Why Today's Baseball Players Don't Have the Same Skills as Old-Timers

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Why Today's Baseball Players Don't Have the Same Skills as Old-Timers
Photo Credit: National Baseball Library and Archives, via UMass.edu.

Baseball has come a long way over the years, and so have baseball players. Ballplayers used to be generally rotund men with limited athletic ability, but the vast majority of today's players are world-class athletes with skills that put those of the old-timers to shame.

Modern ballplayers are bigger, faster and stronger than the old-timers, and they throw the ball faster, hit it harder and field it better. If one were to put together a team of 2012 All-Stars and have them travel back in time to play an All-Star team from the early 1900s, the 2012 All-Stars would surely enjoy a grand old day at the ballpark.

Such is the general consensus among today's fans, anyway. Personally, I think it's a flawed perception. Modern ballplayers are certainly different from the old-timers, but we should all stop short of assuming that they're better than the old-timers.

The real old-timers, the ones who helped establish Major League Baseball's everlasting influence in this country in the early 1900s, had certain talents that have long since been lost to the pages of history. Today's ballplayers can do a lot of things, but they lack some of the skills that the old-timers had.

Such as...

 

The Old-Timers Could Pitch and Hit

National League fans are used to the spectacle, but we may as well face facts: Nobody likes watching pitchers hit. More often than not, today's pitchers look like children trying to cut down redwood trees with sledge hammers when they try to actually hit the ball.

As a general rule, the pitchers of yesteryear weren't amazing sluggers by any stretch of the imagination. Some of them, however, could hit just fine. 

Babe Ruth is the most obvious example. We know him as one of the game's great all-time sluggers, but he didn't start piling up home runs until well after his career was already underway. Pitching was his primary focus early in his career, as he posted a record of 78-40 between 1915 and 1918 as a member of the Boston Red Sox. He made a total of 137 starts in that span, and 92 of those were complete games.

The Bambino stopped pitching on a regular basis in his first year with the New York Yankees in 1920, and that panned out pretty well. He hit 54 home runs that year, nearly twice as many as he had hit in 1919. 

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
The Babe's .671 winning percentage ranks 11th all time.

But even when he was in his glory years as a slugger for the Yankees, Ruth still found his way onto the mound every now and then. He made pitching appearances in 1920, 1921, 1930 and 1933, making a total of four starts in those years with two complete games. To go along with his 714 home runs, Ruth ultimately retired with 94 wins and a 2.28 ERA.

Ruth wasn't the only pitcher who could also hit a little bit back in the old days. Take Cy Young, for example. He retired with a modest .210 career batting average, but he hit .321 with a .431 slugging percentage in 1903, a year in which he finished with a 28-9 record and a 2.08 ERA. He posted a .771 OPS in 1903, which is higher than the OPS's posted by Hanley Ramirez and Ian Kinsler this year.

So yeah, the best pitchers could also swing the bat back in the day. And believe it or not, the road went both ways. Some of the best hitters could also pitch a little bit.

Hall of Fame position players such as Jake Beckley, Roger Bresnahan, Dan Brouthers, Jesse Burkett, George Davis and Honus Wagner found their way onto the mound at times throughout their respective careers. Wagner was particularly effective, posting an ERA of a perfect 0.00 over 8.1 innings of work.

Even Ty Cobb enjoyed some success on the mound. We know him mainly because of his lifetime .366 batting average, but what few know is that he retired with a career ERA of 3.60.

He compiled that ERA over a mere three appearances, to be sure, but what's impressive is that two of those came on back-to-back days at the end of the 1918 season. Cobb logged a total of four innings between two appearances on September 1 and 2 of that year, allowing two earned runs on six hits and a pair of walks.

Not great, to be sure. But by today's standards for position players as pitchers, Cobb's two performances in 1918 weren't all that bad.

Keep in mind that it wasn't easy for position players to find their way onto the mound back in the day. The guys who made their living as pitchers tended to hog the blasted thing all to themselves.

