout going, there was no chance a manager would take his star out of the game. Pitchers today are on strict innings limits and have a regimen of at least three to four days of rest between starts. Johnson was known to throw 13 or 14 innings in a game if it was close and then go on to pitch the second game of the double header (in baseball back then, it was your day to pitch, so if there were two games that day, guess who was pitching both?) Today, the typical mark is 200 innings for a starter and just around 30 starts. Johnson would average well over 300 innings per season and over 40 starts, typically on one or two days rest at times. Bob Gibson was the most dominant pitcher of the dead ball era and his stats are padded when fans take into account that hitters really struggled to mash a potato being thrown at them. This is not to take away from Gibson, but his numbers wouldn’t be as great if he pitched today. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher of the last decade, but with his injury history and the way the Dodgers are careful about his workload, he wouldn’t not have lasted more than five years next to Walter Johnson in the 20s.
I’m not saying players of years before were that much better than the players of today, but I think the key is taking into account the differences in the game over its 100+ years of existence and the way technology has changed the game today. Players today are closer than ever in terms of their talent and are playing in ever changing circumstances different than those of Babe Ruth or Nolan Ryan. Players before were excelling on raw talent alone that others couldn’t match, but now, they can train and make up the time, gaining success over others simply because they want it more than the next guy. Players today are really good, and they will continue to get better as technology improves.