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Are players from the 1980s under-represented in the Hall of Fame?

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Can Jack Morris eventually be the first "1980s Starter" to make the Hall? Photo John Iacono via si.com

First off: I’m not a “small hall” guy.  (How can you, when looking at the litany of obscure players the Veteran’s Committee has already enshrined while the current ballot has literally a dozen names that you can make an argument for?)  So naturally I want to see enshrinement for a larger number of the “marquee” names in baseball’s history.  I view the Hall of Fame as a museum dedicated to the game, and recognizing all the eras of the game for better or for worse.  I’m for expanding the current ballot and If I had a vote i’d be maxing out the 10 names with a desire to put a couple more guys on.

I’m also distinctly of the opinion that maybe the era of baseball just prior to today’s is underrepresented in Cooperstown.  Specifically, my theory is that the massive boom in offense that the game has seen in the last 20 years coupled with a distinct shift in the way pitching staffs are managed has led to voters and fans to discount and dismiss the accomplishments of players specifically from the 1980s.

MLB.com has a show called “Prime 9,” where they list the best 9 players/teams related to certain topics.  Recently they showed the “Best 9 players of the 1980s” by position, and it led me to use that list as a starting point for a discussion of marquee players from the 1980s and to decide whether or not the decade is under represented in Cooperstown.

Here’s Prime 9′s top player by position and their Hall of Fame status.  Throughout this entire article, Blue == Hall of Fame players while Red == non-Hall of Fame Players.

  • RF: Dwight Evans: fell off HoF ballot on his 3rd attempt in 1999.  Max votes: 10.4% in 1998.
  • CF: Dale Murphy: fell of HoF ballot on his 15th attempt this year in 2013.  Max votes: 23.2% in 2000.
  • LF: Rickey Henderson: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2009 with 94.8% of the vote.
  • SS: Cal Ripken Jr: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2007 with 98.5% of the vote.
  • 3B: Mike Schmidt: 1st ballot HoFamer in 1995 with 96.5% of the vote.
  • 2B: Ryne Sandberg: 3rd ballot HoFamer in 2005 with 76.2% of the vote.
  • 1B: Don Mattingly: on current ballot, his 13th attempt.  Max votes: 28.2% in 2001, his first year on the ballot.
  • C: Gary Carter: 6th ballot HoFamer in 2003 with 78% of the vote.
  • SP: Jack Morris: on current ballot, his 14th attempt.  Max votes: 67.7% this year.

Four of the Nine players listed as “Best of the Decade” are not in the Hall of Fame.   I think there’s something wrong here.  I know Morris is incredibly polarizing and probably never gets in, while the other three guys (Evans, Murphy, Mattingly) each had knocks against them related to durability and peak that prevented them from being enshrined.  Perhaps these are future Veteran’s committee picks.

I know the above list is arguable; perhaps those players aren’t necessarily the “best” at their positions for the decade.  So lets talk about the leading candidates per position who didn’t make the Prime-9′s list, and their own HoF status.  The MLB show didn’t distinguish between SP and RPs so I’ve separated them out below, nor did they distinguish between the OF positions like they did for the team selected above.

I’ve included the guys in the above “Prime 9″ list in the lists below for ease of analysis by position.

(Coincidentally; as you read the vote percentage totals, keep in mind that a voting percentage of less than 1% means that the player got only a handful of votes from the 500+ votes tallied each year, a woefully small number).

Outfielders:

  • Dwight Evans: fell off HoF ballot on his 3rd attempt in 1999.  Max votes: 10.4% in 1998.
  • Dale Murphy: fell of HoF ballot on his 15th attempt this year in 2013.  Max votes: 23.2% in 2000.
  • Rickey Henderson: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2009 with 94.8% of the vote.
  • Andre Dawson: 9th ballot HoFamer in 2010 with 77.9% of the vote.
  • Tim Raines: on current ballot, his 6th attempt.  Max votes: 52.2% this year.
  • Dave Parker: fell of HoF ballot on his 15th attempt this year in 2011.  Max votes: 24.5% in 1998.
  • Fred Lynn: fell off HoF ballot on his 2nd attempt in 1997.  Max votes: 5.5% in 1996.
  • Kirk Gibson: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2001 with only 2.5% of the voting.
  • Dave Winfield: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2001 with 84.5% of the vote.
  • Kirby Puckett: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2001 with 82.1% of the vote.
  • Tony Gwynn: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2007 with 97.6% of the vote.
  • Pedro Guerrero: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1998 with only 1.3% of the voting.
  • Jim Rice: 15th ballot HoFamer in 2009 with 76.4% of the vote.
  • Daryl Strawberryfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2005 with only 1.2% of the voting.
  • Jack Clarkfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1998 with only 1.5% of the voting.
  • Andy Van Slyke: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2001 without receiving a single vote.

