Re-Imagining the Big Zone Sixties, Part 1:  1963-1965

In the 1961 Sporting News Baseball Guide, an article by Lee Allen appeared (p. 154) which summarized average-game time length, by team, from 1951 through 1960. Here was Allen’s opening paragraph:

“The average length of a major league game in 1960 was two hours and 38 minutes, a new record. This was four minutes longer than the previous mark of 2:34 established in 1957 and tied in 1959. More astonishingly, only 41 games out of the 1,236 played in ’60, or one out of 30, were completed in less than two hours.”

This area of inquiry wasn’t a standard feature in baseball guides. Its inclusion in the 1961 Guide was a reflection of the degree to which the phenomenon of ever-longer games was a subject of particular note, and general frustration. A common theme of sportswriter commentaries in that period was disgust over the slower and slower pace of modern games.

Then in 1961, Roger Maris famously eclipsed Babe Ruth’s long-hallowed single-season home run record. Traditionalists, notably including Commissioner Ford Frick, were aghast. There was a widely shared sense in the wake of Maris’ achievement that, not only were games too slow, but home runs had become too cheap and easy as well.

It took another year of debate, but following the 1962 season, major league baseball decided to take action to address these twin perceived problems. Effective for 1963, the strike zone was enlarged, to now entail the area from the top of the shoulder to the bottom of the knee. The logic of the rule change was that allowing pitchers a larger target area for strikes would result in quicker resolution of at-bats, as well as helping to ensure that further assaults on the home run record would be less likely.

Perhaps this one should be forever filed in the “Be Careful of What You Wish For” category. Rarely in baseball history has a rule change had quite such an impact, and, as it turned out, become quite so sincerely regretted. Games became quicker, all right, and hitting homers indeed became more of a challenge. But almost certainly, no one anticipated just how dramatically walks would decrease, strikeouts would increase, and batting averages would decline: the quicker game increasingly became a duller game. By 1968, pitchers had taken the big strike zone (and also, significantly, higher and higher mounds) and leveraged it into a complete stranglehold on hitters. Following that egregiously low-scoring season, the strike zone was returned to its pre-1963 dimensions (and a new lower pitching mound height limit instituted as well). The big strike zone had a life span of just six years, proving to be an endeavor that failed utterly.

Just how dramatic was the impact of the 1963-68 strike zone? We can create a rough estimate. We take the six seasons surrounding 1963 through 1968 – 1960 through 1962, and 1969 through 1971 – and sum up the combined total major league rates of those years for runs, hits, walks, strikeouts, home runs, and so on. Then we compare those averages with those of the six years with the big zone, and interpret what we see as a pretty clear illustration of the big zone’s influence.

Here’s what these calculations reveal: 1963-68 walk rates were lower than the six surrounding years by about 15%, strikeouts were up by about 8%, and base hits were down by about 4% (including doubles by 5%, triples by 2%, and homers by 10%). The effect of all of this was to inhibit scoring overall by about 11%.

Let’s turn this into a thought experiment. Let’s take these overall major league-wide averages and tweak all actual 1963-68 statistics by just those proportions. Every 1963-68 batter, pitcher, and team will be adjusted in equal proportion: walks increased by 15%, strikeouts reduced by 8%, hits increased by 4%, and so on. This results in overall rates for the entire 1963-68 period that are equal to those of the combined 1960-62 and 1969-71 periods, but with player-to-player, team-to-team, and year-to-year proportional fluctuations remaining as they actually occurred.

Here’s what this gives us on a league-wide basis. Remember, these figures for 1960-62 and 1969-71 are actuals, and for 1963-68 they’re the adjusted rates. All figures are on a per team, per game basis:

American League
Year     R     H    2B    HR    BB    SO
1960  4.39  8.66  1.39  0.88  3.60  4.86
1961  4.53  8.65  1.37  0.95  3.64  5.14
1962  4.44  8.69  1.38  0.96  3.50  5.28
1963  4.51  8.75  1.37  1.02  3.59  5.29
1964  4.49  8.71  1.36  1.05  3.71  5.67
1965  4.36  8.44  1.35  0.93  3.78  5.51
1966  4.31  8.39  1.32  0.93  3.53  5.46
1967  4.09  8.19  1.26  0.81  3.56  5.69
1968  3.77  7.91  1.21  0.75  3.47  5.50
1969  4.09  8.28  1.23  0.85  3.61  5.57
1970  4.17  8.43  1.28  0.90  3.50  5.63
1971  3.87  8.26  1.26  0.77  3.35  5.39
 
