In the old days, the game was more exciting

There was no paraphernalia in the old days with which one could protect himself. No mitts; no, not even gloves, and masks, why you would have been laughed off the diamond had you worn one behind the bat.
- Jim O’Rourke, 1913

I don’t think the major league baseball players of today can be compared to the old-timers. I think the slider is a nickel curve and I detest hearing the modern sissies moan about how it has ruined batting averages.
- Frankie Frisch, 1962

I think probably after my generation, the game is going to change. My generation is the last of the old school.
- Darren Daulton, 1997

Former players will always tell you that nowadays the game is easier, while back in their day the pay was low, the fields were uneven, and you had to be a very tough guy to get and keep a job in baseball.

Thus, while I never read about anyone saying the line used for the title, it’s quite possible that if you ask a bunch of old-timers, you’ll discover that they did used to play a more exciting game, and that today’s millionaires take part in rather dull contests.

During the last offseason I introduced a method to rank games by their “excitement factor.” The relevant articles that lay down the foundation for the algorithm are What makes an exciting game, revisited and More than three decades of exciting games.

However imperfect a measure of something so subjective will always be, the method was shown to do a pretty good job. When teams traded the lead and the outcome was in discussion until the very end, the games were ranked high. Conversely, whenever one team run out for good with the lead very early, the contest was listed at the bottom. As a refresher, you may want to look at the articles dealing with Division Series, League Championship Series and World Series (World Series at its best and Fall Classics countdown).

One reader e-mailed me with an interesting question. Looking at the top postseason games list, he had the impression that the highest ranks were dominated by recent games. Thus he asked whether that was just an artifact due to the increased number of postseason games. Or are we witnessing an increase in spectacular playoff contests?

Retrosheet has play-by-play data for every postseason game in major league history. I applied my algorithm to the games and grouped them by decades.
The chart below shows the average scores by decade.

image

Unfortunately it’s hard (if not impossible) to interpret what a change of 0.10 in the excitement factor means, as the final number is obtained through a series of statistical transformations. The best I can do to help interpret these difference is to outline a couple of games for comparison.

Game One of the 1927 World Series, a 5-4 Yankees victory over the Pirates, scores very close to 0.1 (the typical postseason game of the ’20s), while Game Five of the 1967 World Series, won by the Red Sox 3-1 over the Cardinals, is around -0.1, much in line with the average 1960s postseason game.

If you look both at the line score and the win probability chart of those games, you’ll have a hard time telling which must have been the more exciting. Going through the 1927 play-by-play, we see the Pirates threatened in the bottom of the eighth, cutting the Yankees’ lead to one run and leaving the tying runner 90 feet from home.
On the other hand the 1967 Cardinals never figured out Jim Lonborg: They connected for just three hits and never were in contention despite the close final score (Roger Maris belted a homer to right with two outs in the ninth for the lone Cardinals run).

However, back to the question. Have postseason games gotten more exciting lately? The chart seems to say that the games got worse from the ’20s to the ’60s, then bounced back to the original standard.

There’s a peak in the ’90s. If we think about that decade, a lot of great games come to mind:
{exp:list_maker}Joe Carter‘s game winner in 1993
Sid Bream coming home in 1991
The entire 1991 World Series
The Marlins winning in extra innings in Game Seven in 1997
and many more{/exp:list_maker}
I don’t feel we can come out with anything conclusive from this analysis. From the beginning of the 20th century to the end of the 1960s the postseason was just the World Series, with a maximum of seven games played in a given year. Thus just 50-60 games contribute to the average scores until the ’60s, compared to 140 in the ’70s, 176 in the ’80s, 228 in the ’90s and 322 in the first decade of the new millennium.

Luckily, we have a lot more games to work with. In fact Retrosheet offers play-by-play data for regular season contests going back to 1948, thus giving us the opportunity to compare thousands of games each year.

The question can be reformulated: Have the games gotten better in the last 60 years?

Look at the chart below, showing the average score by year.

image

Even without the superposed smooth line, it appears the answer is a resounding no. The games seem to have steadily been getting more boring since the ’70s.

Okay, that’s quite a bold statement, as the golden year of 1966 scores 0.04 on average while in the dark times of 2001 the average game scored -0.02. I challenge the readers to choose the better game between the May 30, 1966 one featuring the Orioles at Minnesota (Baltimore won 5-1) and the Sept. 9, 2001 contest in which the Blue Jays visited the Tigers (and won 6-3).

Again, if you look closely, the 1966 game is locked for the first half, while the 2001 Jays take an early lead they never relinquish, and this can make for the difference (0.04 versus -0.02) in the excitement factor.