This makes for 16 total outfielders on the “Best of the decade” list.  Of those 16 outfielders, 10 are not in the Hall of Fame.  Would you say that the position is under-represented in the Hall if only 6 outfielders from an entire decade of the sport are enshrined?   Maybe, maybe not.   To say nothing of the fact that 2 of these 6 HoFame 80s outfielders (Rice and Dawson) were heavily criticized upon enshrinement for being voted in based on remnants of “old man” statistics.

Jack Clark you say?  50 Career WAR.  That’s nothing to shake a stick at.  Higher than a number of Hall of Fame hitters.  I remember him being more of a power hitter than he turned out to be.  He just couldn’t stay healthy; only 5 seasons where he played close to a “full season” in 18 years in the league.   I remember him fondly from my childhood; my family is from San Francisco and I always rooted for the Giants as a kid.

Middle Infielders:

  • Cal Ripken Jr: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2007 with 98.5% of the vote.
  • Ryne Sandberg: 3rd ballot HoFamer in 2005 with 76.2% of the vote.
  • Garry Templetonfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1998 with only 0.4% of the voting.
  • Ozzie Smith1st ballot HoFamer in 2002 with 91.7% of the vote.
  • Alan Trammellon current ballot, his 12th attempt.  Max votes: 36.8% last year.
  • Robin Yount1st ballot HoFamer in 1999 with 77.5% of the vote.
  • Lou Whitaker: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2001 with only 2.9% of the voting.
  • Dave Conceptionfell of HoF ballot on his 15th attempt this year in 2008.  Max votes: 16.9% in 1998.

Lots of baseball pundits have lamented Whitaker’s fate, while plenty others vociferiously argue for Trammell, who had the misfortune of being both the 2nd best offensive SS (to Ripken) and the 2nd best defensive SS (to Smith) of his era simultaneously, thus being overshadowed by both.   Conception was about an equal at the plate to Ozzie Smith but only about half the Gold Gloves, but still seems like he deserved a bit more credit than he got in the voting.

Third Basemen

  • Mike Schmidt: 1st ballot HoFamer in 1995 with 96.5% of the vote.
  • Wade Boggs: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2005 with 91.9% of the vote.
  • George Brett: 1st ballot HoFamer in 1999 with 98.2% of the vote.
  • Paul Molitor: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2004 with 85.2% of the vote.
  • Terry Pendleton: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2004 with only 0.2% of the voting.
  • Tim Wallachfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2002 with only 0.2% of the voting.
  • Buddy Bellfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1995 with only 1.7% of the voting.

Four first ballot hall of fame 3rd Basemen played in the era (even if most consider Molitor primarly a DH later in his career) which is saying something considering there are only 12 full time 3rd baseman in the Hall from all of history.  The all-star game starters for the entire decade were almost entirely Schmidt, Boggs and Brett.  The others I fully acknowledge are “stretches” but did each have several all-star appearances during the decade.

First Basemen

  • Don Mattingly: on current ballot, his 13th attempt.  Max votes: 28.2% in 2001, his first year on the ballot.
  • Steve Garvey: fell of HoF ballot on his 15th attempt this year in 2007.  Max votes: 42.6% in 1995.
  • Eddie Murray: 1st ballot HoFamer in 2003 with 85.3% of the vote.
  • Keith Hernandez: fell off HoF ballot on his 9th attempt in 2004.  Max votes: 10.8% in 1998.
  • Mark McGwireon current ballot, his 7th attempt.  Max votes: 23.7% in 2010.

Not much to say here: There seemed to be a definite lack of quality first basemen for the decade; only one is enshrined in the Hall.  Many of the all-star 1B appearances early in the decade went to aging stars Rod Carew and Pete Rose, who by that point in their long careers had been moved to first base for defensive purposes. McGwire’s issues are obvious (and he’s clearly more well known for his exploits in the 1990s, so its arguable if he even belongs in this 1980′s centric discussion).

