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Baseball: Why They're Not Hitting Like They Used To

After baseball's offensive explosion of the late 1990s, Major League Baseball's batters cooled off beginning in the 2001 season, and two university historians think they know why: a larger de facto strike zone beginning in 2001 and drug-testing (starting in 2003) in the major leagues.

Historical research by Ben Rader and Kenneth Winkle showed three distinct eras of offense in recent baseball history?an era of low productivity (1969-93), the great offensive barrage (1994-2000) and what they termed the "new equilibrium" (2000-06). In comparing the latter two eras, they found a direct correlation between the larger de facto strike zone and lower offensive production, plus a circumstantial, but strong, correlation between testing for performance-enhancing drugs and lower offensive numbers.

In an earlier study done in 2002, Rader and Winkle speculated that a new style of hitting may have been the most important factor in the offensive outburst of the late 1990s. Hitters were aided by the umpire's smaller de facto strike zone that in essence took the chest-high inside fastball away from pitchers. Not having to worry about bailing out, sluggers could crowd the plate and swing away. That Major League Baseball recognized this as a problem was demonstrated in 2001 when Sandy Alderson, MLB vice president of baseball operations, tried to retrain umpires before the start of spring training by having them call pitches with minor league batters standing at the plate with white strips taped across their chests, approximately nine inches above the waist (where the rule book said the top of the strike zone should be).

Then we come to drugs?Rader says, "I think the problem with the steroids is you don't know when they're using steroids or the amount." We DO know that baseball players have gotten heavier over the last decade or so. According to Rader, "Some people claim that the increased weight results from use of steroids, and, boy, it peaks right in the middle of the hitting revolution, then it begins to fall off once they begin to test [for drugs]. They begin effective tests in 2003, and since then, it's down, and in fact it's down below what it was in 1990."

One the big problems with performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids and human growth hormone is that, as they bulk up the body, the muscles become too heavy for the skeleton to support, leading to more injuries. Statistics bear this out: When Rader and Winkle examined MLB disabled-list figures, they found that players in 2001 made 467 trips to the DL, and averaged 58.1 days on the list. In 2006, players made 414 trips and averaged 27.8 days per trip?less than half the 2001 average.

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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