In the old days, the game was more excitingby Max Marchi
January 27, 2012
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.
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:
- 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
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.
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.
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 and 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.
After creating a baseball rendition of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper cover, Max began his baseball writing because he needed an excuse to show the picture. He wrote for an Italian audience for six years before making the jump to The Hardball Times. You can contact him by e-mail.