National League
Year     R     H    2B    HR    BB    SO
1960  4.24  8.68  1.39  0.84  3.18  5.51
1961  4.52  8.91  1.41  0.97  3.23  5.35
1962  4.48  8.90  1.28  0.89  3.24  5.56
1963  4.21  8.61  1.28  0.83  3.25  5.45
1964  4.44  8.98  1.40  0.82  3.12  5.28
1965  4.46  8.82  1.37  0.89  3.36  5.50
1966  4.53  9.12  1.36  0.94  3.14  5.33
1967  4.24  8.79  1.38  0.75  3.33  5.42
1968  3.79  8.54  1.29  0.60  3.04  5.42
1969  4.05  8.46  1.26  0.76  3.29  5.98
1970  4.52  8.83  1.41  0.87  3.56  5.88
1971  3.91  8.53  1.29  0.71  3.12  5.42

We see 1963-68 blending into its surroundings in a much more comfortable manner than actually occurred. We also see 1968 really standing out as the one extreme pitchers’ year of the era – and, interestingly, to nearly the same extent, 1971 as well.

How about we take a deeper look. Let’s take a stroll through the virtual history of 1963 through 1968 – the history in which the ill-conceived strike zone rule change was never enacted. Let’s explore precisely what individual player and team stats might have been without the big zone. Away we go!

1963 American League

Home runs are the name of the game in the 1963 AL. A new league record for homers per team/game is set, at 1.02, just shy of the major league record of 1.03 established by the 1955 National League. The Minnesota Twins lead the power barrage, smashing 248, breaking the 1961 Yankees’ major league record for team homers. The Twins’ lineup offers a murderers’ row of Harmon Killebrew (50 homers), Bob Allison (39), Jimmie Hall (36), and Earl Battey (29), plus Don Mincher (19 in 227 at-bats) and Johnny Goryl (10 in 152 at-bats) coming off the bench. Minnesota leads the majors with 848 runs, the most scored by any AL team since 1956.

The pennant-winning New York Yankees also present a power-laden roster, hitting 207 home runs, making the ’63 AL the first league in history to have two teams surpassing the 200-homer mark. On the other side of the ledger, the Detroit Tigers’ pitching staff becomes the first ever to give up 200 home runs, allowing a record 215. Long-time ace Jim Bunning, slumping to 12-13 with a 4.29 ERA, surrenders a league-high 42 dingers.

Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Carl Yastrzemski, .330
- OBP: Carl Yastrzemski, .437
- Slugging: Harmon Killebrew, .588
- Home Runs: Harmon Killebrew, 50
- RBI: Dick Stuart, 130
- Runs: Bob Allison, 109
- Walks: Carl Yastrzemski, 110
- Batter’s Strikeouts: Dave Nicholson, 162 (New major league record)
- Wins: Whitey Ford, 24
- ERA: Gary Peters, 2.58
- Strikeouts: Camilo Pascual, 187
- Walks Allowed: Earl Wilson, 121
- Home Runs Allowed: Jim Bunning, 42
- MVP: Yankees’ catcher Elston Howard, who hits .295 with career highs in homers (31) and RBI (94).

1963 National League

In contrast to the American League, it’s something of a pitchers’ year in the NL, which records its lowest-scoring season since 1952. A long list of remarkable pitching performances includes breakout years by 25-year-old Juan Marichal (25-8, 2.67, in 321 innings pitched, the most in the majors since 1954), 23-year-old Dick Ellsworth (22-10, 2.32), and 23-year-old Jim Maloney (23-7, 3.06, with 236 strikeouts in 250 innings). The amazing Warren Spahn goes 23-7, 2.88, at the age of 42.

But no pitcher can match the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax. In 1961 the flamethrowing southpaw had set a new modern National League record for strikeouts with 269; in ’63 he tops it with 284, while leading Los Angeles to the pennant on the strength of a 25-5 record and a glittering 2.08 ERA.

Both second-year expansion teams, the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s, really struggle offensively. The Mets’ team batting average of .226 is the worst in the majors since 1910, and the Colts hit just .227 while scoring only 513 runs (least in the NL since 1943) and hitting 68 homers (least in the NL since 1947).