Catchers

  • Gary Carter: 6th ballot HoFamer in 2003 with 78% of the vote.
  • Carlton Fisk2nd ballot HoFamer in 2000 with 79.6% of the vote.
  • Lance Parrishfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2001 with 1.7% of the voting.
  • Benito Santiagofell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2011 with 0.2% of the voting.
  • Darrell Porterfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1993 with zero (0) votes.
  • Tony Penafell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2003 with0.4% of the voting.
  • Bob Boonefell off HoF ballot on his 5th attempt in 2000. Max votes: 7.7% in 1996.
  • Terry Kennedyfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1997 with exactly one (1) vote.

Yes, I’m really stretching for 1980s catchers.  Basically Carter made the all-star team every year for the NL while Fisk made half the All Star Starts for the AL during the same time.  The backups were generally catchers having a decent first half, many of whom never made an other all-star team.  Boone was better than you remember, hence his hanging around the bottom of the ballot for a few years.

Closers/Relievers

  • Lee Smith: on current ballot, his 11th attempt.  Max votes: 50.6% in 2012.
  • Bruce Sutter: 13th ballot HoFamer in 2006 with 876.9% of the vote.
  • Dennis Eckersley:  1st ballot HoFamer in 2004 with 83.2% of the vote.
  • Rich Gossage: 9th ballot HoFamer in 2008 with 85.8% of the vote.
  • Jeff Reardonfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2000 with 4.8% of the voting.
  • Tom Henkefell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2004 with 0.6% of the voting.
  • Dan Quisenberryfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1996 with 3.8% of the voting.
  • Kent Tekulvefell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1995 with 1.3% of the voting.
  • Willie Hernandezfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1995 with 0.4% of the voting.

I’m not going to vociferously argue for Relievers/Closers to be inducted, since I think they’re mostly overrated in terms of their contributions to wins.  But I will say that a couple of these guys were far better than you remember.  Take Tom Henke: career 157 ERA+, which was better than either Sutter or Gossage PLUS he had more career saves (311 for Henke compared to 310 for Gossage and 300 for Sutter).   How exactly are two of these three guys Hall of Famers while Henke got exactly 6 votes out of 515 his first time on the ballot?   These voting patterns just seem drastically inconsistent.


All the above though pales in comparison to what we’re about to see.

Starters

  • Jack Morris: on current ballot, his 14th attempt.  Max votes: 67.7% this year.
  • Steve Carlton: 1st ballot HoFamer in 1994 with 95.6% of the vote.
  • Dave Stewart: fell off HoF ballot on his 2nd attempt in 2002.  Max votes: 7.4% in 2001.
  • Frank Violafell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2002 with 0.4% of the voting.
  • Rick Sutcliffefell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2000 with 1.8% of the voting.
  • Dave Steibfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2004 with 1.4% of the voting.
  • Bob Welchfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2000 with 0.2% of the voting.
  • Brett Saberhagen: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2007 with 1.3% of the voting.
  • Orel Hershiser: fell off HoF ballot on his 2nd attempt in 2007.  Max votes: 11.2% in 2006.
  • Dwight Goodenfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2006 with 3.3% of the voting.
  • Mike Scott:  fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1997 with 0.4% of the voting.
  • Rick Reuschelfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1997 with 0.4% of the voting.
  • Fernando Valenzuelafell off HoF ballot on his 2nd attempt in 2004.  Max votes: 6.2% in 2003.
  • Nolan Ryan: 1st ballot HoFamer in 1999 with 98.8% of the vote.
  • Denny Martinez: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2004 with 3.2% of the voting.
  • Bert Blyleven14th ballot HoFamer in 2011 with 79.7% of the vote.
  • Jimmy Keyfell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 2004 with 0.6% of the voting.
  • Ron Guidryfell off HoF ballot on his 9th attempt in 2002.  Max votes: 8.8% in 2000.
  • John Tudor: fell off HoF ballot on his 1st attempt in 1996 with 0.4% of the voting.
  • Roger Clemenson current ballot, his 1st attempt.  Max votes: 37.6% in 2013.

