Determining talent level in a professional sports league a very difficult thing. By what measurements do you evaluate talent? Is the athlete today better than past athletes? Has football, basketball, and soccer taken away talent from baseball? It is easy to say that talent is watered down in baseball, but how can you tell? At what point would the talent level need to decrease for people to stop watching? These are all difficult questions but somewhat important to a fans concerned about MLB expansion if it ever was to come back under discussion.
First to evaluate talent we should have a baseline. Lets take 1950 in the middle of one of baseball’s golden eras when baseball was the most popular sport around. If baseball can be as good as the baseball in the 1950s it can’t be too bad. Right?
In 1950 the United States population was just over 150 million persons today it is over 300 million, over double what it was during baseball’s golden era. In 1950 black players had just started to break into the major leagues, latin players were almost unheard of in the major leagues and in Japan baseball was just getting restarted after the war. Major league baseball consisted of only 16 teams in 1950 but to say that would be misleading. The Negro leagues while beginning their decline still existed and on the west coast the PCL had eight teams with talent that may have been major league and if not, very close to major league.
The book “Baseball and Billions” by Andrew Zimbalist approached the question of expansion in the early 1990s and he based his conclusion mostly on the population increase. Zimbalist’s most conservative estimate was that baseball could support at least 40 teams without dropping below the level of talent of the 1950s. This is an estimate from almost 20 years ago and yet baseball has only expanded by 4 teams(1993 and 98) Today based on simply on the odds of people alive to major league jobs, it is much harder for a boy to become a major leaguer than ever before.
But, you say what about basketball and football? Those sports are more popular than before and take athletes away from baseball. Well first the athletic requirements are somewhat different for football and basketball. Baseball while the size of the ballplayer has increased does not usually have the 6’6″ and above players that basketball has. Football does take some athletes away for example Russell Wilson and Dennis Dixon who both played minor league baseball and Golden Tate who was a decent outfielder in college. Still I would find it hard to believe that football and on a lower scale soccer would draw potential baseball players away at a rate that equals population increase.
When we talk about baseball players though it isn’t just the population increase that creates the talent pool. The international talent that has entered the game has fundamentally changed the game. The increase of Latin American talent, the Korean and Japanese players and some players from Australia and the Netherlands are adding to baseball’s talent pool. Clearly there is more than enough talent to stock four to six more teams.
When we look at the play on the field we have further factors that make the game better today than it has ever been. In the 1950s to 60s ballplayers often spent their winters working or playing baseball. Training techniques and rest schedules were not discussed. Spring training was the time to get in physical shape, now most players show up in shape. Instead of barnstorming across the country, players work out and try to get into the best shape for the season. Not all players do this of course, but enough that there is a noticeable difference between the athlete of the early 80s and today. This is true even when you consider the years of abnormal athletes with the use of PEDs. One of the things the PED era showed was that physical fitness could make a better ballplayer. This sounds basic but as a kid many of the baseball training books said not to get big muscles because it hurts flexibility. The fear of weight training was a real thing in the past.
So if baseball were to expand what would happen. Well we would see some bottom of the bench guys who have less power. Maybe some players who can hit but not field as well. Possibly some guys pitching with less speed. After the initial years of bad expansion teams (not necessarily as Arizona was in the playoffs their second year) the talent would balance out and the lower talented guys would be back of the bullpen guys and bench players.
Bad teams are going to be bad. A team like the Astros isn’t a result of lack of talent on the big league level. The Astros have less than their share of talent because they have traded it away, failed to develop it, or failed to bring in talent. They have purposefully traded away some older talent for younger talent. It is not that there isn’t enough talent, it is that they don’t have the best talent. I believe that if you took this Astros team and sent them back twenty-five years they give the Twins or the Cardinals a run. Doubt me? Of course you do. We can’t measure speed of pitches from 1987 or speed of hits. What we can look at though is physical listings. A look at the rosters of 1987 Twins and the 2012 Astros shows exactly what you would expect, players are slightly taller and weigh more.
The Twins pitchers averaged just under 6’2 and 198lbs the 2012 Astros average just over 6’2 and 208lbs. Overall the 1987 Twins average player was just over 6’1 and 196lbs. The average Astro in 2012 is a half inch taller and over 208 lbs, this is including 5’5 160lb, Jose Altuve. Now this numbers don’t tell the whole story but they show what we already know. If you put the 1987 Twins on the same field as the 2012 Astros the Astros would look physically bigger. With todays training techniques you can assume that the players are not fatter just more muscular. Without getting into the PED discussion, the point is the players are bigger which probably means stronger.
I have written nothing we don’t already know. I don’t need to go very in-depth to say that baseball players have gotten better, and that the talent level is at an all-time high. In fact without massive expansion it will probably continue to improve. This is of course, good for the game.
An argument that will probably be brought out is that players are not as good at the fundamentals as they used to be. This is the standard line old fans always say about the new generation. This really is impossible to measure. True defensive metrics are still in development, but from what I have seen, great defense is on display every night. Bunting and hit and run plays have come under scrutiny as to their true value, and how much enjoyment does a bunt really add to watching a game? Quick, name a player you want to watch bunt. Maybe Ichiro in his prime but come on really. And speed, well we now know you need to have about a 75% steal percentage to be valuable stealing bases. Not only have the players gotten better, but new thinking on strategies has made the game better (if only more mangers considered new ways of leveraging players). Fundamentals are always going to be there, if a guy is missing the cutoff man or getting tossed out on the basepaths he probably will either fix it, or not be around long (unless he can really hit). What the hell are fundamentals anyway?
The main point of this post is that without saying anything earth shattering it is evident that the talent level of baseball could withstand expansion. Fans would hardly notice the difference 100 new players make if baseball expanded by four teams or even six. The question of why baseball should expand is more difficult and will be considered more in-depth later.