 

Pitchers Pitched. Period. No Questions Asked.

The best Twitter account in the world belongs to Old Hoss Radbourn. He may be long dead, but his sense of humor is alive and well.

Old Hoss was quite the pitcher in his day, winning 309 games in just 11 seasons. His 1884 season stands out, as that year he won 59 games with a 1.38 ERA. He pitched 73 complete games and logged a total of 678.2 innings.

That season alone entitles Old Hoss to make remarks such as this one without sounding like a complete fool:

Granted, Hoss was done playing by the time the pitcher's mound was officially set at 60 feet, six inches away from home plate in 1893. The decision to set the mound that far from home plate definitely helped hitters gain an edge that they didn't have before.

But even after the game of baseball crossed into the 20th century, pitchers were still tasked with being indefatigable workhorses. Case in point, only six pitchers have crossed the 400-inning plateau in a single season since 1901, according to Baseball-Reference.com. All six of those very special seasons happened between 1902 and 1908.

In all, 23 of the 25 pitchers who ever managed to log as many as 375 innings in a single season did so between the years 1901 and 1917. 

Logging hundreds of innings was simply expected of pitchers back in those days, and they didn't finish with such high inning counts just because they were starting all the time (though that was certainly the case). Many of the best pitchers were used as relievers as well as starters.

Ed Walsh, Photo via stevesteinberg.net

Ed Walsh was the ultimate versatile pitcher. He had three seasons during his career in which he started at least 40 games and finished at least 10 games. Frank Smith and Larry Cheney also accomplished that feat. All five of said seasons happened between the years 1907 and 1914. 

Similarly, five pitchers in history have had seasons in which they won 20 games and saved 10 games. The only such season that happened after 1913 was Dizzy Dean's 24-win, 11-save season in 1936. Nobody has won 20 games and saved 10 games in a single season ever since, and it's doubtful that anyone ever will again.

There's really no shortage of statistics that highlight just how amazing old-time pitchers really were. If the numbers could speak, they'd tell you that early 20th Century pitchers were basically superhuman.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

 

Pitchers Had No Excuses Not to Pitch

Everything pitchers do now is regimented. Teams control how they prepare themselves in between starts and appearances, how many pitches they throw, and certainly how many innings they log (see Strasburg, Stephen).

Regulations such as these were basically nonexistent in baseball's early days. If they did exist, it's likely that men such as Rube Waddell never would have made it as major league pitchers.

If you take one look at Rube's stats, you'll be impressed. He led the American League in strikeouts each year from 1902 to 1907, and he retired with a 2.16 ERA and 193 wins in just 13 years of service.

But the numbers only make up about half of Rube's general legend. He's just as famous for his notorious personality.

As Baseball-Reference.com will kindly tell anyone who cares to look, Rube was something of a loose cannon during his playing days. He was an infamous drinker and womanizer, and he didn't always separate work from play. Some stories survive about Rube being drunk even when he took the mound to pitch.

It gets better. In addition to being a drinker and a womanizer, Rube was also something of a jack of all trades:

He would try anything - he proved that he could wrestle alligators (just once, earning the ire of a showman as well as his manager), would lead marching bands, he acted in a travelling play, was a master rifleshot, could play golf with skill and power, played soccer and football - even playing professionally for a football team [Connie] Mack owned in 1902. 

You might say that Rube was an adventurer first, and a pitcher second. The fact that he managed to be a really, really good pitcher with so many different circumstances in his life to distract him is nothing short of astounding.

Rube is an extreme example of how old-time pitchers could pitch regardless of what kind of circumstances were going on around them, but at least one old-time pitcher proved that not even physical shortcomings were much of a deterrent.

We're talking, of course, about the aptly-named Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown.

Photo Credit: Chicago Historical Society via Three-Eye.com

Brown's right hand was mangled in an accident when he was a kid, one that left him without his right index finger and significant damage to a couple other fingers on his right hand. 