Here is where I think I really have a problem with the Hall of Fame treatment players in the 1980s; I think the entire generation of Starting Pitchers has been generally underrated and overlooked.  Look at this list of pitchers and look at the number of guys who failed to even stay on the ballot for more than one season.  Meanwhile, you can argue that the three guys who ARE on this list who are in the Hall of Fame (Carlton, Ryan and Blyleven) all actually “belong” to the 1970s; they just happened to have longer careers that bled into the 1980s.  Clemens appears here because his late 80s debut was so strong but clearly he’s a player of the 90s, and his reasons for non-inclusion thus far are obvious.

Do you mean to tell me that NONE of these other 1980′s starters merits inclusion to the Hall of Fame?  That an entire decade of starting pitchers doesn’t historically merit inclusion?  I’m not going to argue that all (or most) of these players belong, but it is kind of shocking that so many of the leading pitchers of that era were given so little consideration.

My biggest beef may be with Saberhagen.  Here’s the side-by-side stats of Saberhagen and a Mystery pitcher we’ll identify in a moment:

Wins Losses IP K’s ERA ERA+ bWAR
Saberhagen 167 117 2562 2/3 1715 3.34 126 56
Mystery Player 165 87 2324 1/3 2396 2.76 131 50.3

Pretty close, no?  Saberhagen contributed more WAR and was nearly this player’s equal in ERA+, which adjusts to the eras.  Mystery player’s W/L record is better … but then again, havn’t we learned that wins and losses are meaningless stats now?   A couple more facts here: Saberhagen won two Cy Young awards while the Mystery player won Three.  Saberhagen led the league in ERA just once while Mystery player did it 5 years in a row.

The Mystery player here (if you havn’t already guessed) is none other than Sandy Koufax.  Now, I’m certainly not saying that Saberhagen is the equal of Koufax, certainly not when you look at Koufax’s last 5 seasons or his 4 no-hitters.  My point is this: Koufax was a first ballot hall of famer … and Saberhagen got 7 votes out of 545 ballots.   Saberhagen may not be a Hall of Famer but he deserved to be in the discussion longer than he was.

Others have mentioned the lack of support for Dave Steib, who had a relatively similar statistical case to Saberhagen.  Similar career bWAR (53.5), similar ERA+ (122), and similar injury issues that curtailed his career.  Steib’s award resume isn’t as impressive (zero Cy Youngs but 7 All-Star appearances in his first 11 seasons), and he was basically done as an effective player by the time he was 33.

There are some other surprises on this list too.  Jimmy Key you say?  Go look at his career stats and you’ll be surprised just how good he was.  186-117, a 3.51 ERA (which sounds mediocre) but a career 122 ERA+.  A couple of stellar seasons (two 2nd place Cy Young votes).   I’m not saying he’s a hall of famer, but I am saying that he was better than you remember.  There’s absolutely pitchers in the Hall with worse ERA+ than Key’s.


Coincidentally, you can make the argument that many of these players really “belonged” to a different decade, if you wanted to really just focus this discussion on the 1980 decade.

  • Fisk, Boone, Conception, Parker, Lynn, Rice, Garvey, Carlton, Ryan, Reuschel and to a certain extent Winfield were really players who mostly “belong” in the 1970s.
  • Blyleven and Brett’s careers equally spanned both the 70s and 80s.
  • Gooden, Van Slyke, Puckett, McGwire, Clemens and Pendleton had careers that started the late 80s but who flourished mostly in the 1990s.

But, I think the point is made, especially when it comes to pitchers.  So I left all these players in.


Here’s a couple other ways to look at the best players of the 1980s.  Here’s a list of the top 20 positional players by “Win Shares” for the decade (data cut and pasted from an online forum).  As with above, blue=hall of famer while red indicates not.

1. Rickey Henderson 289
2. Robin Yount 274
3. Mike Schmidt 265
4. Eddie Murray 250
5. Tim Raines 246
6. Dale Murphy 244
7. Wade Boggs 237
8. Dwight Evans 230
9. George Brett 229
10. Keith Hernandez 221
11. Pedro Guerrero 221
12. Cal Ripken 219
13. Alan Trammell 219
14. Gary Carter 215
15. Jack Clark 213
16. Lou Whitaker 205
17. Andre Dawson 204
18. Ozzie Smith 204
19. Paul Molitor 198
20. Dave Winfield 193

Most HoFame pundits lament the lack of support for Raines specifically, but it is interesting to see how high up both Murphy and Evans fall on this list.