But there are some noteworthy hitting achievements. The San Francisco Giants hit 217 homers, and become the first team in history to hit 200 or more homers in consecutive seasons. The Giants present a spectacular offensive core of Willie Mays (.322, 42 homers), Willie McCovey (.288, 48), and Orlando Cepeda (.325, 37). Milwaukee’s Hank Aaron has perhaps the best all-around season of his career: 327 BA/410 OBP/615 SLG, with career highs in homers (48), RBI (144), runs (134), and stolen bases (31, in 36 attempts). But it’s the St. Louis Cardinals, with a .279 team average (best in the NL since 1954) leading the league in runs, with 826 (most scored by a Cardinal team since 1935).

Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Tommy Davis, .334
- OBP: Eddie Mathews, .421
- Slugging: Hank Aaron, .615
- Home Runs: Hank Aaron and Willie McCovey, 48
- RBI: Hank Aaron, 144
- Runs: Hank Aaron, 134
- Walks: Eddie Mathews, 143 (Most in the NL since 1950)
- Batter’s Strikeouts: Donn Clendenon, 126
- Wins: Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal, 25
- ERA: Sandy Koufax, 2.08 (Best in the NL since 1943)
- Strikeouts: Sandy Koufax, 284 (New modern NL record)
- Walks Allowed: Ray Culp, 118
- Home Runs Allowed: Denny Lemaster, 33
- MVP: Sandy Koufax, who is also the ML Cy Young Award winner.

1964 American League

Topping its power output of the previous year, the AL in 1964 establishes a new major league record for home runs, at 1.05 per team/game. Minnesota again leads the way, clobbering 244, just missing their record of ’63. The Twins’ attack is paced again by Harmon Killebrew, with a career-high 54 homers, but is joined now by sensational 23-year-old Tony Oliva, who nails 35. Rookie of the Year Oliva leads the league with a .331 average, 45 doubles, 121 runs, 226 hits (most in the AL since 1936), and 395 total bases (most in the AL since 1937).

The Yankees win their fifth straight pennant, led by 32-year-old Mickey Mantle in what will prove to be his last great season: .311, 114 walks, 39 homers, and 123 RBI in just 471 at-bats. The Yankees ride a 22-6 September to nip two strong competitors at the wire. The Chicago White Sox’s lineup offers little more than three pretty-good hitters — Pete Ward (290/365/494), Ron Hansen (268/361/438), and Floyd Robinson (309/400/423) — but their 3.01 staff ERA is the best in baseball since 1957. The Baltimore Orioles are led by two exceptional performances: fielding whiz Brooks Robinson (325/384/544), who has a career year with the bat, and 22-year-old Boog Powell (298/417/640), whose 43 homers in 429 at-bats are the most anyone has ever hit in so few at-bats.

The Kansas City A’s, attempting to compete in the power game, move their fences in. The decision backfires grotesquely, as their pitching staff surrenders an all-time record 242 homers, and they fall to a 57-105 last-place finish. The A’s ace, Orlando Pena, serves up an AL-record 44 in 219 innings. With a staff ERA of 5.21, Kansas City allows 925 runs, the most by an AL team since 1940. Boston’s pitching isn’t a whole lot more successful, with a 4.98 team ERA, as the Red Sox’s Jack Lamabe posts a 6.52 ERA in 177 innings, the worst of any league qualifier since 1940.

Defying the home run-happy environment, Dean Chance of the Los Angeles Angels goes 20-9 with a brilliant 1.82 ERA, the best in the majors since 1945, and wins the major league Cy Young Award.

Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Tony Oliva, .331
- OBP: Mickey Mantle, .446
- Slugging: Boog Powell, .640
- Home runs: Harmon Killebrew, 54
- RBI: Brooks Robinson, 130
- Runs: Tony Oliva, 121
- Walks: Norm Siebern, 122
- Batter’s Strikeouts: Nelson Mathews, 133
- Wins: Dean Chance and Gary Peters, 20
- ERA: Dean Chance, 1.82
- Strikeouts: Al Downing, 201
- Walks Allowed: Al Downing, 139
- Home Runs Allowed: Orlando Pena, 44 (New AL record)
- MVP: Baltimore’s Brooks Robinson, with career highs in average (.325), homers (31), and RBI (130).