The accident didn't stop Brown from going on to become one of the great pitchers of the so-called "Dead-Ball Era." He won 239 games with a 2.06 ERA in 14 seasons between 1903 and 1916, leading the National League in WHIP three times.

Unlike Rube Waddell, who was a strikeout artist, Brown was primarily a ground-ball pitcher who preferred to pitch to contact. The fact that he was able to succeed in the era he pitched in is therefore yet another thing that's nothing short of astounding. 

After all, putting the ball in play no matter what was kinda the point back in those days.

 

Station to Station? Psh. Who Needs It?

Modern baseball isn't about speed. It's about power. Whichever team can hit the ball the hardest is going to win the most games.

Things were different way back in the early days of baseball. There are numerous strategies for scoring runs these days, but back then the only one was "get 'em on, get 'em over, get 'em in." As such, striking out was the biggest sin one could commit at the plate.

Nearly 80 players have already struck out 100 times this season. To put that in perspective, not a single batter struck out 100 times back in 1908, 1909, 1911, 1915, 1916 and so on. For old-time ballplayers, the emphasis was on simply making contact, and that was something they were all very good at.

And for good reason. Even today, we know that good things happen when hitters put the ball in play. Old-time hitters took that mantra to heart, and they knew what to do once they got on base.

For example, we can turn to our friend Mr. Cobb. Singles, doubles and triples were his trade, and anything that wasn't a double or triple could easily be turned into one. For Cobb, all it took was a couple stolen bases.

Cobb also wasn't above stuff like this; photo via PhillySportsHistory.com

Cobb stole over 30 bases 12 times in his 24-year career, topping out at 96 in 1915. He wasn't even afraid to break for home when he was in the mood to steal it. Per Baseball-Almanac.com, Cobb is the all-time leader with 54 steals of home plate. The next guy on the list, Max Carey, stole home a mere 33 times during his career.

Cobb, of course, wasn't the only one stealing tons of bases in his heyday. When he led the league with 96 steals in 1915, 23 other players stole as many as 30 bases, and five finished with 29 stolen bases.

To put that in perspective, there are only eight players in MLB who have as many as 30 stolen bases so far this season. By the end of the year, it's doubtful that we'll get any more than 15 players with as many as 30 steals, and nobody is getting anywhere close to a figure like 96 steals.

Cobb wasn't strictly a base-stealer, mind you. He did win one home run title during his playing days. It came in 1909 when he hit a grand total of nine home runs.

None of those dingers, however, was an excuse for Cobb to leisurely trot around the bases. All nine of his homers in 1909 were inside-the-park homers.

All of this makes it sound like we're talking about the fastest human being to ever grace a baseball diamond, but that's not true. Not if the legends are to be believed, anyway.

According to legend, the fastest man ever to grace a baseball field was Cool Papa Bell, who got his start in the Negro leagues in 1922.

Most of what we know about Bell is based on the testimony of none other than fellow Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige. He swore once, according to the Baseball Hall of Fame's official website, that he once saw Bell hit a ball up the middle that ended up hitting him in the rear end as he slid into second base with a double. Not even Billy Hamilton is fast enough to pull off a trick such as that.

There are also legends of Bell scoring from second base on a sacrifice fly, going from first to third on bunts, and actually scoring all the way from first base on a bunt.

The fact that these legends can really all be found on Wikipedia says a lot about how seriously they should be taken. But then again, Baseball-Reference.com tells us that Bell would have averaged 137 runs scored over a 162-game season, and nobody's scoring that many runs in a single season without at least a little bit of speed. Maybe the legends aren't so crazy.

We can spend hours debating whether Bell would be able to beat Mike Trout in a footrace. For that matter, we can discuss whether Ty Cobb could hit over .300 against today's pitching, or whether Cy Young would be worth a damn against today's hitters. We could even discuss whether Babe Ruth could hit even a single home run against today's pitchers.