Sure, the difference separating the best and worst years is very thin. However a trend is there: Starting from the 1970s, the line has steadily gone downward. Is it possible to find a cause for this?

Everyone knows that 1969 is the year of a four-team expansion. It’s also the year when divisions were born and the mound was lowered. Any of the three, or their combination, could be the culprit. However, if it was a single change in the game (or a combination of events happening together), I would expect the line to have an initial steep decline, then become flat. If it were expansion, for example, we should see a step down in 1969, then other steps when the major leagues expanded again in 1977, 1993 and 1998.

You might remember that the game excitement score is the synthesis of three factors, one for the importance of the final part of games, one for rallies and one for equilibrium.

The next charts depicts the trend for the three factors.

image

The rally factor seems to be the force driving down the game excitement. It seems that coming back has consistently become more difficult over the years.

Does this make sense? I think so.

I would indicate relief pitching as the explanation for that. Baseball has gradually moved from having the starting pitcher going the full nine innings to the current habit of having multiple relievers come out of the bullpen in a single game and, perhaps, in a single inning.

Coming back has to be harder when there’s never a tired arm on the mound, the superstar left-handed batter has to face a southpaw specialist brought in just for him, and setup-closer combinations like Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel can make games just seven- inning affairs.

Will the trend continue? Are we doomed to watch fewer and fewer thrilling contests in the future?

If the relievers usage hypothesis is sound, it’s hard to imagine an increase of specialization from where we stand right now, unless teams completely abandon the concept of starting rotation and select their pitchers inning by inning.

Thus, we should not get worse than this. Let’s hope the evolutions that sooner or later will happen in baseball can make up for what we have lost during the past decades.

References & Resources
The information used here was obtained free of charge from and is copyrighted by Retrosheet. Interested parties may contact Retrosheet at http://www.retrosheet.org.

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Comments

  1. Max Marchi said...

    Actually the run environment is somewhat accounted for, as both the Leverage Index and the Win Expectancy values vary with the run environment (other than the score, the inning and the base/out state).

    Also lower run environments should lead to more close game but likely less rallies.

  2. David said...

    Dang it!  Max beat me to it.  But I was going to say the same thing.  I wonder, if one were to account for that, if things hadn’t stayed more or less steady.  My inclination is to say they probably have.

  3. bucdaddy said...

    How about a rule that requires teams to limit their pitching staffs to 10 or 11? More hitters, fewer specialty pitchers, more runs, more excitement?

    I just this moment thought of that, and now I kinda like it.

    Of course then there might be a boom in teams looking for more Micah Owings-type players, that could be the new market inefficiency. But what would be wrong with having more well-rounded players in the game? What would be wrong with bringing in your right fielder or second baseman to pitch the ninth? That would be kind of exciting.

  4. Steve Treder said...

    “How about a rule that requires teams to limit their pitching staffs to 10 or 11? More hitters, fewer specialty pitchers, more runs, more excitement?”

    Theoretically, yes.  But practically, what would no doubt happen is that teams would regularly shuttle their relief pitchers back and forth from the minors to keep as many fresh arms in the bullpen as possible, and use relievers as liberally as they do now.

  5. Mark F said...

    In a low scoring era a 2-run lead was relatively safe compared to an era when runs (and HRs) were more prolific.

    If runs are at a premium, chances for a comeback are reduced. Despite this the relief specialist era is still dominated by the effective use of large and diverse pens.

    I am sure that a determined team would play their 11th or 12th relievers in the outfield for an inning in a blow-out to defend their status as non-pitchers!

  6. kds said...

    Steve, aren’t there fairly severe limits on the number of times a player can be moved back and forth between the minors and the majors?

  7. Steve Treder said...

    I’m pretty sure it depends on the nature of the contract, whether a team is out of “options” on a given player.  When a player has options, teams often yo-yo them back and forth from the majors to AAA multiple times within a given season.

    But, yes, you’re probably right that it would be a logistical challenge for teams to be able to pull it off.

  8. Dave Studeman said...

    Very interesting, Max!  How much of the difference might be due to the run environment?  In general, fewer runs scored leads to closer, more exciting, games.

  9. Ken Warren said...

    I don’t believe that there was ever a period of time that there was a limit on the number of times a player with an option could be sent the minors.

    Do you know when this was.  Any reference to the change.

    Thanks

  10. Learn Italian Online Free said...

    Indeed, the old games are much more exciting and physical than the games in these recent years. Perhaps, there still many people that choose to play their favorite games the old way.

