Fisk missed the point: There's more to this story than just steroids
Fisk, a Hall of Fame catcher, ripped baseball's steroid users in a recent interview
But there are always multiple factors that contribute to major trends in the game
Fisk himself hit an unprecedented 37 home runs at age 37, which proves the point
"But this is the point I want to make: When you talk about steroids and you talk about what it means to the game, the three greatest home run hitters of all time -- Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, right? When they were 39 years old, how many home runs do you think they averaged? The three greatest home run hitters of all time averaged 18 home runs at age 39. Now, how many home runs did Barry Bonds hit when he was 39? He hit 73!"
-- Carlton Fisk from this story
I guess when it comes down to it, this is the thing that bothers me most about the steroid screaming: Why is it that people have to bring all of these crazy exaggerations to the party? Why can't we just talk about this stuff without getting livid? Why can't we just do what Joe Paterno suggests we do about all of our problems, all of the mysteries, all of the disagreements: Just ask questions?
Look, I think just about everyone in America believes that steroid use and the massive weight training that goes along with it played a major role in the home run explosion of the 1990s and 2000s. Players got a lot stronger, and being a lot stronger they hit more home runs (especially opposite-field home runs). That isn't hard math. It is a simple baseball fact that 16 of the 17 biggest home run seasons in baseball history (measured by home runs hit per game) have come since the 1994 strike, which seems to be when steroid abuse ratcheted up. The only other year that sneaks in there is that nutty 1987 season, in which the baseballs were apparently punched up with helium and rabbit juice.
I'll take just a moment to note here that 2009 -- which supposedly represented a return to normalcy because there is steroid testing in place and because nobody in either league hit 50 home runs, and nobody in the AL hit 40 -- was actually the 10th biggest home run season ever. The home runs were just more spread out. The huge home run numbers have been sanded down, but there were only 17 fewer home runs hit in 2009 than there were in 2002. There were MORE homers hit per game than in 1997, the year Mark McGwire hit 58 and Ken Griffey Jr. hit 56 -- the year that led into the year.
In 2009, 54 players hit 25-plus homers -- fourth most in the decade and sixth most all-time. Home runs are still flying.
Here's a funny statistic that I have not seen mentioned much: The 2009 New York Yankees hit more home runs than any Yankees team ever. More than any of the steroid era Yankees teams. More than the 1961 Yankees. Fifty percent more than the '27 Yankees. It seemed to go relatively unnoticed for a couple of reasons:
1. Because no Yankees player hit 40 home runs in 2009.
2. Because New Yankee Stadium was reportedly a pinball machine.
The New Yankee Stadium thing was pretty significant. The Yankees hit 28 more home runs at home than on the road. More to the point, they hit 46 more home runs at home than they did in 2008.
Home runs hit by the Yankees at home:
So, you would have to say that home ballpark played a role in the record-setting home run numbers. Well, of course it did. And this is the point that I can't help but think people miss all the time: Of course steroids played a role in the home run years. But maybe, just maybe, there were other factors. Lots of other factors....
Stadiums: New Comiskey Park -- what has become a massive home run hitters park -- was introduced in 1991. Camden Yards, a big home run park, opened in 1992. Baseball was expanded to high elevation Denver in 1993, and the homerlicious Ballpark at Arlington opened in 1994. Kansas City moved in the fences in 1995 and turned Royals Stadium into an absurd home run haven. Before 1995 the Royals had never given up more than 163 homers in a season (and from 1985 through 1994, they averaged 107 homers allowed). From 1996 through 2003, they allowed on average more than 200 homers per season. They waved the white flag and moved the fences back after 2003 and the home run numbers have normalized. Baseball also added high-elevation Phoenix in 1998.
The strike zone: Before the 1963 season, a group of baseball people were worried that hitters had gained too much of an advantage. They were thinking, I suspect, about Roger Maris' home run record and some other big offensive seasons (more on this in a second). And they decided to expand the strike zone. At the time they claimed that they only were expanding the zone to "pre-1950 standards" but by expanding the zone from top of the shoulder to bottom of the knee, they were actually going bigger than the strike zone had ever been before.
