2 Guys Talking: How Best to Build a Team in Baseball’s Next Era? Will the Mets Be Ahead of the Curve?
When you watch a team every day it’s easy to lose some perspective. One thing we all have a tendency to do as Mets fans is lament the team’s lack of serious power hitting. But chasing power might be an example of being the coyote chasing the roadrunner. When you look around the game, its way down everywhere.
I know that offense is down in general. And obviously we aren’t in the steroid era anymore. But what are the HR numbers across baseball?
In the last three years, 2011 – 2013, the average full season Home Run totals per team were as follows:
- 2011, 152
- 2012, 164
- 2013, 155
With the 2014 season very much behind us the current pace is for roughly 142 per team this year (Note: 2014 numbers are as of 8/27.) That 142 number would be the lowest in MLB since 1992, 22 years ago. How much is the drop? Well if you go back a decade the same numbers are as follows:
- 2001, 182
- 2002, 169
- 2003, 174
- 2004, 182
The difference in the numbers is tantamount to removing a couple of power hitters from every team and replacing them with Ruben Tejada.
I’m currently reading Matt Tiabbi’s brilliant book, The Divide. But on the side, I’ve been working through Bill James’s latest collection of essays, Fools Rush In. In the first essay, “Dividing Baseball History Into Eras,” he details a long process, or methodology, of attempting to locate clear divisions in baseball history. He does this with great rigor and thought, it’s no arbitrary walk in the park. He found, for example, a total of 366 “dividing events” in baseball history, ranging from, say, the banning of the spitball, to the DH, to the arrival of Ted Williams. He considers such things as artificial turf, the amateur draft, the establishment of a commissioner, the lowering of the mound, and so on. It’s all complex and, yes, this being Bill James, there’s also an elaborate point system.
I say the above only to credit him for thinking about this deeply.
James concludes with 6 Eras:
- Era 1 (The Pioneer Era), 1871-1892
- Era 2 (The Spitball Era), 1893-1919
- Era 3 (The Landis Era), 1920-1946
- Era 4 (The Baby Boomers Era), 1947-1968
- Era 5 (The Artificial Turf Era), 1969-1992
- Era 6 (The Camden Yards Era), 1993-2012
James mentions, in passing, that the names could be changed. He doesn’t particularly care what you or I call them: The Cap Anson Era, The Bud Selig Era, the Jackie Robinson Era, The Steroid Era. Whatever.
The interesting thing is, of course, what Era are we in now? Writes James:
Using the six pillars approach, we can assume that we will transition into a new era sometime between now and 2030, but when? We really don’t know where we are with respect to the era that we are in at the present time.
The three markers of sufficient change approach tells us that we are nearing the end of the Bud Selig era, nearing the end of the Camden Yards era, but that we are probably at least five years away from the next line. We are more than ten years into the era — mark one — and the accumulated changes in the game since 1993 total up to 74 points as I have scored them.
There are several things that have happened since this article was first published in June, 2012, that have something of the feel of dividing lines. The re-emegence of the Pittsburgh Pirate franchise and the less dramatic but still notable success of the Kansas City Royals, the Pittsburgh Pirates of the American League, provide some evidence that the era in which small-market teams had little chance to compete may have hit, if not an end, at least an interruption. The re-emergence of the Pirates seems to me like a marker.
The new wild-card system, two wild cards in each league, is certainly a structural divide. The emergence of Mike Trout seems very likely to be a point making 2012 meaningfully different from 2011. Adding all of these together, I don’t think we can conclude that we have entered a new era, but the changes separating us from 1993 are continuing to stack up.
My bet is that James would also look at the change in these power numbers and use them in his point system. Perhaps even as a tipping point.
The next question is obvious: So what? Power is down. What’s the best way to react to that information as it applies to team-building? Do you go after power harder than ever? Or do you make a shift in how you prioritize baseball’s famed 5 tools? I guess we are talking about market scarcity and valuations. And again, we have to fit any of this into a ballpark that is not kind to power hitters. The global conclusions might not apply to the specific case of the New York Mets in Citi Field.
First off, I think real power plays anywhere. The Nationals have no problem hitting home runs in Citi Field. Neither does Lucas Duda. I also think that power retains its value. I haven’t read James book, but I have lived though the last three of those eras. Home runs have varied over those years, but they have always been very valuable. As you suggest, they actually become more so when scarcer. So, one thought is when doing drafting and developing, targeting power becomes important. On this score, Theo Epstein seems to be ahead of the pack.
We have also discussed the effect that modern shifting is having on the ability to get hits on balls in play. And that only reinforces the value of any power you can find, you can’t shift against the home run. But what else might that suggest? It gets me thinking about the other side of the ball. If no one can find power, defense goes up in value. That old line, “there is no defense against the three-run home run” gets turned around if there aren’t any three-run home runs. We see, daily, how many runs Juan Lagares is saving with his glove. With relative power decreasing, his value in the field increases, and his relative ability at-bat changes. Juan does not have to hit like Carlos Beltran, because more and more you can’t find anyone who can.
Pitching also needs to be looked at. The dominant pitcher is always valuable, it’s not like Sandy Koufax or Tom Seaver are now scoffed at as products of their times. But when you look at your next tier of talent, perhaps teams need to put more value on pure strike throwers and throw away the gun. More and more balls that are struck are staying in play, and with shifts prevalent those balls are getting caught. You get some defenders on the field, and this advantage magnifies. The trick to success might be to go cheap on pitching, find guys who don’t throw hard but can throw strikes. These pitchers could also go deeper into games due to lower pitch counts (you can’t strike a guy out on one pitch) and save overworked bullpens that burn out by September, making them even more valuable.
Fans need to adjust their brains too. If a number three hitter hits 15 to 20 home runs now, that isn’t necessarily a bad year. The same for a number four guy hitting 25, etc. We also can’t get all worked up about every pitcher with a sub 4.00 ERA. In 1969 Jim McAndrew had a 3.47 ERA. He was nothing special. Donn Clendenon had 16 HR’s. He was special. It’s all relative.
As your quotation of James alludes to baseball is an ever-changing game. The key to success is to adapt to whatever the overall environment becomes. We know the Mets front office values data and analyzes it intensely. Hopefully, as we continue in this new era, the New York Mets will be one of the teams that best understand not just where baseball was, or where it is, but where it is going.