clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The decline of the traditional 21st century slugger

The men who dominate the home run leaderboard nowadays aren't your dad's sluggers. Or even your older brother's.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

For reasons that I can no longer recall, I first became seriously interested in baseball during the 2000 season. Like many Canadians, hockey was my first love -- but the combination of the baseball's strategic possibilities and the explosive power of the era gripped me at that time. It has yet to let go.

I bring this up not because I would like to dedicate a lengthy feature to my early experiences as a baseball fan -- fun as that would be -- but rather because I believe the era of baseball someone grows up with always has a bearing on how they see the game.

Personally, I had the misfortune of having my formative moments with the sport in a time when the balance of the game was hopelessly tilted towards offense. As a result, I find myself forgiving pitching performances that are actually very poor by contemporary standards and expecting far too much of hitters.

I'm well aware of league averages and the importance of stats like wRC+ and FIP- that put raw numbers in context, but that doesn't override my misleading primal baseball instincts at times. It's very hard to shake the foundation of your knowledge about any subject, and baseball is no exception.

One example that occurred to me recently is the concept of a "slugger." Statistically, you could likely made a good working definition by saying a player in the 90th percentile by ISO could be considered a "slugger" -- but while that would be precise, it's a bit too complex. It's definitely not what you'd say if you were describing the idea to someone unfamiliar with the game.

If you were trying to explain what a slugger is to a baseball neophyte it would be easier to say "someone who hits a lot of home runs." That's less precise, but more likely to be understood.

The definition of a slugger I was given landed squarely between these two concepts in terms of sophistication. I was told a slugger was a guy who hits 30 home runs with 100 RBI.

(I would take an aside here to say I put my future at Beyond the Box Score at serious risk by talking about RBI here, but that's a chance I am willing to take for you, the reader. Everything I do, I do for you.)

But let's go back to my earliest conception of a slugger. The standard of 30 home runs and 100 RBI made sense to a my younger self. It included big, round, authoritative numbers and there was no reason to question it. However, it had one fatal flaw: it was static.

Reaching those milestones used to mean something very different than it means today. One could argue the RBI half of the equation means very little in any era, but that's neither here nor there.

It's no secret that offense is down across the board, but how has it affected players' ability to reach these traditional slugger milestones in the 21st Century? Thanks to Baseball-Reference's Play Index, we can answer that definitively.

Year # of Players with 30+ HR 100+ RBI League-Leading Home Run Total League-Leading RBI Total
2000 39 50 147
2001 35 73 160
2002 23 57 142
2003 23 47 145
2004 26 48 150
2005 20 51 148
2006 27 58 149
2007 16 54 156
2008 19 48 146
2009 19 47 141
2010 15 54 126
2011 12 43 126
2012 12 44 139
2013 10 53 138
2014 7 40 116

In my short time as a keen observer of baseball, reaching 30 home runs and 100 RBI has gone from a standard that at least one player on most teams could reach to the domain of a select few. Last season fewer hitters (34) managed 20 home runs and 80 RBI than managed to hit the 30 and 100 benchmark back in 2000.

This finding is not a profound surprise, it is a merely another indicator of how far power hitting has fallen from its heyday during the late 90's and early 00's. It's not necessarily a bad thing, simply a fact of life. For anti-PED purists, it could even be considered a promising sign.

It feels strange to me that if I should ever have a son or daughter interested in baseball I will have to give them a different definition for the term "slugger" than the one I was given. That being said, I have a genuine desire not to mislead my hypothetical offspring. I'll have to suck it up and figure something out.

I'll probably end up settling for "guy who hits a lot of home runs." It'll probably be close enough.

[Editor's Note: Nick has since been fired for talking about RBI in an article.]

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

Nick Ashbourne is used to be still is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.