1964 National League

The Milwaukee Braves mount a devastating offensive that leads the majors with a .280 average, hits 175 homers, and scores 888 runs, the most by any team since 1953. The Braves’ total of 288 doubles is the NL’s highest since 1939. The ferocious attack is centered around the trio of Hank Aaron (.337, 26 HR, 105 RBI), Rico Carty (.338/24/97), and Joe Torre (.330/22/121). But the Braves are kept in fifth place by a pitching staff that yields a 4.55 ERA, including longtime ace Warren Spahn hitting the wall: 6-13, 5.84.

33-year-old Willie Mays of the Giants achieves a new career high with 52 league-leading home runs, and scores a career-best 134 runs. But Philadelphia’s phenomenal rookie Richie Allen outscores him with 138, while batting a lusty .327 with 40 doubles, 13 triples, and 32 homers. The Chicago Cubs finish in eighth place despite featuring two of the league’s better hitters, Ron Santo (.321/36/126) and Billy Williams (.320/36/108), and the league’s winningest pitcher, Larry Jackson (24-11, 3.47). Sandy Koufax is limited by injury to 223 innings, but still goes 19-5 with a new career-best 1.92 ERA and 207 strikeouts.

In a memorable four-way pennant race, the Phillies collapse in the final two weeks, and the St. Louis Cardinals win it at the wire. The key trade of the season occurs in June, as the Cardinals acquire 25-year-old outfielder Lou Brock, who’s hitting just 259/306/351 for the Cubs. He hits a scorching 357/401/545 with 33 steals the rest of the way, while pitcher Ernie Broglio, the key talent traded for him, goes 4-7 with a 4.48 ERA for Chicago.

Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Roberto Clemente, .348
- OBP: Ron Santo, .417
- Slugging: Willie Mays, .638
- Home runs: Willie Mays, 52
- RBI: Ken Boyer, 132
- Runs: Richie Allen, 138 (Most in the NL since 1932)
- Walks: Ron Santo, 99
- Batter’s Strikeouts: Richie Allen, 129
- Wins: Larry Jackson, 24
- ERA: Sandy Koufax, 1.92
- Strikeouts: Bob Veale, 232
- Walks Allowed: Bob Veale, 143
- Home Runs Allowed: Dick Ellsworth, 37
- MVP: The Cardinals’ Ken Boyer, who hits .303 with 26 homers and a career-high 132 RBI.

1965 American League

Both the Minnesota Twins and the Kansas City A’s move their fences back, and the league home run rate cools off to its lowest mark since 1960. Nonetheless the Twins, despite hitting 79 fewer homers than in 1964, score a league-leading 856 runs and surge to the pennant. Minnesota is led by 25-year-old Gold Glove shortstop Zoilo Versalles, who tops the lineup with power (.281 with 47 doubles, 12 triples, and 21 homers) and speed (27 steals in 32 attempts).

Tony Conigliaro, just 20 years old, leads the league in homers with 35 in 1965, following up his remarkable .298, 26-homer rookie season of 1964.

Bases on balls are issued in the AL at a rate of 3.78 per team per game, the highest since 1956. The Washington Senators’ pitching staff allows 731 walks, the most since 1951. Despite losing 100 games and finishing ninth, the Boston Red Sox draw 701 bases on balls, the most by any team since 1956.

The league’s standout pitcher is 22-year-old Sam McDowell. In his first full major league season, Cleveland’s strapping left-hander goes 17-11 with a league-leading 2.41 ERA, and strikes out a startling 301 in 273 innings. He also surrenders 152 walks.

Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Tony Oliva, .330
- OBP: Carl Yastrzemski, .415
- Slugging: Carl Yastrzemski, .559
- Home runs: Tony Conigliaro, 35
- RBI: Rocky Colavito, 119
- Runs: Zoilo Versalles, 139 (Most by any middle infielder since 1936)
- Walks: Rocky Colavito, 107
- Batter’s Strikeouts: Zoilo Versalles, 113
- Wins: Mudcat Grant, 21
- ERA: Sam McDowell, 2.41
- Strikeouts: Sam McDowell, 301 (Most in the AL since 1946)
- Walks Allowed: Sam McDowell, 152 (Most since 1955)
- Home Runs Allowed: Mudcat Grant, 37
- MVP: Zoilo Versalles, whose 80 extra-base hits are the most by an AL middle infielder since 1936.