It had a massive effect on the game. Massive. The strike zone was not the only factor in the 1960s hitter outage -- the main point here is that it's never just one factor. As Bill James has written, the stadiums in those days tended to be pitcher-friendly. The hitters in many parks were not given a hitting background -- they were staring into white signs and white T-shirts. There were more night games... and the lights weren't all great. The umpires were not especially vigilant either about checking the heights of the mounds. At Dodger Stadium in particular, they were like pro wrestling referees. The mound kept getting higher and higher... and, yes, there were RULES about this sort of thing. But nobody was paying attention to the rules. The Dodgers were in fact cheating. But, as we like to say, nobody was testing.
Sandy Koufax at home (1962-66): 57-15, 1.37 ERA, 23 shutouts, 754 K's, 142 walks, .822 WHIP.
Sandy Koufax on road (1962-66): 54-19, 2.57 ERA, 10 shutouts, 690 K's, 174 walks, 1.04 WHIP.
Koufax was still a dazzling pitcher on the road. But he was not the dominant force -- wasn't NEARLY the dominant force -- that he was at home. It is accepted baseball wisdom that Koufax found himself (and his control) in 1962. It's striking that at Los Angeles Memorial Stadium, Koufax was 17-23, with a 4.33 ERA and 188 walks in 364 innings. Dodger Stadium, and the high mound, and the larger strike zone probably played a role in helping Koufax find himself.
But Koufax was only one half of the dominant combo. What about Don Drysdale? He was a good pitcher before 1962 --- he was 79-64 with a 3.30 ERA and he twice led the league in strikeouts. Then the move to Dodger Stadium:
Don Drysdale at home (1962-66): 49-28, 2.27 ERA, 10 shutouts, 559 K's, 148 walks, 1.01 WHIP
Don Drysdale on road (1962-66): 49-42, 3.24 ERA, 10 shutouts, 548 K's, 166 walks, 1.16 WHIP.
Now, to be fair, a big part of this is that Drysdale was awful on the road in 1966 (6-13, 4.65 ERA)... but the main point is that Drysdale was pretty much the same pitcher on the road from 1962 through '66 that he was before that year. But he was a full run better at Dodger Stadium.
So -- higher mounds, bigger strike zone, better pitcher's stadiums... and we had the most remarkable pitching era since Deadball. From 1963 through '68...
Bob Gibson punched up a 1.12 ERA in '68, the best since Dutch Leonard, and nobody has touched him since.
Sandy Koufax put up the best sustained stretch of pitching in memory; many will tell you he's the best they ever saw.
Juan Marichal went 151-65 with a 2.51 ERA.
Denny McLain won 30 games.
There were 14 season with an ERA of less than 2.00 -- these included legends (Koufax, Gibson, Phil Niekro), some really good pitchers (Tommy John, Luis Tiant, Dave McNally) and some surprises (Dean Chance, Joe Horlen, Bobby Bolin). In the 15 seasons leading into the high-strike zone era, there had only been one season with an ERA of less than 2.00 -- Billy Pierce's 1.97 in 1955.
An interesting stat: The American League had not batted less than .250 since Deadball. Consecutively, from 1963 through '68, the league batted .247, .247, .242, .240, .236, .230. That last year, famously, only Carl Yastrzemski hit .300. The National League batted .250 or less in four of those six seasons.
The point is to show how just a couple of seemingly small factors -- a slightly bigger strike zone, an almost imperceptibly higher mound, a few good pitcher's parks -- could wildly turn baseball's fortunes. Enforcing the height of the mound in 1969 balanced things slightly. Adding the designated hitter to the American League in 1972 balanced things a touch more. But just a few things, none of them diabolical in nature, turned the game upside down.
I suspect -- it would be a hard thing to prove, but I do believe -- that the strike zone shrunk dramatically in the 1990s. Offense was going to save the game. The high strike was completely taken away. Anything above the belt -- and some pitches at the belt -- seemed to be automatic balls. This is a perception -- I don't know if anyone has done a study measuring the 1990s strike zone. But it sure seemed smaller. And, as shown in the 1960s, a change in the strike zone can have overwhelming ramifications.
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