Re-Imagining the Big Zone Sixties, Part 2:  1966-1968

Last time, we introduced a methodology that helps us imagine what numbers that players and teams might have been producing in the years 1963 through 1968, had the top-of-the-shoulder-to-the-bottom-of-the-knee strike zone not actually been installed in the rule book. We explored the 1963, ’64, and ’65 seasons. This time, we’ll continue the journey with a look at 1966, 1967, and 1968.

Once again, the premise is this: we assume that, without the big zone in place, the overall major league rates of runs, hits, doubles, homers, walks, and strikeouts that actually occurred in the six seasons surrounding 1963-68 – that is, 1960-62 and 1969-71 – would have also been achieved in the 1963-68 period. So we adjust all mid-60s players’ and teams’ stats accordingly, and consider what those seasons would have looked like.

As a reminder, this is how the resulting overall league-wide stats appear. The 1960-62 and 1969-71 numbers here are actuals, and the 1963-68 numbers are adjusted. All numbers are per team per game:

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

So, it’s 1966, and there is no oversized strike zone …

1966 American League

Two stories dominate the 1966 AL. First is the spectacular performance of Frank Robinson. Acquired via trade from Cincinnati, the 30-year-old Robinson has his best season, blasting to the Triple Crown with a .324 average, 54 home runs, and 135 RBI. He leads the Baltimore Orioles to a runaway pennant, while the two pitchers acquired in exchange for him both struggle with the Reds: Milt Pappas is 12-11 but with a 4.74 ERA, and reliever Jack Baldschun goes 1-5, 6.12.

Robinson catalyzes a Baltimore lineup that’s second in the league with 193 homers, and leads in doubles (255), average (.265), and runs (835). Boog Powell (.295, 37 homers, 121 RBI), Curt Blefary (25 homers, 84 walks in 423 at-bats), and Brooks Robinson (37 doubles, 25 homers, 111 RBI) are key contributors. The Orioles win the pennant with ease despite a 3.73 team ERA, the highest of any AL champion since 1950.

The other story is the stunning collapse of the New York Yankee dynasty. After slumping to sixth in 1965, in ’66 the Yankees skid all the way to a humiliating last place finish. Roger Maris hits just .240 with 14 homers, and ace Mel Stottlemyre comes in at 12-20 with a 4.20 ERA. In truth, the tenth-place result is a bit of a fluke: the Yankees’ 70-89 record isn’t typical last-place stuff, and moreover their Pythagorean record is 79-80. But last place is last place; it triggers a serious rebuilding effort.

Denny McLain of the Tigers wins 20 games, despite a 4.34 ERA, 120 walks, and a major league record-tying 46 home runs allowed. The league includes 12 batters with 30 or more homers, but just two .300 hitters (Frank Robinson at .324 and Tony Oliva at .315).

Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Frank Robinson, .324
- OBP: Frank Robinson, .424
- Slugging: Frank Robinson, .670
- Home runs: Frank Robinson, 54
- RBI: Frank Robinson, 135
- Runs: Frank Robinson, 135
- Walks: Harmon Killebrew, 119
- Batter’s Strikeouts: George Scott, 141
- Wins: Jim Kaat, 25
- ERA: Gary Peters, 2.19
- Strikeouts: Sam McDowell, 209
- Walks Allowed: Dean Chance, 132
- Home Runs Allowed: Denny McLain, 46 (Ties the ML record)
- MVP: Frank Robinson. Duh.

1966 National League

The 1966 NL features two of the most robust hitting teams of the era. The Braves arrive in Atlanta’s “Launching Pad” and set a National League record with 228 home runs. They score a major league-leading 865 runs, behind four particularly big bats: Hank Aaron (.286 with 48 homers and 140 RBI), Felipe Alou (.336 with 34 homers, 135 runs, and 227 hits), Joe Torre (.323 with 40 homers and 112 RBI), and Rico Carty (.335 with 17 homers and a .412 OBP).

The Pittsburgh Pirates present a blistering .287 team batting average, best in the majors since 1950 and in the NL since 1939. The Pirates regular lineup includes five .300 hitters (Matty Alou .351, Roberto Clemente .325, Willie Stargell .324, Donn Clendenon .308, Gene Alley .307), plus platoon outfielder Manny Mota at .341 in 316 at-bats. Moreover, Stargell hits 36 homers, Clemente 32, and Clendenon 31, as Pittsburgh sets a franchise record with 174 home runs. The Pirates’ 839 runs are the most by a Pittsburgh team since 1930.