Now, here’s Pitcher WAR accumulated in the 1980s.  I took this data from a posting on BeyondtheBoxScore blog back in 2010, who was arguing (of course) why Jack Morris didn’t deserve to be in the hall of fame.  However, the table here also illustrates nicely who were really the best pitchers of the decade, and most of these guys are in the list above.

Rank Name bWAR From To Age Wins Losses
1 Dave Stieb 45.2 1980 1989 22-31 140 109
2 Bob Welch 35.1 1980 1989 23-32 137 93
3 Fernando Valenzuela 34.8 1980 1989 19-28 128 103
4 Bert Blyleven 34 1980 1989 29-38 123 103
5 Orel Hershiser 32.8 1983 1989 24-30 98 64
6 Roger Clemens 32.3 1984 1989 21-26 95 45
7 Nolan Ryan 30.8 1980 1989 33-42 122 104
8 Dwight Gooden 30.2 1984 1989 19-24 100 39
9 John Tudor 29.7 1980 1989 26-35 104 66
10 Bret Saberhagen 29 1984 1989 20-25 92 61
11 Charlie Hough 28.7 1980 1989 32-41 128 114
12 Jack Morris 27.9 1980 1989 25-34 162 119
13 Mario Soto 27.3 1980 1988 23-31 94 84
14 Teddy Higuera 27.3 1985 1989 26-30 78 44
15 Rick Sutcliffe 26.7 1980 1989 24-33 116 93
16 Rick Reuschel 25.7 1980 1989 31-40 97 82
17 Steve Carlton 25.6 1980 1988 35-43 104 84
18 Ron Guidry 25.5 1980 1988 29-37 111 72
19 Frank Viola 25.1 1982 1989 22-29 117 98
20 Dan Quisenberry 24.6 1980 1989 27-36 53 43
21 Mark Gubicza 24.6 1984 1989 21-26 84 67

I’m not sure why he ran this list to 21 players; perhaps he really likes Mark Gubicza.

Notice the same 3 names appear here as appeared above for Hall of Fame starters.  Also notice the surprisingly high appearances of players like Soto and Higuera; I didn’t even include them in the above analysis, perhaps providing my own bias because certainly I wouldn’t have included these two in any conversation about the best pitchers of the 80s.  But the point is now made statistically; of the 20 best pitchers by WAR for the entire decade, only 3 are enshrined in the Hall.

I havn’t done this analysis for other decades but I’d be surprised if other decades were so underrepresented.  Think about how many obvious hall of famers pitched in the 1990s;  Just off the top of my head: Clemens, Mussina, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Johnson, Pedro, Schilling and perhaps eventually Hoffman and Rivera.   Maybe guys like Cone and Pettitte deserve more thought.  Lee Smith is still on the ballot.  That’s a lot of names for one decade as compared to what’s happened to the 1980s guys.


So, after all this, do we think the 1980s players are underrepresented in the Hall?  I count 17 positional players, 3 relievers and 3 starters from the era.  Perhaps the answer is, “there’s plenty of positional representation but the Starters are not fairly represented.”

Why are there so few starters from this era enshrined?  Did we just see a relatively mediocre time period in baseball with respect to starting pitchers?  Did we just get unlucky with the longevity and injury issues related to the best pitchers of the era (Hershiser, Saberhagen, Steib)?  Did changes in bullpen management that came about in the 90s (lefty-lefty matchups and more specialized relievers) combined with increasing awareness/sensitivety to pitch counts (100 pitches and you’re out) contribute to this fact?   If you’re a starter and the assumption is that you’re pitching 9 innings no matter what your pitch count is, you’re going to approach the game differently and pitch with a different level of effort than if you knew you were getting the hook after 100 pitches and/or in roughly the 6th or 7th inning.  Did this contribute to more mediocre-appearing ERAs for starters of this era?  Is that a good argument to use, as compared to 90s’ and modern pitchers who go all-out for 7 innings and then sit (versus starters of the 90s, who would often face the 3-4-5 of the opposing team a FOURTH time in the late innings while sitting on 140 pitches)?

What do you guys think?

