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Using the 1985 Cardinals to compare baseball then to now

Updated: Nov 24, 2017

Baseball has changed. Perhaps radically so if judging by the recent numbers. This past season there were 412 more home runs hit than the next highest season (2000) on record and nearly 2,000 more home runs hit than in 2014 - a mere three years ago. I watched baseball in 2014. You probably did, too. In real time the sport didn't feel that different - it was still played with a bat and a ball, games still went nine innings, but whether hitting philosophies have changed, the ball has been pumped with juice, or some combination of both along with who knows what else, there's since been a noticeable shift in a sport that hasn't always evolved so transparently.

This is not football where strategies have a short shelf life and an offense like the wildcat formation is only viable until the defense figures out how to stop it. Baseball certainly changes but the change is typically more methodical and not season-to-season if even decade-to-decade. And we like to think the game being played today still resembles the game that was being played 30, 60, or 90 years ago. It's why a book like October 1964 still resonates. Even with two generations passed, it still reads and feels like the same game. As noted above though, by some measures that is wrong.

I thought about all of this when I read Frank Jackson' piece Touching 'em All Minus One: Romancing the Triple last Friday at the Hardball Times. It's a fun read but if you don't have the time, let me highlight the stat that jump-started that column: In 2017, the Toronto Blue Jays as a team hit a total of five triples. Five. A number I find almost beyond comprehension. Loyal listeners of the Effectively Wild podcast know that Padres pitcher Luis Perdomo hit four. And 22 major leaguers out-tripled the Blue Jays, including Cardinals' own Dexter Fowler. If curious, courtesy of Baseball Reference's Play Index, here's the entire list:

A team hitting just five triples feels like it could only belong in this "three true outcomes" era, as over one-third of the 185,295 plate appearances taken in 2017 ended in a strikeout, walk, or home run. That leaves less room for other types of outcomes, right? Sure. And home run hitters and guys legging out triples typically feel mutually exclusive. To be clear, however, the Blue Jays are probably more outlier than trend, and even though the Orioles only hit six triples in 2016 (a stat that had previously escaped me), no other team by my search has failed to reach double digits. So this is probably not the go-to stat if trying to prove how much baseball has changed.

Still, teams don't hit triples quite like they used to. Last season, teams averaged almost 27 triples down from approximately 31 in 2007, and almost eleven fewer than what teams averaged in 1985, when, no shocker here, the fleet-footed Cardinals led MLB with 59.

The 1985 Cardinals' nexus to the opening paragraphs above isn't obvious, but they are the model anti-2017 baseball team. In fact, take a look at a few stats and it's impossible to imagine them even existing today. Approximately 25 percent of the 1985 team's plate appearances ended with a strikeout, walk, or home run, which is a noticeable decrease from the 2017 league average although right on par with league average at that time. So that's not where the 1985 team differentiates itself insomuch as the league as a whole was different, which is notable in its own right.

But in 2017, teams averaged 203.5 home runs; in 1985, teams averaged 150 home runs. That year the Cardinals won more games (101) than any other team in the league and only hit 87 home runs, the second fewest in the league, and, what would have been 41 fewer home runs than 2017's last place (in the standings and total home runs) Giants.

The aforementioned Blue Jays and their triple-challenged offense had a hilarious triple-to-home-run ratio of 1 to 44.4. On the opposite end of the spectrum the Pirates sat at 1 to 4.19. Mind you, that was the smallest discrepancy between triples and home runs. The league in 2017 had a triple-to-home-run ratio of 1 to 7.68. In 1985, the Cardinals came in at 1 to 1.47, the lowest in a league which averaged 1 to 3.73.

The Angels led baseball in steals last season with 136. In 1985, the Cardinals stole an absurd 2.3 times that many with 314, a modern day record. To put that in perspective, over the last five seasons the Cardinals have only stolen 287 bases. To further the comparison, in 1985 teams averaged 119 stolen bases and that dropped to 84 in 2017.

That's all. Not a deep dive but with just a cursory glance at home runs, triples, and stolen bases, one that's interesting enough. Perhaps I'm naive on this one, but 1985 doesn't even seem that long ago in baseball time. Re-watch a Cardinals game from that season, however, and besides skinnier players and tighter uniforms, you'll probably also see a very good team playing a brand of baseball that best captures how much the game actually has changed.

Credit to FanGraphs Leaderboards for a bulk of the stats in this post.


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