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What Is Positional Balance?

Balance can be a tricky thing.

Balance can be a tricky thing.

Yogi Berra once said something to the effect of 90% of baseball being half mental. And Connie Mack once said that pitching is 75% of baseball. So does that mean that the best players in baseball history are the smartest pitchers, guys like Christy Mathewson (college boy from Bucknell when such a label wasn’t exactly a compliment), Mike Mussina (Stanford economist), and Jeff Musselman (Harvard)?

Not exactly.

The Yogi Berra non-point aside, the Connie Mack proclamation makes me wonder about the construction of the Hall of Miller and Eric. We agreed that the HoME would have the same number of players in it as the Hall. Fair enough. And we agreed to strive for balance across eras and positions. That makes sense too.

We run into a problem, however, when we try to determine the proper pitcher/hitter split. Right now, about 30% of the players in the Hall are pitchers. Connie Mack might suggest an uptick in that number. And baseball history might suggest a lot of things. Let’s explore.

What if we divided the split by roster construction? To get an idea of what that will look like, I’m going to do a very quick study and come up with the approximate roster construction in the majors every 20 years beginning in 1890.

Year   Pitcher%  Hitter%
1890     26%       74%
1910     40%       60%
1930     38%       62%
1950     39%       61%
1970     40%       60%
1990     44%       56%
2010     45%       55%

Before you go too far and start downloading that chart for future use in bar bets and graduate-level research, I must admit that my methods of estimation should be questioned by any good fourth grade math teacher, or for that matter, any good fourth grade math student.

Even so, we see a trend, basically, toward a larger percentage of the roster taken by pitchers over the scores. But we don’t see 30% anywhere. Maybe around 1896? And it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to base Hall or HoME construction around 1896 roster distribution.

So what might make sense? Basing the Hall around value seems appropriate. And if we’re just looking at WAR, about 33% of the top 209 players all-time are pitchers.

But we’re not just looking at distribution by position; we’re also looking at distribution by era. So let’s consider WAR through the ages by a bunch of different measures. I’m going to look at the top-100 players in each era and see how many are pitchers. Per The Baseball Gauge at Seamheads.com,

Era                         Pitcher%   Hitter%
19th Century, 1871-1899       45%        55%
Modern, 1901-present          29%        71%
Dead Ball, 1901-1919          42%        58%
Live Ball, 1920-present       28%        72%
Between Wars, 1919-1941       42%        58%
Integration, 1947-present     29%        71%
Expansion, 1961-present       28%        72%
Free Agency, 1977-present     31%        69%

So what we find here is that the current Hall distribution is similar to the distribution in the modern game, but it’s nothing like the 19th century, the dead ball era, or the time between the wars. Why shouldn’t the representation in the Hall and the HoME represent the value of the era?

Ah, a philosophical question indeed. Let’s just pick a year out of the proverbial hat, say 1892. Eight of the top ten players by WAR were pitchers that year. The same was true in 1891. In 1890, it was nine of the top ten. You get the point. The game was so different in 1892. Pitchers were throwing twice the number of innings as they are now. As a result, they had twice the value. Sort of. But it would be really strange to have a HoME with a bunch of pitchers who threw from 50 feet. Or underhanded.

Let’s look at the above chart a little differently, removing all of the shorter periods of time and just focusing on a start date until the present. After all, we’ve learned that when we focus on a small sample, our results are often skewed.

Era                         Pitcher%   Hitter%
Modern, 1901-present          29%        71%
Live Ball, 1920-present       28%        72%
Integration, 1947-present     29%        71%
Expansion, 1961-present       28%        72%
Free Agency, 1977-present     31%        69%

What we see here looks pretty consistent, and it would yield an expected result. That is, if 30% of the HoME is pitchers, we’re looking at 63 HoME hurlers by the time we’re done. But let’s throw in the fact that 45% of the top-100 19th century players were pitchers. I think it’s reasonable to adjust the number upwards by a couple, maybe to 65 – right in the neighborhood of the Hall’s current composition.

For all of its problems, I’d say the Hall has just about the right balance. And I’d say the HoME should reject Connie Mack’s premise and aim toward a body of about 65 pitchers.

Miller

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