Nevertheless, Los Angeles again emerges as champion. The Dodgers score just 670 runs, fewer even than their 1965 edition, but Sandy Koufax is brilliant again, with career bests in wins (27) and ERA (1.91), and 294 major league-leading strikeouts. The deep LA staff posts a 2.90 team ERA, best in the NL since 1944. The Giants fall just short again, unable to put together an adequate supporting cast around their core of four sluggers (Willie Mays with 41 homers, Willie McCovey 40, Jim Ray Hart 36, and Tom Haller 30) and two aces (Juan Marichal 25-6, 2.47, and Gaylord Perry 21-8, 3.31).

Two pitchers in the 1966 NL absorb frightening punishment. Sammy Ellis of the Reds goes 12-19 and gives up a league-leading 39 homers. His 5.85 ERA in 221 innings is the worst by any pitcher in 200 or more innings since 1931. The Cubs’ Dick Ellsworth, 8-22 with a 4.40 ERA in 269 innings, allows 334 hits (including 31 homers), the most hits surrendered since 1938.

- Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Matty Alou, .351
- OBP: Ron Santo, .430
- Slugging: Richie Allen, .662
- Home runs: Hank Aaron, 48
- RBI: Hank Aaron, 140
- Runs: Felipe Alou, 135
- Walks: Ron Santo, 110
- Batter’s Strikeouts: Byron Browne, 133
- Wins: Sandy Koufax, 27 (Koufax is ML Cy Young Winner)
- ERA: Sandy Koufax, 1.91
- Strikeouts: Sandy Koufax, 294
- Walks Allowed: Tony Cloninger, 134
- Home Runs Allowed: Sammy Ellis, 39
- MVP: Roberto Clemente, who hits .325 and achieves career highs in runs (116), homers (32), and RBI (132).

1967 American League

The “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox emerge as champions in a spectacular four-team pennant race. 27-year-old Carl Yastrzemski leads the way, breaking out with a Triple Crown-winning career year, at .335/48/134. One sad event mars the Red Sox’s triumph: in August, 22-year-old star slugger Tony Conigliaro, hitting .295 with 22 homers in 353 at-bats, is felled by a horrific beaning that puts his career in doubt.

One of the finalists battling to wire is Chicago, despite a feeble .231 average, 98 homers, and just 587 runs scored, ninth in the league. But the White Sox feature a tremendously deep staff, with seven different pitchers in 89 or more innings delivering sub-2.75 ERAs. Their team ERA of 2.71 is the AL’s best since 1918.

The Hitless Wonder ’67 White Sox are perhaps emblematic of a league that scores 4.09 runs per team/game, least in the AL since 1946. More ominously, the league batting average of .243 is the lowest since 1910. Aside from the Red Sox, no team in the league bats better than .250, and along with the White Sox, seven of the league’s ten teams post their worst team averages of the decade. The Washington Senators’ .229 average is the worst in the AL since 1914.

Several struggling erstwhile stars dramatize the trend. The Yankees’ Tom Tresh, a .287 hitter as recently as 1965, sees his average dwindle to .225. Elston Howard and Earl Battey, lusty-hitting premier catchers just a few years earlier, and both batting in the .260s in 1966, collapse to .184 and .171 respectively. Most perplexing of all, 1965 MVP Zoilo Versalles suffers through a ghastly ordeal of a season, batting just .206, with a .254 OBP and a .292 slugging average in 160 games.

Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Carl Yastrzemski, .335
- OBP: Carl Yastrzemski, .436
- Slugging: Carl Yastrzemski, .645
- Home runs: Harmon Killebrew and Carl Yastrzemski, 48
- RBI: Carl Yastrzemski, 134
- Runs: Carl Yastrzemski, 124
- Walks: Harmon Killebrew, 151 (Most since 1956)
- Batter’s Strikeouts: Frank Howard, 144
- Wins: Jim Lonborg and Earl Wilson, 22
- ERA: Joel Horlen, 2.28
- Strikeouts: Jim Lonborg, 228
- Walks Allowed: Sam McDowell, 142
- Home Runs Allowed: Denny McLain, 39
- MVP: Carl Yastrzemski. Duh.
- Cy Young: Jim Lonborg, 22-9 with a 3.49 ERA.

1967 National League

Scoring in the ’67 National League is down a bit, but not nearly to the extent of the AL. The only offensive category in which the NL looks rather lean is home runs, which are at their lowest rate since 1952.