1965 National League

The highest-scoring team of the decade is the 1965 Cincinnati Reds, who produce a staggering 912 runs, the most since the ’53 Boys of Summer Dodgers. The Reds blast 202 homers, second in the league to the Braves’ 216, and lead the majors in hits, doubles, triples, walks, batting, OBP, and slugging. The 2-3-4-5 slots in the Cincinnati lineup are filled by Pete Rose (320/392/461, 129 runs, 217 hits), Vada Pinson (313/360/503, 212 hits, 24 homers), Frank Robinson (304/388/565, 36 homers, 125 RBI), and Deron Johnson (295/357/538, 35 homers, 144 RBI). But, much like the Braves of ’64, the ’65 Reds finish in fourth place, done in by a 4.30 team ERA, and especially hurt by the collapse of ace southpaw Jim O’Toole, who goes 3-10, 6.54.

Willie Mays breaks Hack Wilson’s 35-year-old National League record by smashing 57 home runs. But the late-season charge upon which he leads the Giants (a 14-game September winning streak) is surpassed at the wire by an even more exhilarating rush from the Dodgers (15 out of their last 16). Los Angeles once again owes its success primarily to the great Sandy Koufax, who has his most amazing year yet: 26 wins (most in the majors since 1956), a major league-leading 2.26 ERA, 336 innings (the most in the majors since 1954), and a phenomenal 354 strikeouts, eclipsing Bob Feller and Rube Waddell for the new modern major league record. The Dodgers win despite an offense that’s last in the majors with 86 homers, bats just .252 (worst team average for an NL champion since 1915), and scores just 672 runs (fewest by an NL champion since 1933).

Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Roberto Clemente, .338
- OBP: Willie Mays, .416
- Slugging: Willie Mays, .680 (Best in the NL since 1948)
- Home runs: Willie Mays, 57 (New NL record)
- RBI: Deron Johnson, 144
- Runs: Tommy Harper, 139 (Most in the NL since 1932)
- Walks: Joe Morgan, 112 (Most by a rookie since 1899)
- Batter’s Strikeouts: Richie Allen, 139 (New NL record)
- Wins: Sandy Koufax, 26 (Koufax is ML Cy Young winner)
- ERA: Sandy Koufax, 2.26
- Strikeouts: Sandy Koufax, 354 (New modern ML record)
- Walks Allowed: Tony Cloninger and Bob Veale, 137
- Home Runs Allowed: Bob Gibson, 37
- MVP: The Giants’ Willie Mays, eleven years after his first MVP award.

Next time: the 1966, 1967, and 1968 seasons, including “The Year of the Pitcher.”

References & Resources
Some notes on methodology:

The precise percentage differences derived between MLB 1963-68 and 1960-62/69-71 averages:

Runs: 10.5873%
Hits: 3.9586%
Doubles: 4.958%
Triples: 1.726%
Home Runs: 10.2001%
Walks: 15.4743%
Strikeouts: -7.883% (yielding a multiplier of 0.92693)

The % change in triples is so miniscule – too small to show up in any individual player season – that I just ignored it and assumed no change in triples. I think this makes intuitive sense: in a higher-scoring 1963-68 era, there certainly would have been more opportunities to stretch doubles into triples – but correspondingly, less incentive to do so because it was a higher-scoring era. For the same reason, I think it’s okay to assume no change in stolen bases.

An impact of a greater rate of hits is an increase in at-bats, of course. I used a simple method to increase at-bats: every batter’s at-bats are increased by his number of increased hits, and every team’s at-bats are increased by its number of increased hits. Outs are constant, of course, and I assume as well a constant rate of double plays and baserunning outs – probably not exactly proper assumptions, but close enough for our purposes. What the increase in both hits and at-bats for batters yields is generally about an 8-point increase in batting average in the .240-to-.300 range – that is, a .270 hitter usually emerges as a .278 hitter.

Clearly, where this simulation is least realistic is in its assumption that all pitchers would have worked the same number of innings, including complete games. Obviously more baserunners and runs would have impacted this, but it’s very difficult to estimate how and how much, given that staff usage modes have historically been in a nearly perpetual state of change under any conditions.

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