Saturday, January 30, 2010

Revisiting the 1994 strike, conspiracy theory style

Did baseball’s owners have baseballs juiced in anticipation of the 1994 players strike? Stay with me while I lay some claims to back up this (off the wall) theory. If a player was making a run at Roger Maris, Hack Wilson, Ted Williams or George Sisler, wouldn’t they be less likely to go along with the union and strike? What if it were several players? And imagine, the owners may have thought, where the backlash from the fans would land if the strike came in the middle of history, directly on the striking players. What better way to keep the players from striking than by dividing their motivation. The players made a ton of money anyway, especially the stars. Would you want to fight for a few extra dollars, or try to cement yourself in history? As an individual player, they’d likely choose history, as it would lead to extra income anyway.

From 1977 to 1993, only 2 players hit 50 HR’s in a season, George Foster with 52 in 1977, and Cecil Fielder in 1990. Even in an extreme year like 1987 (Wade Boggs hit 20% of his career HR’s that year), no one managed 50, though a few came close. In 1994 6 people were on pace for 50 HR’s, based on their HR’s per game, and assuming they played in 155 games. Again, even in 1987 nobody hit 50, and now 6 guys were on pace, and another 3 were on pace for at least 47, so they obviously had a chance at 50 as well. As far as chasing Maris, again assuming 155 games, Matt Williams was on pace for 60, Griffey 56, Bagwell 55, Belle 53, and Thomas 52. They all had legitimate chances at the record. Look through those names again and notice the outliers to the rest of their careers. Williams was on pace for 60, yet besides 1994 never even hit 40. Bagwell’s career high was 47, Thomas’ was 43. Even if you assumed all of these guys were juicers, did they only juice in 1994? Of course not, there was something else in the water. While Maris’ record did fall (and we know the controversy surrounding that), none of these guys were the ones to break the record. I can imagine the bitterness they must feel for not having been given a true chance, especially Griffey and Thomas, who have come thru this steroid mess as two of the presumed cleanest sluggers of the era. While they’ll both be in the HOF anyway, they could have been considered the true HR champion, in the same way that many fans now assign that title back to Maris.

We also remember Tony Gwynn’s attempt at .400 that was aborted by the strike. Did you also know he was just about on pace to break George Sisler’s 74 year old record for hits in a season? He was, though I think his road to .400 would have been easier. Getting back to .400, did he have a real shot? Well the strike unfortunately came while he was on fire. He was hitting .423 in the 2nd half, and in an obviously small sample size, he was hitting .475 for the month of August. Just 38 more at bats at that pace would have put him at .400 for the year. The Padres that year, ironically enough, had a winning % of .401. In other words, they had nothing to play for. Knowing that, would they have rested Gwynn down the stretch against tough lefties? He “only” hit .374 against LHP that year, while hitting 30 points higher vs. RHP. Would they have rested him more on the road, where he hit .387 vs. .403 at home? He was just 1-5 as a pinch hitter, which dropped his overall average 3 points, so I’m sure they wouldn’t have him pinch hit again. The deeper you look, the more they could have done. He hit .434 hitting 2nd that year in 33 games, and .380 in 73 games, so they could have put him in the 2 hole only. Gwynn only hit .304 against “power pitchers” (as per B-Ref) that year. Solution, bench him against power pitchers. Gwynn hit .403 on open fields and only .319 in domes. While several examples above are small samples, to get to .400 wouldn’t have taken much. Considering they were terrible, they could have easily helped Gwynn on his way to .400 without upsetting the fans, and likely would have done all they could have to get him there.

Retroactively, who else would look back now and do more to avoid the strike? How about Fred McGriff, he of the 493 career HR’s? Did that strike cost him his chance at the Hall? He was on pace for a career high 47 HR’s, which would have put him at 506 for his career. In the minds of the BBWAA, 506 HR’s and a career high of 47 is much more Hall-worthy than 493 with a career high of 37, right? In 1994, Harold Baines was averaging 1 hit per game. With no strike, he could have added approximately 40 hits to his career total, putting him at 2906. Throw in another 15 hits or so from the missed games in 2005, and with less than 100 to go, would he have stuck around for another year to get to 3000, and almost automatic (though debatable) enshrinement? Whether a team would have given him a chance is also debatable, but a run of the mill team may have signed him on just for the much shorter chase to 3000 and the attention and extra revenues those historical chases bring.

While less interesting than looking at the individuals, both the AL and NL obviously saw huge increases in HR/G and R/G in 1994. In the 5 years before 1994, American League homeruns fluctuated from 1.52/game to 1.83/game. In 1994 it was 2.23/game, 136% higher than the average over the previous 5 years. In the NL the increase in homeruns over the previous 5 seasons was 128%. For one player a 28% or 36% increase in HR’s is questionable enough, but for entire leagues to shift like that, something else had to be in play.

While I think there is enough evidence that the balls were juiced in 1994, what are the odds that MLB ownership had something to do with it? I don’t know, probably a reach, but certainly worth thinking about.

No comments: