(Originally published in April 2013)
With all the weeping and gnashing of teeth that’s gone on over the Steroid Generation taking an unfair advantage to rewrite the home run record books, it’s easy to forget that other records remained completely out of their grasp.
In 1999, Larry Walker, a terrific hitter playing in an un-humidified Coors Field at the peak of the big-hitting boom, batted .379 for the season. Barring a miracle season (unlikely; Adrian Beltre led Gen-Xers with a .321 average in 2012), this will go down as the highest single-season batting average ever posted by a player of his generation (born 1961-1981). Yet on the list of the highest single-season batting averages of all time, Walker’s 1999 season ranks 90th.
The book Generations profoundly changed my worldview when I read it back in 2007. (Actually, it provided the framework of a worldview; the explanation for observations I had already made in my life up to that point). In the book, authors William Strauss and Neil Howe retell American history as a series of generational biographies. The main thrust of this blog is to apply the theory to another of my great loves: baseball.
But maybe you weren’t affected by the theory like I was. Maybe you don’t believe that every person in a society can be grouped into 20-odd-year-long blocks of birth years according to their common beliefs and behaviors (which were molded by their common age at historical events and trends). Maybe you don’t understand the theory, or maybe you just don’t care either way. Maybe you’re just here because you’re a baseball fan (I hope you are, anyway).
That’s fine, too, because the baseball leader-boards are cluttered, and categorizing every baseball player in history by 20-odd-year-long blocks of birth years will serve to un-clutter them.
“Un-clutter” the leader-boards? Yes, because while twenty-four of the forty-two 50-home run seasons in major league history were accomplished by players born between 1963 and 1980 (the Steroid Generation), all but one of the twenty men who batted .400 for a season were born before 1900, as were all seventeen of the players to hit 25 triples in a season.
Twelve players in big league history stole 100 or more bases a total of nineteen times, and they were all born either from 1858 to 1866 or from 1932 to 1961. But no one born in those two time spans ever slugged .700 for a season, even though sixteen players have done it a total of 35 times. All but one of them were born in the time spans of 1895-1920 or 1963-1968; all twelve men who eclipsed 1.200 in OPS for a season were also born in those 32 years.
Pitchers have posted ERAs under 1.50 a total of 36 times, but only Bob Gibson was born after 1892. No pitcher born after 1881 ever won 40 games in a season (only one pitcher born after 1910 ever won 30 games); similarly, no pitcher born before 1953 ever saved 40 games. Even 17 of the top 20 seasons of Wins Above Replacement were the performances of pitchers born between 1849 and 1871. The other three were by Walter Johnson (two) and Babe Ruth, both of whom were born in the 19th Century.
The Steroid Generation took advantage of banned (but under-tested) substances and small ballparks to dominate the home run leader lists, but other generations took advantage of the rules, strategies, and ballparks of their eras to dominate other leader lists, too. Separating ballplayers by generation restores meaning to the leader-boards, and highlights not only how the different generations performed, but which players excelled within their generation.