You probably already know about my obsession with the juicing and deadening of baseballs. I am not a conspiracy theorist by trade — that’s my wife’s department — but I remain utterly (and, I admit, bizarrely) convinced that the commissioner of baseball can dramatically influence the game by having the composition of the baseball changed even slightly. More than that, I remain convinced that commissioners HAVE dramatically influenced the game.
But, to even things out, I also believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
In any case, I think that nothing — not steroid use, not harder bats, not higher mounds, not widened strike zones — can so clearly and overwhelmingly impact offense like changes in the baseball. I believe that’s how the home run year of 1987 happened. I believe that was an important part of the offensive spike after the 1994 strike. There are numerous other smaller examples. I’m not saying — and, in all seriousness, do not really think — that this was always a masterminded plot. But whatever the reasons, I think that in baseball if you want to explain a rather sudden and shocking shift … check the baseball first.
So, naturally when Brilliant Reader Chuck sent along a theory about how he thinks 1968 might not have been the year of the pitcher as much as it was the year of the mushy baseball, well, it was like sending a hare-brained plot to Oliver Stone.
And so, I reprint it here. Please discuss:
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I think I found something remarkable in looking through the split data from the late 1960’s. What got me interested was this quote from a Sports Illustrated article in early 1969:
“Last week Pitcher Jim Hannan of the Senators revealed yet another facet of this strange spring training. “In 1968,” he said, “the balls were softer than they had been before. Ken McMullen … used to sit on the bench and squeeze the horsehide up into a lump on the outside of the ball. Nine of every 10 balls I picked up seemed to be soft. Heck, one day an umpire pushed on a ball and the horsehide came up so that he could hold it between his fingers like a pendant on a chain. This year the balls feel much, much harder.”
In compiling home run data for the NL in 1967 I noticed this strange split in the percentage of homers per batted ball:
1st half: 2.77%
2nd half: 2.03%
That’s a pretty sizable drop. In 1966, it was 3.10% in the 1st half, 2.82% in the 2nd.
Digging a little further revealed a turning point for this NL homer rate in ’67:
Wow. That looks to me like something happened to dramatically reduce homers either at the beginning of August that season or somewhere in the back end of July.
In 1968, that low rate resumed:
1st half: 1.94%
2nd half: 1.95%
Were 1967-1968 the Years of the Deadball, rather than the Year of the Pitcher?
In the NL, the drop in the homer rate from the first 4 months of 1967 (2.72%) to that of the last two months (1.86%) was an enormous 32% drop.
The average rate from 1966 through July of 1967: 2.87%
The average rate from August 1967 through 1968: 1.92%
Again, that is a drop of 33%, and it seems to me it did not happen gradually, from pitchers just becoming more dominant on their tall mounds and with their big strike zone, but from a change in the quality of the baseball that appeared in July or August of 1967.
Here is the rate of doubles and triples per batted ball over those periods:
1966-July, 1967: 5.70%
August 1967 – 1968: 5.18%
A drop of 9% in doubles+triples.
But the rate of singles was not affected like that:
1966 – July, 1967: 21.44%
August 1967 – 1968: 22.08%.
The singles rate rose just a bit, by 3%. It was the extra bases, particularly the homers, that dropped off the table.
In 1969, things snapped back to their former shape for homers.
Per batted ball:
1st half: 2.77%
2nd half: 2.58%
April and September were low that season, but the middle four months of 1969 were in line with the previous NL rate, around 2.90%.
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What about the AL homer rate?
1st half: 2.92%
2nd half: 2.45%
Again, a sizable drop occurred either in August or partway through July, 1967.
April – July: 2.90%
A drop of 19.3%. Somewhat lower than in the NL, but noticeable.
The AL in 1968 had a home run rate of 2.48% overall.
1st half: 2.64%
2nd half: 2.34%
The AL in those same time frames as the NL:
1966-July 1967: 2.98%
Aug.1967 – 1968: 2.44%
The AL had a drop of 18% during the same period, less than the NL drop of 33%, but still a good-sized one.
In 1969, again, things went right back to the previous AL homer rate:
1st half: 3.11%
2nd half: 2.82%
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So what might have happened in 1967?
From the following link to Rawlings’ history:
“Rawlings had … six manufacturing plants–four in Missouri and two in Puerto Rico–when it was sold in 1967 to Automatic Sprinkler Corp. of America. This conglomerate made the company a division under its prior Rawlings Sporting Goods name.”
It seems a remarkable coincidence that a change in home run rates should come in the same year that the ball manufacturer changes ownership. As yet, I’ve found no smoking gun for if or why there may have been a lapse in quality control. But I do think that MLB’s changes to the strike zone and mound height in 1969 may not have come about had the power rates not plummeted in 1967-68.
The rate of strikeouts had only gone up marginally in the NL over these years.
1966: 16.7% ( K / (ab+sf) )
They actually ROSE in 1969, after the lowering of the mounds and return of the old strike zone.
In the AL the K rate went up in ’67, but actually much more so in the 1st half of the year, not the 2nd.
From 1966 through July, 1967, the AL strikeout rate was virtually the same as for the end of ’67 through 1968.
In case you’re wondering about parks changing during this time, I looked at data on ballpark fence changes.
In the NL the average right field foul pole distance went out by just a foot in 1967. In ’68 it went out another foot in both the left and right foul poles, but not the alleys. 1969 was when some parks brought distances in, shaving a few feet off the power alleys and center field. From 1963 through 1967, distances had actually DEcreased substantially. The average NL power alleys had come in by 7 feet in left and 4 feet in right.
In the AL, a foot was shaved OFF the power alleys in 1967, and each moved in a couple more in 1968. Home runs SHOULD have been getting more plentiful. In 1969 4 feet more came off the alleys and center field.
The “year of the pitcher” wasn’t about pitchers increasing their domination with strikeouts. It was a sudden drop in power in both leagues, much more so in the National League, that led to so many fewer runs being scored in the back end of 1967 and through 1968.