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Back when it was hard to hit 55… July 8, 2010

Posted by tomflesher in Baseball, Economics.
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Last night was one of those classic Keith Hernandez moments where he started talking and then stopped abruptly, which I always like to assume is because the guys in the truck are telling him to shut the hell up. He was talking about Willie Mays for some reason, and said that Mays hit 55 home runs “back when it was hard to hit 55.” Keith coyly said that, while it was easy for a while, it was “getting hard again,” at which point he abruptly stopped talking.

Keith’s unusual candor about drug use and Mays’ career best of 52 home runs aside, this pinged my “Stuff Keith Hernandez Says” meter. After accounting for any time trend and other factors that might explain home run hitting, is there an upward trend? If so, is there a pattern to the remaining home runs?

The first step is to examine the data to see if there appears to be any trend. Just looking at it, there appears to be a messy U shape with a minimum around t=20, which indicates a quadratic trend. That means I want to include a term for time and a term for time squared.

Using the per-game averages for home runs from 1955 to 2009, I detrended the data using t=1 in 1955. I also had to correct for the effect of the designated hitter. That gives us an equation of the form

\hat{HR} = \hat{\beta_{0}} + \hat{\beta_{1}}t + \hat{\beta_{2}} t^{2} + \hat{\beta_{3}} DH

The results:

Estimate Std. Error t-value p-value Signif
B0 0.957 0.0328 29.189 0.0001 0.9999
t -0.0188 0.0028 -6.738 0.0001 0.9999
tsq 0.0004 0.00005 8.599 0.0001 0.9999
DH 0.0911 0.0246 3.706 0.0003 0.9997

We can see that there’s an upward quadratic trend in predicted home runs that together with the DH rule account for about 56% of the variation in the number of home runs per game in a season (R^2 = .5618). The Breusch-Pagan test has a p-value of .1610, indicating a possibility of mild homoskedasticity but nothing we should get concerned about.

Then, I needed to look at the difference between the predicted number of home runs per game and the actual number of home runs per game, which is accessible by subtracting

Residual = HR - \hat{HR}

This represents the “abnormal” number of home runs per year. The question then becomes, “Is there a pattern to the number of abnormal home runs?”  There are two ways to answer this. The first way is to look at the abnormal home runs. Up until about t=40 (the mid-1990s), the abnormal home runs are pretty much scattershot above and below 0. However, at t=40, the residual jumps up for both leagues and then begins a downward trend. It’s not clear what the cause of this is, but the knee-jerk reaction is that there might be a drug use effect. On the other hand, there are a couple of other explanations.

The most obvious is a boring old expansion effect. In 1993, the National League added two teams (the Marlins and the Rockies), and in 1998 each league added a team (the AL’s Rays and the NL’s Diamondbacks). Talent pool dilution has shown up in our discussion of hit batsmen, and I believe that it can be a real effect. It would be mitigated over time, however, by the establishment and development of farm systems, in particular strong systems like the one that’s producing good, cheap talent for the Rays.

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