Incentives, Salary and Steroid use in Baseball

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Hit home runs, make lots of money. Repeat. Photo unknown via deadspin.com

A viewing of the HBO special “Freakonomics,” which turns chapters of the popular book into little mini vignettes, along with a conversation with my father prompted me to investigate the aspects of human behavior with regard to incentives when considering the rise of Steroid use by major league baseball players in the late 1990s.  One of the overriding themes in Freakonomics is that any aspect of human behavior can be predicted by analyzing the incentives facing those persons when making a choice.

So the question here is, were the growing incentives to players in terms of rising baseball salaries directly tied to the growing use of Steroids in the mid 1990s?

Steroids had been around for many years prior to appearing en-masse in Baseball.  The most infamous use came from the East German Olympic teams during the late 70s and early 80s, who systematically doped their own athletes (mostly without the athlete’s knowledge) from 1971 until 1990.  But seemingly only after the 1988 Seoul Olympics saw sprinter Ben Johnson test positive for one steroid and admitted the use of a host of other Steroids, Testosterone and HGH substances did the “Steroid Era” in baseball start.  In fact, 1988 is also acknowledged as the beginning of the era in the Mitchell Report (per Section D of the Summary, pg SR-14).  However, I’d argue that the mainstream usage of Steroids didn’t occur for a few years after (see the rise of 45+ homer seasons below).

Here’s a chart of Mean and Median US household income from 1974-2010, with the Minimum and Maximum MLB salaries, the Average MLB salary, that MLB salary listed as a multiple of the US mean income, and the number of 45+ home run seasons seen per year:

Year Median Income: Current Dollars Mean Income: current dollars Minimum MLB Salary Maximum MLB Salary Average MLB Salary Avg MLB salary as multiple of Mean US income # of 45+ Homer Seasons
2012 $480,000 $32,000,000
2011 $414,000 $32,000,000 $3,305,393 0
2010 $49,445 $67,530 $400,000 $33,000,000 $3,297,828 49 1
2009 $49,777 $67,976 $400,000 $33,000,000 $3,240,206 48 3
2008 $50,303 $68,424 $390,000 $28,000,000 $3,154,845 46 1
2007 $50,233 $67,609 $380,000 $23,428,571 $2,944,556 44 4
2006 $48,201 $66,570 $327,000 $21,680,727 $2,866,000 43 5
2005 $46,326 $63,344 $316,000 $26,000,000 $2,632,655 42 5
2004 $44,334 $60,466 $300,000 $22,500,000 $2,486,000 41 4
2003 $43,318 $59,067 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,555,000 43 4
2002 $42,409 $57,852 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,383,000 41 4
2001 $42,228 $58,208 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,264,000 39 9
2000 $41,990 $57,135 $200,000 $15,714,286 $1,987,000 35 4
1999 $40,696 $54,737 $200,000 $11,494,794 $1,726,000 32 6
1998 $38,885 $51,855 $200,000 $14,936,667 $1,378,000 27 9
1997 $37,005 $49,692 $200,000 $10,000,000 $1,314,000 26 3
1996 $35,492 $47,123 $200,000 $9,237,500 $1,101,000 23 6
1995 $34,076 $44,938 $109,000 $9,237,500 $1,094,000 24 1
1994 $32,264 $43,133 $100,000 $6,300,000 $1,154,000 27 0
1993 $31,241 $41,428 $100,000 $6,200,000 $1,062,000 26 3
1992 $30,636 $38,840 $100,000 $6,100,000 $1,012,000 26 0
1991 $30,126 $37,922 $100,000 $3,800,000 $845,383 22 0
1990 $29,943 $37,403 $100,000 $3,200,000 $589,483 16 1
1989 $28,906 $36,520 $60,000 $2,766,667 $489,539 13 1
1988 $27,225 $34,017 $60,000 $2,340,000 $430,688 13 0
1987 $26,061 $32,410 $60,000 $2,127,333 $402,579 12 3
1986 $24,897 $30,759 $60,000 $2,800,000 $410,517 13 0
1985 $23,618 $29,066 $60,000 $2,130,300 $368,998 13 0
1984 $22,415 $27,464 $30,000 $2,500,000 $325,900 12 0
1983 $20,885 $25,401 $30,000 $2,500,000 $289,000 11 0
1982 $20,171 $24,309 $30,000 $2,500,000 $245,000 10 0
1981 $19,074 $22,787 $30,000 $2,500,000 $195,500 9 0
1980 $17,710 $21,063 $30,000 $2,500,000 $146,500 7 1
1979 $16,461 $19,554 $16,000 $1,170,000 $121,900 6 3
1978 $15,064 $17,730 $16,000 $700,000 $97,800 6 1
1977 $13,572 $16,100 $16,000 $700,000 $74,000 5 1
1976 $12,686 $14,922 $16,000 $700,000 $52,300 4 0
1975 $11,800 $13,779 $16,000 $670,000 $44,676 3 0
1974 $250,000 $40,839 0

