I was looking up numbers for a discussion on teams that typically make the postseason when I noticed an interesting trend. Back in good ole’ year 2000 when runs were plentiful, 17 Major League teams scoring more than 800 runs, with 7 of those teams scoring over 900. The same year 16 players hit 40 or more home runs, led by Sammy Sosa with 50. Pitching in the majors was not for the faint of heart. Hitters were destroying the baseball, and to fans the game seemed like it was entering the future. Parks would be smaller, players would be bigger, scores would be higher, stadiums packed, contracts astronomical. A year later Bonds broke the homerun record with 73, while walking nearly as much intentionally. Baseball was forever a different game.
The steroid scandal rocked the sport shortly after and by 2003, baseball would finally have mandatory drug testing. Testing has greatly improved since 2003 and today’s game looks radically different from baseball at the turn of the century. In the last 3 years combined 13 teams have scored more than 800 and only one, the 2009 Yankees, scored more than 900. Last season two players, Jose Bautista (43) and Curtis Grander son (41), topped 40 homers. What happened? Either today’s pitchers have gotten significantly better (maybe), the sabermetric trend is greatly favoring pitchers (probably somewhat) or steroid testing has significantly affected baseball.
The numbers are backing it up, and it is showing up in the games as well. Apart from a few players, guys like Adam Dunn and Albert Pujols, the average major leaguer is smaller today. Small ball is making a comeback. In 2011 teams stole 3,279 bases, up about 350 from the 2000 season. 400 fewer errors were made last year compared to 2000 as well, which means that the value being placed by front offices everywhere on defense is grading out. Only one team in 2000, Cincinnati, converted over 70% of batted balls into outs while last year we had 10 such teams.
Today’s players are slimmer, faster, and more athletic which means more dynamic defense. Some of this movement has to be related to testing. With fewer players having unlimited power due to steroids, it means that on any given night in ballparks around the country players are flashing the leather. Fewer complete liabilities on defense are getting jobs. Gone are the days when you could go to the park and see Barry Bonds or Gary Sheffield in left, Big Mac or Greg Vaughn at first. You may still have a Prince Fielder or David Ortiz, but these guys are going to be getting DH at-bats, but every year more guys like Sam Fuld and Brett Gardner are stealing hits away.