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The ramifications of playing fewer games

Players need to pile up a number of impressive seasons in order to reach commonly accepted career milestones. This is becoming more difficult to achieve as they play fewer games in a season. (Warning--very chartsy!)

Evan Longoria was one of only four players to appear in every game in 2014.
Evan Longoria was one of only four players to appear in every game in 2014.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

My last post discussed some of the magic numbers that exist in the minds of baseball fans, such as 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, and 300 wins. These weren't easy achievements in any era, requiring a combination of career longevity and sustained excellence that really does separate the special players from those who are really good. These benchmarks are becoming even more difficult to attain as players are appearing in fewer games played every year.

Brian Costa of the Wall Street Journal wrote a fascinating article that dealt specifically with changes the Marlins will incorporate this year to battle player fatigue and more generally with the trend toward players appearing in fewer games per season. He cited the recent downward trend of players appearing in 150+ games a season:

150+ G
All charts in this post are percentages of non-pitchers

As Brian noted, the number of players who appeared in 150+ games dipped below the nine percent mark in 2014, and it's been trending down for a number of years.

If this continues, this could be detrimental to the ability of players to reach the career milestones commonly recognized as the Valhalla in the pantheon of baseball players, if I may be allowed to completely mix my mythology metaphors. Fewer games played means fewer plate appearances (although a different run environment hangs over all of this as well):

600+ PA

Fewer plate appearances means fewer opportunities for hits and home runs, leading to decreased opportunity to reach 3,000 hits or 500 home runs, let alone lower (and more realistic) career totals:

200+ Hits

Take a moment and consider a 3,000-hit career and what it takes to reach that milestone, an average of fifteen seasons with 200 hits. Given that there have been a total of 484 such seasons since 1901, this is a high expectation. An astute observer will notice the gap in 2013, when no player had 200 hits (the leaders were Adrian Beltre and Matt Carpenter with 199). The last time this occurred in a non-strike year was 1972, and one of the ramifications of that was the introduction of the designated hitter.

There were several reasons for the increase in offense seen from around 1920 to 1935, the primary one being the more frequent use of new baseballs, driven in large part by the beaning and subsequent death of Ray Chapman by Carl Mays in 1920. Prior to that, new balls were rare, leading to a ball not much better than a bean bag being used and one that was more difficult for hitters to pick up. The spitball was also banned, along with the absolute mangling of the baseball done by almost every pitcher in the game. The impact of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig can't be ignored, but baseball took steps to reduce the tremendous advantages that had accrued to pitchers, and the results were dramatic and stark.

This chart shows the number of 30+ home run seasons:

30+ HR

I wrestled with the selection of this threshold, initially choosing forty, but that's just too many. Since 1920 there have been 1,227 seasons with 30+ home runs and 313 with 40+ homers, so thirty seemed like a more realistic cutoff. Even at thirty it requires around seventeen seasons to reach 500, and by now the numbers should begin to become numbingly repetitive--numbers we take for granted are significant achievements, and they're becoming harder to attain. It's not just a matter of pitchers being better than hitters or the greater number of pitchers who routinely throw 95+, but fewer chances to bat leads to fewer hits and home runs.

It's not any better for pitchers: 

35+ GS
This chart is based on pitchers who made starts

Take a moment to acknowledge the passing of the 35-start pitcher. He lived a long life, having an productive childhood, slipping some in his wild and feckless youth and showing a strong resurgence in middle age before settling into a long decline that diminished rapidly in his final years. It's unlikely his type will be seen again soon, as the heroes of old like Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven, Fergie Jenkins and Phil Niekro are long gone. There have been nineteen pitchers since 2005 with 35 starts, and none since 2010.

This will have significant ramifications going forward, which I have written about at length in the past but will rarely pass up the opportunity to discuss again. In a post that already has too many charts, there's always room for one more--this shows the percentage of games in which the starting pitcher receives the decision: 

Game Decision Pct

Fewer starts combined with fewer decisions yields fewer decisions, let alone wins. Look at the active leaders in wins--it's headed by Tim Hudson (214), CC Sabathia (208) and Bartolo Colon (204), with Mark Buehrle poised to join them with 199. A.J. Burnett follows at 155, a huge gulf implying that 300 wins will be difficult to attain, let alone 200. Using the Favorite Toy formula from my last post but using the tool available at ESPN, these are the odds for current pitchers to reach 300 wins:

Pitcher Age Wins Odds Projected
Zack Greinke 30 123 28% 273
Clayton Kershaw 26 98 22% 243
Justin Verlander 31 152 5% 232
Felix Hernandez 28 125 5% 220
Adam Wainwright 32 119 2% 212
Jered Weaver 31 131 2% 219
Tim Hudson 38 214 0% 233
CC Sabathia 33 208 0% 247
Bartolo Colon 41 204 0% 226
Mark Buehrle 35 199 0% 243
A.J. Burnett 37 155 0% 180
John Lackey 35 152 0% 195
Bronson Arroyo 37 145 0% 170
Cliff Lee 35 143 0% 169
Jon Lester 30 116 0% 203
James Shields 32 114 0% 183
Cole Hamels 30 108 0% 168

"Never tell me the odds!"--excellent advice when attempting to navigate through an asteroid field, but lousy when searching for ways to evaluate players. It will be an interesting experiment the Marlins undertake this year, because the baseball season is truly a grind and extremely grueling. The open question becomes whether fatigue is an additive component that can be reduced--is a player who appears in 150 games really more effective and fresher than one who appears in 160 who may be less than optimal? It's difficult to measure, but a different Wall Street Journal article regarding dunking in basketball suggests that, at least anecdotally, actions in one game can carry over to another, indeed through the rest of a season.

I've never been an advocate of setting arbitrary thresholds when thinking about the best players in baseball history other than a willingness to recognize any form of Wins Above Replacement as an excellent starting point. The way players are utilized varies too wildly across eras to adopt one uniform standard, which is why I prefer to compare a players to his peers. The Favorite Toy aside, I'm convinced the 300-win pitcher is as dead as the great auk, carrier pigeon and dodo and will remain that way unless drastic changes in pitcher utilization occurs. Likewise, if the trend of decreased offense is coupled with fewer games played and plate appearances, it will be more difficult to 3,000 hits or 500 home runs than in the past.

Does this mean baseball won't be as much fun to watch and discuss? Of course not, it will simply be different. Our duty as commentators and enthusiastic fans is to adjust to the times and do what is possible to educate others. Pedro Martinez' election as part of the 2015 Hall of Fame class is an excellent step in that direction--I just hope it serves as a vanguard of the ability to see past the magic numbers and not just an anomaly. A concerted effort to use and explain better methods to recognize greatness can go a long way towards not having to rely on the magic numbers of the past, especially if those numbers cease to have meaning.

All data from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. Any mistakes in gathering and processing the data are the author's.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.