November 20, 2003
A common fallacy

Radley Balko, in writing about baseball's legitimacy problem vis-a-vis steroid usage, falls victim to a common and annoying fallacy when discussing the effect of allegedly amped-up players on the sport's record books.

While I don't think steroids should be illegal, Major League Baseball certainly is within its rights to ban them. And I think it was right to, mainly because baseball has always been a game of numbers, of statistics, of records. And if those number are to retain their integrity, it's important that baseball minimize as many variables as possible from season to season. If baseball truly wants to keep it's stats books whole, it should go to great lengths to be sure it expands only once there's talent to sustain major league competition, it should strive to keep ballparks of similar dimension, and it should certainly frown on new chemicals that could give today's players an unfair advantage over the record setters of previous generations.

That said, I think baseball has failed on virtually all these counts. The league has expanded far too quickly in the last twenty years, the presence of a ballpark in Denver is enough in itself to call hitting stats from the last decade into question, and even given advances in physical training, nutrition science, and conditioning, it's obviously clear that today's players didn't get this big this quickly without some help from chemicals.

Emphasis mine. In context, Balko is making the haggard charge that there isn't enough quality pitching talent to go around, for if there were we wouldn't be seeing so much more offense these days.

Look. Baseball had 16 teams from 1901 when the American League was formed to 1962, when they expanded to 20. Since then, baseball expanded to 24 (1969), 26 (1977), 28 (1993), and finally 30 (1998). Adding six teams in the space of a quarter century doesn't seem breakneck to me, but I suppose we can agree to differ here.

What I want to point out, though, is that by 1962, baseball had way too few teams for the available talent. Let's look at some population data. In 1901, there were about 76 million people in the US. Of those, some 400 (16 teams, 25 players per team) were Major League ballplayers, or one out of every 190,000. By 1961, when there were still 16 teams, the population had more than doubled to about 180 million. There were still only 400 Major League players, so the ratio had grown to one out of every 450,000.

Today, the population stands at over 280 million. With 30 teams, there are 750 players, making the ratio about one in every 375,000. When you add in the fact that teams now feature black, Latino, and Asian players, something which was still relatively rare in 1960 (never mind 1900), and that many of these players were born outside the US, the picture should be clear: The growth in the available talent pool has more than kept pace with the number of roster spots.

Balko makes some decent observations in his piece, so do check it out, but don't be distracted by this trope. Bill James has said that MLB could expand to fifty teams tomorrow and within a few years you wouldn't notice any drop in quality. I think that's a lot more accurate than the notion that there isn't enough pitching to go around.

Balko link via Eric McErlain.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 20, 2003 to Baseball | TrackBack

Something to keep in mind regarding baseball before 1960 was the numerous minor leagues that were around and that the levels ranged from Class D to Class AAA (D-C-B-A-AA-AAA). When expansion occurred, the minor leagues were reorganized to the structure we see today (Rookie - A - AA -AAA). Add to this mix the independent leagues that have popped up and you can see that the talent pool has not dropped at all. What did occur was a change as to where the players ended up.

Posted by: William Hughes on November 20, 2003 11:18 AM

Even if MLB expanded to fifty, we still wouldn't see a team out here. Ah well, Baseball in DC!

Posted by: Linkmeister on November 21, 2003 12:05 AM