Matty Alou backs up his breakout performance of the previous year with a .347 batting average. Several other NL batters spike to career average highs in 1967: Orlando Cepeda hits .334, Rusty Staub hits .342, Curt Flood hits .343, and Tony Gonzalez hits .347. But they’re all specks in the rear-view mirror of Roberto Clemente, who soars to a career-best .366, while smacking 25 homers and driving in 122 runs.

The St. Louis Cardinals waltz to the pennant, with deep, balanced offense and defense: they’re second in the league in both runs scored (769) and runs allowed (616). Cepeda, pilfered from the Giants in a 1966 trade, delivers in the cleanup role with 28 homers and a league-leading 123 RBI. Leadoff man Lou Brock has a terrific year, with a .307 average, 23 homers, 125 runs, and 84 RBI along with his league-leading 52 steals.

Houston’s Jim Wynn hits 41 home runs while playing half his games in the spacious Astrodome, a truly astounding feat. Wynn’s teammates combine for 61 homers on the season.

Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Roberto Clemente, .366 (Best in the NL since 1948)
- OBP: Richie Allen, .422
- Slugging: Hank Aaron, .601
- Home runs: Hank Aaron, 43
- RBI: Orlando Cepeda, 123
- Runs: Hank Aaron and Lou Brock, 125
- Walks: Ron Santo, 111
- Batter’s Strikeouts: Jim Wynn, 127
- Wins: Mike McCormick, 22
- ERA: Phil Niekro, 2.07
- Strikeouts: Jim Bunning, 235
- Walks Allowed: Bob Veale, 137
- Home Runs Allowed: Fergie Jenkins, 33
- MVP: Orlando Cepeda, who leads the league in RBI, hits 28 homers, and achieves career highs in doubles (39) and batting average (.334).
- Cy Young: Mike McCormick, 22-10 with a 3.15 ERA.

1968 American League

It’s The Year of the Pitcher. The numbers in the AL demonstrate it vividly: scoring at 3.77 runs per team/game is the lowest since 1918, and the league batting average of .237 is the lowest in major league history. The AL home run rate is at its lowest since 1954.

Detroit’s Denny McLain has a spectacular season: 336 innings (most in the AL since 1946), 260 strikeouts, a 2.17 ERA, and a 31-6 record, the most wins by any pitcher since 1931. The Indians’ Luis Tiant goes 21-9 with a 1.77 ERA (the best in the AL since 1943), and 245 strikeouts in 258 innings. Sudden Sam McDowell rebounds from two straight sub-par years with 15 wins, a 2.00 ERA in 269 innings, and a major league-leading 262 strikeouts.

The AL’s batting champ is the league’s only .300 hitter, Carl Yastrzemski at .309; only one league in history, the 1905 AL, has had a lower average from its leader. The Oakland A’s lead the 1968 AL with a .248 team average; no previous league has failed to produce a single .250-hitting ball club. The New York Yankees hit .221, the lowest team average since 1910.

The only team in the league with a really substantial offense is the pennant-winning Tigers. Their team average is just .242, but they wallop a major league-leading 204 homers (second-most in franchise history), and score 742 runs. The key slugger is Willie Horton (.293 BA/40 HR/94 RBI), backed up by Bill Freehan (.271/28/93), Jim Northrup (.271/23/100), and Norm Cash (.270/28/70). The Tigers also have Gates Brown coming off the bench: .379 average, .459 OBP, and .713 slugging in 93 at-bats.

Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Carl Yastrzemski, .309 (Lowest for a league leader since 1945)
- OBP: Carl Yastrzemski, .448
- Slugging: Frank Howard, .581
- Home runs: Frank Howard, 48
- RBI: Ken Harrelson, 121
- Runs: Dick McAuliffe, 105 (Fewest for a league leader since 1952)
- Walks: Carl Yastrzemski, 137
- Batter’s Strikeouts: Reggie Jackson, 159 (Second most in ML history)
- Wins: Denny McLain, 31 (Most since 1931)
- ERA: Luis Tiant, 1.77 (Best since 1943)
- Strikeouts: Sam McDowell, 262
- Walks Allowed: Sam McDowell, 127
- Home Runs Allowed: Denny McLain, 34
- MVP: Denny McLain, 31-6 with a 2.17 ERA and 260 strikeouts.
- Cy Young: McLain. Duh.

1968 National League

The Year of the Pitcher manifests itself just about exactly as intensely as in the AL: 3.79 runs per game. But it takes a different shape. The 1968 NL hits .250, low but not historically low; merely the worst since 1942. The National League’s home run rate is its lowest since 1946, its walk rate is lowest since 1938, and its OPS and scoring are lowest since 1919.

