This weekend, I was discussing with a reader some of the possible reasons for the offensive explosion in the mid-1990s. You're all familiar with the list of possibilities: livelier ball, smaller ballparks, bigger players (both from exercise and from steroids). For some reason, I started wondering whether there was a connection to the economy.
I decided to plot the annual growth rate of America's GDP against the average runs scored in a major league game for each season. Although there's no real relationship before 1993, after that time there's a strange pattern.
Granted it's not an exact pattern, but the offensive levels and the growth rate of the economy appear to move pretty closely over the past 15 years.
Why did this start in 1993? And what might be the reason for it?
Well, Occam's razor suggests coincidence, but that's unfulfilling. So I'll take a stab at some explanations, and welcome any other suggestions.
The early nineties seem to be when baseball as big business really took off. Yes, it's always been a business, but between 1990 and 1992, the average team payroll almost doubled (from $17 million to $32 million). TV and other revenue also grew substantially around this time (although much slower than payroll). Also, the ownership mix has changed in the past few decades. Where in the past many owners were individuals, or small groups, the nineties saw many more corporate owners, who may be more sensitive to economic fluctuations.
The connection between offensive levels and the economy is a little bit harder to explain, especially considering many people have found that the salary rate of free agents is essentially linear compared to their overall value.
Despite those findings, it's always seemed to me that offensive value brought in more money than did defensive value. It's possible that when the economy is growing, owners are more willing to dole out the big bucks to sluggers. When the economy isn't going so hot, perhaps owners and GMs shift their focus to cheaper, more defensive-minded position players - leaving one-dimensional hitters without jobs.
I'm not that satisfied with my explanation, but it's all I've got at the moment. What do you think? Is there anything to this, or is it just a meaningless coincidence?