Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Will It Matter if it's in 162 instead of 154?

Especially after an 0-fer against Escobar last night, It's probably pointless to even talk about Ichiro! breaking George Sisler's record in 154 games (the number of games played in Sisler's era) anymore. Does this matter? I don't really think so.

Larry Stone penned an excellent piece in Sunday's paper that raised some of these issues in explaining that Sisler only holds the modern hits/season record, as a couple of old-timers named Tip O'Neill and Pete Browning each had 275 "hits" in 1887.

Of course, in 1887, things were a bit different from what we're used to. For one, walks were counted as hits (so O'Neill actually had "only" 225 hits, and Browning only 220, since the former walked 50 times and the latter 55) and required five balls rather than four. For a couple of others: foul balls were not counted as strikes (and wouldn't be until 1901); "gloves" were little more than just that; the pitching mound was forty-five feet away rather than 60'6"; and pitches were delivered underhand (the latter two rules changing to their modern form in 1893). The game that Browning and O'Neill played was far different from the one Sisler played, and comparing the two is akin to comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.

This got me to thinking about how different the game Ichiro! plays is from Sisler's. I'm not just talking about the advent of night games, relief specialists, and computer-chart-assisted pitching and defense (though the role of those things in today's game certainly makes Ichiro's task more difficult than the one Sisler faced). I am also not just talking about the five-fold increase in the pool of potential major leaguers (and presumably similar increase in ability of the best players) over the last hundred years just by virtue of the United States population growth -- not to mention the increases due to inclusion of black players and foreign players, which has likely had at least as big an effect on competitive levels as that.

Apart from all that, there were other changes within the game itself during Sisler's time that profoundly affected performance. After the adoption of the foul-strike rule in 1901, mean batting average in MLB fell rapidly from an all-time high of .307 in 1894 (where it had jumped, from the .240s in the early 1890s, after the mound was moved back) -- too precipitously for MLB, which introduced the cork center ball in 1911 in part to counteract this trend and quickly saw mean batting averages move upward. The Black Sox scandal, coupled with the awe that greeted Babe Ruth's mind-boggling 29 home runs in 1919, prompted MLB to adopt several more changes that would again send mean batting averages soaring (breaking .300 for the second -- and only other -- time in 1930). Beginning in 1920, trick pitches were banned; no more spit balls, emery balls, or "shine" balls. Maybe even more importantly, umpires now supplied new white baseballs any time they became scuffed or dirtied. Before 1920, soft, scratched and darkenened balls were kept in use as long as possible; fans were even supposed to throw back souvenir foul balls for continued use. These changes, according to Bill James and others, had as much or more effect as any (unproven) "juiced" ball could have had, and the results were immediate and obvious.

I don't think it is coincidental that George Sisler set the record Ichiro! is now chasing in the year these changes were adopted, before pitchers began the slow process of adapting to them. People often argue that the "juiced" 1990s and early 2000s should be looked at as some kind of abberation in baseball, even though the 1920s and 1930s were far more "juiced" (and the causes of spiking offense much more easily attributed) than today's game, and the year Sisler set this record was the beginning of it.

All in all, I think it is fair to say that the game Sisler played was nearly as different from the game Ichiro! plays as the one Sisler played was different from Browning's and O'Neill's. Just as modern baseball historians now universally recognize Sisler's record rather than Browning's and O'Neill's, and just as the asterisk was long ago removed from Roger Maris' single-season home run record, if Ichiro! manages to pass Sisler in the coming weeks, we should all justifiably think of him, without proviso, as the Single-Season Hit King.

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