Primarily lacking from the 1968 National League are home runs. The Chicago Cubs lead the league with 143, the least of any league leader since 1951. Only three other teams hit as many as 90. Not a single regular in the league achieves a career high in homers, and nearly all are far from their peak.

The Cardinals’ Bob Gibson has an astonishing season: his 1.24 ERA over 305 innings defies modern comparison, and perhaps defies comprehension. Even considering the low scoring of 1968, this is a staggering performance. The 1968 Cardinals, like the 1965-66 Dodgers, are an extraordinarily low-scoring champion; they hit .256 with just 80 homers, and their 645 runs are the least from a pennant winner since 1933. But they allow only 522, least by any NL team since 1944.

One NL team hits with abandon: the Cincinnati Reds, who lead the majors with a .281 average and 763 runs. The ’68 Reds whack 295 doubles, the most by any team since 1941. Pete Rose (.344, 44 doubles) leads the way; six other Red regulars hit .278 or better.

Individual Leaders:
- Batting: Pete Rose, .344
- OBP: Pete Rose, .405
- Slugging: Willie McCovey, .572
- Home runs: Willie McCovey, 40
- RBI: Willie McCovey, 116
- Runs: Glenn Beckert, 108
- Walks: Ron Santo, 111
- Batter’s Strikeouts: Donn Clendenon, 151 (New NL record)
- Wins: Juan Marichal, 26
- ERA: Bob Gibson, 1.24 (Best since 1915)
- Strikeouts: Bob Gibson, 248
- Walks Allowed: Bob Veale, 109
- Home Runs Allowed: Bill Hands and Fergie Jenkins, 29
- MVP: Bob Gibson, 22-9 with a 1.24 ERA, perhaps the most impressive pitching season of all time.
- Cy Young: Gibson. Duh.

Beyond 1968

With scoring having plunged in both leagues in 1968 season, MLB understands that some systemic factor was at work in reducing offense. The practice of teams in building pitchers’ mounds to ever-greater heights is recognized as the likely major culprit. Therefore, for 1969, a new 10-inch mound height restriction is put into the record book. Scoring in both leagues rebounds by nearly 10% in 1969 with the new rule in force.

Back to Reality

Okay. Of course this has been a fanciful exercise. In real life, the strike zone change undoubtedly didn’t affect every player to the exact same proportional degree. This exercise makes assumptions that are obviously unrealistic.

But it does serve to dramatize the impact the strike zone change did have. The raw numbers players put up in the 1963-68 period have the effect of leading us to perceive it as an era filled with uncommonly great pitchers and few batting heroics. But simply tweaking those numbers to normalize them with the seasons immediately before and after makes it clear that there was quite a bit of historically great hitting going on.

The lesson is not only that all stats are a function of their environment. It’s also that even a small change in league-wide percentage rates can yield dramatic impacts in the numbers produced by the best and worst individual players.

And the lesson is also that the mid-60s might have been a much more action-packed era than it was, but for the ill-conceived imposition of the big strike zone.

In Parting, a Few Fun “Facts”

Home Runs “Lost” to the Big Zone (And the Resulting Adjusted Career Total)

Hank Aaron 20 (775)
Willie Mays 22 (682)
Frank Robinson 18 (604)
Harmon Killebrew 23 (596)
Reggie Jackson 3 (566)
Mickey Mantle 16 (552)
Willie McCovey 21 (542)
Ernie Banks 14 (526)
Eddie Mathews 11 (523)

Hits “Lost” to the Big Zone (And the Resulting Adjusted Career Total)

Pete Rose 44 (4300)
Hank Aaron 43 (3814)
Stan Musial 3 (3633)
Carl Yastrzemski 42 (3561)
Willie Mays 38 (3321)
Rod Carew 11 (3064)
Lou Brock 43 (3066)
Al Kaline 32 (3039)
Roberto Clemente 46 (3046)

Strikeouts “Won” by the Big Zone (And the Resulting Adjusted Career Total)

Nolan Ryan 10 (5704)
Steve Carlton 28 (4108)
Tom Seaver 27 (3613)
Don Sutton 39 (3535)
Gaylord Perry 72 (3462)
Phil Niekro 25 (3317)
Fergie Jenkins 48 (3144)
Bob Gibson 100 (3017)
Jim Bunning 93 (2762)
Mickey Lolich 79 (2753)
Warren Spahn 20 (2563)
Jerry Koosman 14 (2542)
Don Drysdale 88 (2398)
Jim Kaat 70 (2391)
Sam McDowell 96 (2357)
Luis Tiant 65 (2351)
Sandy Koufax 89 (2307)

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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