  11. bucdaddy said...

    It’s also possible that the lessening of excitement today is due to so many games going 3 1/2, 4 hours (4 1/2, 5 hours when it’s Sox-Yankees). I love baseball, but my idea of an interesting game is 3-2 in 2 hours and 15 minutes. I don’t watch baseball on TV, and I especially don’t watch playoff baseball on TV, because it seems like the games last 8 motherloving hours, and I’m 54 and don’t have that much time left.

    Please. Throw. The. Ball. Over. The. Plate.

  12. Chitownron said...

    1 possible solution would be forcing the relief pitcher, to finish the inning before he can be pulled out of the game. I’m not sure I would be for this, but it would certainly help the pace of the game.

  13. Pochucker said...

    Couple of things of note—if my old memory srves me right minimum DL stay was 30days not 15 so players did not go on dl unless they were seriously hurt. And yes the restrictions for bring players up and down from minors was more strict. I belive it was 3 options and every trip down was an “option”. My frame of reference is late 50s though late 60s.

    After KC came into AL it was referred to as Yankee farmteam (which it was previously) because Yankees would make one sided trades with them and even trade players back in forth instead of send to minors

  14. George said...

    One of the wildest games ever played was game 5 of the 1920 world series. Despite being outhit 13-12 by the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers), Cleveland won the game 8-1, and went on to win the series.
    The game featured 25 hits, the only unassisted triple play in WS history, the first grand slam, and the first homer by a pitcher (who also pitched a complete game).
    What I really like is that the whole thing took place in 1 hour and 49 minutes. That would have been a 4+ hour game today.
    Better pitching doesn’t make the game less exciting. The fact that the TV networks dictate the pace and schedule of games has a far greater impact than the miniscule probability change that the lead will change in the late innings. A close game is exciting, no matter who wins. Wasting 4 hours to see the outcome, not so much.

  15. Bruce Markusen said...

    It used to be that there was a limit to how many times you could send a player down in a given year. But now you can do it as many times in a season as you want, with the caveat being that a player sent down has to stay in the minor leagues for a minimum of ten days.

    I would definitely enjoy the game in MLB more today if there were fewer pitchers and more position players. It drives me nuts to see pitchers being used as pinch-hitters because the manager has run out of legitimate backup players.

  16. bucdaddy said...

    Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, one of the greatest games in baseball history: 24 hits, 19 runs, nine pitchers. 2:36.

    I own the DVD of the game. One of the first things you notice is that the batters almost never step out of the box between pitches. (This was the early days of TV, they probably hadn’t learned to preen for the cameras yet. Or maybe they knew if they pissed around too long the next pitch would be behind the head.) Once you notice that, you also notice that they aren’t wearing batting gloves, which gives them two fewer things to fiddle with.

    I think part (a small part, perhaps, but still a part) of the reason that games run so long is pitchers can no longer throw at a batter if he pisses them off. I’m trying to imagine the Human Rain Delay standing in against Bob Gibson. He wouldn’t pull that routine more than twice, I think, and the game would be better off for it.

  17. George said...

    I don’t think the batter is allowed to step out of the box even now, but the rule is never enforced. The pitcher only has a certain time to begin his delivery, but that’s never enforced either.
    Anyway, if they did speed it up again, it would likely just result in more opportunity to air commercials, and we would still be stuck there for 3 1/2 hours.

  18. zubin said...

    How has (or did) increased homeruns affected game excitement?

    Are “speed” teams more exciting to watch that “homerun” teams?

  19. philosofool said...

    “Anyway, if they did speed it up again, it would likely just result in more opportunity to air commercials, and we would still be stuck there for 3 1/2 hours.”

    My God, you’re right. If baseball games took only 90 to 120 minutes, they would introduce the “TV Pause” just to remind me that I need a five bladed razor with aloe strips or I’m not getting the cleanest possible shave.

  20. Craig said...

    @ philosofool: If it were really just the razor I’d be fine, but I wouldn’t count on it. No, what they would really do is make me explain ED and “being ready” to my 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter!

  21. bucdaddy said...

    they would introduce the “TV Pause”
    —-
    In basketball, that’s called the “media timeout.” Four per half, plus what seem like the 100 timeouts each coach gets per half. Because there’s nothing more entertaining than watching a dozen timeouts and coaches coaching (not to mention all the free throws) in the final two minutes of what was a beautiful game chopped up into three-second segments.

    If you have to stop the game every 10 seconds to tell your guys what to do, you must not be a very good coach in practice.

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