Bob Gibson and Park Effects, 3/11
Switching to a more controversial topic: baseball
I had a tradition on my blog of writing a post on fantasy baseball every March. But the protracted labor negotiation took away my enthusiasm.
This year, I was planning to write about park effects. Did you know that the Orioles are raising the left-field fence at Camden Yards and moving it back? If you didn’t know about that, or if you don’t care, then you obviously are not a fantasy baseball nerd. The nerds know about the importance of ballpark effects. We expect the fantasy value of Oriole hitters to go down and the fantasy value of their pitchers to go up.
Back in the 1960s, ballpark changes played a huge role, although nobody knew it until Bill James did his Nobel Prize-winning research.* In the NL between 1963 and 1966, changes in stadiums took a lot of runs out the league.
*I tried the same joke on Robert Wright’s podcast. It went past him, too.
As of 1963, there was one notably biased stadium, the pitcher’s paradise in LA. Playing anywhere else, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale probably would have had career ERAs at least half a run higher. Koufax still makes the Hall of Fame, but Drysdale probably doesn’t.
In 1966, the Braves moved to the happy hunting grounds of Atlanta, where home runs came more easily. This added some runs to the league, and it enabled Henry Aaron to overtake Babe Ruth in career HRs.
But in 1964-1966, three other NL teams changed to ballparks that took runs out of the league, mostly because the fences were higher and farther from home plate. Houston moved to the Astrodome, the Mets moved to Shea Stadium, and the Cardinals moved to “new” (now “former”) Busch Stadium.
The new ballparks did not just take away home runs. They influenced managers’ choices about who to play in the outfield.
With Astroturf, any ball that an outfielder did not catch, or at least get in front of, went skidding to the wall for extra bases. And with the spacious dimensions of the new parks, outfielders had more ground to cover. So overall there was a premium on speedy fly-chasers.
On the hitting side, batters were hitting balls that used to be home runs but now were just long outs. So gradually teams began to replace slow-footed sluggers with faster, more defensive-oriented outfielders. This development took runs out of the league by diminishing offense and improving defense.
By the end of the1968 season (“The Year of the Pitcher”), the lack of scoring was too much for the baseball authorities to bear. But they did not think of solving the problem by changing the stadium dimensions in LA or St. Louis. Instead, they instituted new rules for 1969, lowering the pitcher’s mound and reducing the size of the strike zone. When these changes did not produce sufficient scoring, the American League instituted the DH a few years later.
(I should note that I do not have a ballpark-change story for the big drop in scoring that also took place in the American League from 1961 to 1968. As I wrote in a previous essay, the AL was much slower to add black players in the 1950s and 1960s, and over the course of the 1960s the quality of the league went down. Perhaps hitting suffered more than pitching.)
The effect of the Cards’ new ballpark, which they first occupied in May of 1966, was particularly dramatic. They went from 3rd in the league in runs scored in 1965 to 10th place (last) in 1966, in spite of adding slugger Orlando Cepeda in the middle of the year. Nobody tracked “exit velocity” back then, but Cepeda could hit the ball so hard that occasionally his grounders through the infield skipped on the artificial surface all the way to the outfield wall.
The Cardinals’ team ERA went from 3.77 in 1965 (6th place) to 3.11 in 1966 (second only to Koufax’s Dodgers). In 1965 they gave up 166 home runs, but only 130 in 1966.
The Cards’ new ballpark transformed marginal arms into decent pitchers and turned Bob Gibson into a legendary figure. In the three years prior to the move, Gibson’s ERAs were 3.39, 3.01, and 3.07. In 1966 and 1967, his ERAs were 2.44 and 2.98 Then came 1968.
Of Gibson’s first ten outings in 1968, nine were what we would now call Quality Starts (6 innings allowing 3 runs or fewer). But you had to do better than that to win that year. On May 28, he was sitting on an ERA of 1.52, with 3 wins and 5 losses to show for his efforts.
Over the next 16 starts, through August 19, he went 15-0 with one no-decision. His wins included 10 shutouts and 4 games in which he gave up one run. His ERA for the season stood at an even 1.00
He only won 4 of his last 8 starts, 3 by shutouts, to finish 22-9. His ERA “ballooned” to finish the season at 1.12, a record that has stood ever since.
Gibson had a reputation, in which he sometimes took roguish pride, for throwing at hitters. But he never led the league in hit batsmen. Over his entire career, in 3884 innings, he hit 102. Among his contemporaries, Drysdale hit 154 in 3432 innings, Jim Bunning hit 160 in 3760 innings, and Jim Lonborg, the Red Sox ace who Gibson bested in the 7th game of the 1967 World Series, hit 105 in only 2464 innings. There are several pitchers active currently or recently who hit close to or over 100 batsmen in many fewer innings pitched than Gibson.
In my opinion, the feat that represented Gibson’s exceptional level of competitive desire came at the end of the 1964 campaign. Over the last ten days of the regular season, in one of the most heated pennant races in NL history, he threw 29 innings.* On October 2, in his last start, he went 8 innings in a 1-0 loss. Next, on October 4, he pitched 4 innings in relief to win the decisive final game.
*Note that if someone pitched at the rate of 29 innings every ten days for an entire season, he would end up with over 500 innings.
But then, following three days rest, Gibson went 8 innings in a loss to the Yankees in the second game of the World Series. After another three days rest, he went 10 innings and got the win. And after only two days rest, he pitched a complete game seven to win the series.
Altogether, over the last three weeks of the season, Gibson pitched in 7 crucial games, winning 5 of them, throwing 56 innings. Only in his first outing against the Yanks was his work less than outstanding. No pitcher will ever come close to matching the grit and determination that Bob Gibson displayed in that period.
Was there ever a reason given for why baseball never standardized the playing fields and stadiums? I know very little about the sport, but it always seemed odd to me that they were so blasé about the space they played in considering how many rules it affected and how specific things like pitchers' mound heights and base line lengths are.
That last section was a sad reminder that with 12 teams now making the playoffs, pennant races are essentially dead. But I guess after only 162 games, it's still not clear which teams belong in the post season and which don't.