Conventional wisdom tells us that old-time players would be totally overmatched if they tried to play baseball these days. What few people care to discuss, however, is how overmatched today's players would be if they were to travel back in time to play in the old days.

 

Contemporary Players' Skills Are Too Amplified

Compared to how things were 100 years ago, things are a little too easy for modern ballplayers. 

One of the reasons modern ballplayers are such phenomenal athletes is that they really don't have much of a choice. With so many millions of dollars invested in players, teams are going to do everything in their power to mold them as they see fit. This involves adding muscles where they want them and conditioning their players' bodies the way they feel they should be conditioned.

There are a few exceptions out there, but the days of the overweight, long-haired ballplayer (see Kruk, John) have all but disappeared. Nowadays, it's actually quite easy to declare that modern ballplayers are the best athletes in the world. Or at the very least, the best athletes in America.

According to an article from ESPN's Tim Kurkjian, former Gold Glove outfielder Mike Cameron estimated a couple years ago that 70 percent of major league ballplayers have dunked a basketball at least once in their lives. It helps that a lot of pitchers these days are well over six feet tall. 

Greg Fiume/Getty Images
Jones was a standout football and basketball player when he was younger. In fact, he didn't take up baseball until he was in his early teens.

The ability to dunk a basketball isn't the measure of a true athlete, to be sure. A better measure of an athlete would be how well he plays different sports. And to that end, Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones told Kurkjian that baseball players have an edge.

Said Jones: "I've told players from other sports, 'We could play your sport better than you could play our sport.'"

Athleticism isn't the only thing that modern ballplayers have that old ballplayers don't. Hitters get to enjoy strike zones the size of postage stamps and ballparks with little league-regulation fences. It's a lot harder for pitchers to succeed nowadays, but scouting reports of the hitters' tendencies and the rising use of infield shifts are only making things easier for them.

You've no doubt noticed as much seeing as how there have been six no-hitters and nine one-hitters already this season. Modern pitchers may not be the innings-eaters of old, but they're nothing if not efficient.

Now imagine what it would be like if you were to take today's ballplayers out of their element and put them smack in the middle of a baseball game in the early 1900s. Many of the advantages that they enjoy today would vanish.

Pitchers would have no advance scouting reports of hitters, and they'd have to adjust to the fact that they'd be facing hitters who wouldn't be looking to drive the ball with every swing. Furthermore, a modern pitcher would have to adjust to the fact that there would be no relief in sight once he threw his first pitch. Once the game was underway, it would be his game to win or lose regardless of his pitch count.

Modern hitters wouldn't have it any easier. Old-time pitchers probably didn't throw as hard as today's pitchers do, but they were certainly more aggressive than today's pitchers. The pitchers of yesteryear weren't afraid to dish out a little chin music if they felt the need to make a point. It's rare for any pitcher to hit as many as 20 batters in a single season, but that happened fairly regularly in the early 1900s.

Modern hitters would also have to adjust to much larger ballparks. The old South End Grounds in Boston, for example, was 450 feet to straightaway center field. Yankee Stadium at one point measured over 500 feet to straightaway center, as did the Polo Grounds at one point.

If they were to be sent back in time, it surely wouldn't take long for today's ballplayers to come to appreciate how the old-timers played the game. The versatility of old-time ballplayers makes the versatility of today's players look like a bad joke. The pitchers were machines. Generally speaking, the hitters were pests.

The game was different back then. To play it, the players required a lot of a particular something that today's players don't really have in abundance:

Toughness.

That may not be a "skill," to so speak, but it's certainly a quality that was at the root of all the skills that old-time ballplayers had back in their day. Many of these skills have been lost to the pages of history, in no small part due to the fact that the quality that made them all possible got watered down over the years.

Modern ballplayers can't hope to duplicate the toughness of the old-timers. But at the very least, they should be able to appreciate it.

 

Special thanks to Baseball-Reference.com for the stats and the vital intel.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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