There’s several landmark seasons of note in terms of escalating Salaries through this list.  By year:

  • 1975 saw Catfish Hunter become the first “true” Free Agent subject to bidding wars among teams, and signed a 5yr/$3.35M deal with the Yankees that resulted in his league-leading salary to nearly triple the league leading salary from 1974.
  • 1979 saw Nolan Ryan become the first $1million/year player.
  • In 1982 George Foster became the first $2M/year player.
  • By 1989, Kirby Puckett became baseball’s first $3M/year player.
  • In 1992, Barry Bonds hit free agency on the heels of MVP seasons in Pittsburgh and more than doubled the previous high annual salary.
  • By 1996, salaries were rising quickly; Albert Belle signs a $10M/year contract.
  • 2001 saw Alex Rodriguez‘s infamous Texas contract kick in, paying him $22M/year, nearly $7M more per year than the next closest player (Kevin Brown, who signed baseball’s first 9-figure contract).
  • Rodriguez opted out of that same contract and re-negotiated the terms even higher with the Yankees, eclipsing the $30M/year mark by 2009.

Meanwhile, take note of the red-colored years of 1996 to 2001, the core of the Steroid Era.  1996 saw no less than Six players eclipse the 45 home run barrier, including Brady Anderson in a complete aberration year for the lead-off hitter (he hit 50 homers in 1996 but averaged just 19 per 162 game segment and never hit more than 24).  Suddenly in 1998 no less than Nine players eclipsed the mark, lead by the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home-run hitting competition that transfixed the nation and “saved” baseball.  Too bad we now know what America didn’t know then; that both players were using Performance Enhancing drugs to beef up, help power out baseballs and take advantage of a slew of new ballparks that opened in the era that featured cozier dimensions and more offense.

By 2002, enough pressure from the front office towards the player’s union had taken place to start testing, leading to the infamous “anonymous survey” done of players in 2003 that resulted in “between 5-7%” of players testing positive, leading to mandatory testing in 2004.  By 2008 we were back down to homer levels not seen since the early 1990s, and baseball didn’t see a single player hit the 45 homer barrier in 2011.  But historically the damage has been done; the home run leader boards from the time period in question lists like a Who’s Who of steroid accusations, and a generation of middle-aged baseball writers who grew up idolizing the home run leaders of yesteryear now seems set to penalize these players for their drug usage (proven or otherwise, as with the Jeff Bagwell Hall of Fame case).

But, everything I just wrote is known narrative.  Lets talk about the explosion of baseball salaries as compared to the common man.  In 1975 the average MLB salary of $44k was a little more than 3-times the mean US household income, having risen only gradually over the years thanks to the Reserve clause and a non-existent players union.  It was a boon for owners, who kept salaries down and profits high.  But the low salaries also meant that most baseball players were considered “within reach” of the every-man in America.  Players weren’t paid such ridiculously high salaries that they essentially live in a different world from the fans (as is the case today with most professional athletes in this country): these players were considered “just like us” to a certain extent, and frequently had off-season jobs, working along side the same people who paid a few bucks for a bleacher seat to cheer them on.  “America’s Pastime” largely earned that title from being the only sport in town for most of the century, but was also helped along by the “within reach” argument.

By 1980, with the country in a severe recession and gas lines around the block, Joe Public slightly increased his average pay.  However, Baseball players, thanks to the breaking of the reserve clause and the rise of Free agency were seeing a boom in salary hikes.  By 1980, the average MLB wage was 9 times the median income in the country and a few ballplayers were making $1M/year.   This ratio of US income to MLB income grew slightly over the next decade; ten years on in 1990 the average MLB wage was just 16x the US income.  But changes were about to come.  In 1996 the MLB salary multiple was 23-times the US mean, but by 2001 it was nearly 40-times the US mean salary.  The average MLB salary more than doubled inside of these 5 years.  This change coincided exactly with the beginnings of the Steroid era and also mirror the 6 year stretch where the game saw its historical rise in home runs.

So the question is: is this coincidence?  Was the rise in steroid use driven by player’s desires to maximize their earning potential or was it vice-versa (i.e., players discovered steroids could escalate performance, started using and producing and that lead to the quick rise in payroll?)  Or was this all more attributable to weaker pitching driven by expansion and  smaller ball-parks?

I think you can make the case that home run hitters were highly compensated and were commercially the “heros” of the game (remember the “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” commercials?), and other players figured out that Steroids helped pack on muscle mass and enabled themselves to hit the ball further and faster (to say nothing of the fact that steroids enabled players to come back from injury faster and to stay stronger through the season by virtue of added muscle mass), and rode the trend.  Hit 40-45 home runs one year, sign a contract extension the next.  Suddenly the game found itself full of juiced up, highly compensated sluggers with a massive ethical problem.

What do you think?

Sources used:

Year Median Income: Current Dollars Mean Income: current dollars Minimum MLB Salary Maximum MLB Salary Average MLB Salary Avg MLB salary as multiple of Mean US income # of 45+ Homer Seasons
2012 $480,000 $32,000,000
2011 $414,000 $32,000,000 $3,305,393 0
2010 $49,445 $67,530 $400,000 $33,000,000 $3,297,828 49 1
2009 $49,777 $67,976 $400,000 $33,000,000 $3,240,206 48 3
2008 $50,303 $68,424 $390,000 $28,000,000 $3,154,845 46 1
2007 $50,233 $67,609 $380,000 $23,428,571 $2,944,556 44 4
2006 $48,201 $66,570 $327,000 $21,680,727 $2,866,000 43 5
2005 $46,326 $63,344 $316,000 $2,600,000 $2,632,655 42 5
2004 $44,334 $60,466 $300,000 $22,500,000 $2,486,000 41 4
2003 $43,318 $59,067 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,555,000 43 4
2002 $42,409 $57,852 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,383,000 41 4
2001 $42,228 $58,208 $300,000 $22,000,000 $2,264,000 39 9
2000 $41,990 $57,135 $200,000 $15,714,286 $1,987,000 35 4
1999 $40,696 $54,737 $200,000 $11,494,794 $1,726,000 32 6
1998 $38,885 $51,855 $200,000 $14,936,667 $1,378,000 27 9
1997 $37,005 $49,692 $200,000 $10,000,000 $1,314,000 26 3
1996 $35,492 $47,123 $200,000 $9,237,500 $1,101,000 23 6
1995 $34,076 $44,938 $109,000 $9,237,500 $1,094,000 24 1
1994 $32,264 $43,133 $100,000 $6,300,000 $1,154,000 27 0
1993 $31,241 $41,428 $100,000 $6,200,000 $1,062,000 26 3
1992 $30,636 $38,840 $100,000 $6,100,000 $1,012,000 26 0
1991 $30,126 $37,922 $100,000 $3,800,000 $845,383 22 0
1990 $29,943 $37,403 $100,000 $3,200,000 $589,483 16 1
1989 $28,906 $36,520 $60,000 $2,766,667 $489,539 13 1
1988 $27,225 $34,017 $60,000 $2,340,000 $430,688 13 0
1987 $26,061 $32,410 $60,000 $2,127,333 $402,579 12 3
1986 $24,897 $30,759 $60,000 $2,800,000 $410,517 13 0
1985 $23,618 $29,066 $60,000 $2,130,300 $368,998 13 0
1984 $22,415 $27,464 $30,000 $2,500,000 $325,900 12 0
1983 $20,885 $25,401 $30,000 $2,500,000 $289,000 11 0
1982 $20,171 $24,309 $30,000 $2,500,000 $245,000 10 0
1981 $19,074 $22,787 $30,000 $2,500,000 $195,500 9 0
1980 $17,710 $21,063 $30,000 $2,500,000 $146,500 7 1
1979 $16,461 $19,554 $16,000 $1,170,000 $121,900 6 3
1978 $15,064 $17,730 $16,000 $700,000 $97,800 6 1
1977 $13,572 $16,100 $16,000 $700,000 $74,000 5 1
1976 $12,686 $14,922 $16,000 $700,000 $52,300 4 0
1975 $11,800 $13,779 $16,000 $670,000 $44,676 3 0
1974 $250,000 $40,839 0