In The Recalibration, we established that degree-of-difficulty is a vital element to inter-era player comparisons. If we ignore this component, our ability to thread an accurate narrative of the greatest players throughout history is DOA. That might sound a bit dramatic, but we don’t have to use hypotheticals to imagine the ramifications of forging ahead without accounting for competition level. We only need to look to the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team (49 of top-100 debuted before 1970) or the Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players (entire top-25 debuted before 1968) to see that ignoring degree-of-difficulty results in a list dominated by players who played during the weakest eras in history. Although adjusting for league strength is imperative, we need to clarify what we mean—and don’t mean—by league strength.
If Babe Ruth were teleported from 1921 to the present, he would probably be drunk. After sobering up, he would quickly find that he became a crummy baseball player overnight. Player development has advanced far beyond anything anyone from Ruth’s era ever could’ve imagined. Pitchers throw harder and have better control than a century ago. They master more offerings, sequence better, and rarely tip pitches. Due to the significant increase in average pitcher height, they throw on a more exaggerated downhill plane and release the ball closer to the plate than ever before. They also don’t stick around for a 3rd, 4th, and 5th time through the lineup to offer up the tasty meatballs Ruth undoubtedly feasted on.
Modern hitters have evolved in several ways to combat these pitching advances. They are bigger, stronger, and have better hand-eye coordination leading to steeper launch angles and higher exit velocities. While Ruth had prodigious power, there is little chance he had the quick-twitch reflexes necessary to make use of it in today’s highly-specialized game. It would be hard to imagine Ruth outhitting even the worst hitter in MLB today. His base-running and defense would be so poor that there’s a decent chance he would be escorted off the field before even getting a chance to swing a bat. Unfortunately for The Bambino, since teleporting doesn’t include evolution by osmosis, he’ll need to try his hand at competitive eating if he’s planning on sticking around. While this is a fun thought-experiment, this is not our definition of degree-of-difficulty.
Now that we’ve defined what degree-of-difficulty isn’t, let’s define what it is. For the purposes of inter-era player comparisons, it will reflect the following:
- The overall number of opponents that a player competes against to lead the league in statistical categories and win awards.
- The number of games required to win a championship.
- The percentage of the best available talent present in the league.
- The size of the global pool populating the league.
The first part of our definition is the easiest to quantify. MLB today is close to twice the size as it was when Ruth played, meaning he only had to outperform half the players to lead the league in statistical categories compared to modern players. In other words, it’s easier to hit more home runs than 225 people than it is to hit more home runs than 450. Similarly, Ruth’s Yankees only needed to win four games to win the World Series, while the Dodgers had to win 13 games in 2020 to take home the championship. It’s not a coincidence that dynasties—in all sports—simply don’t exist the way they used to when there were fewer teams to beat and fewer games to win.
The third part of our definition is, thankfully, an artifact of the past. While current major leaguers compete against all the best baseball players in the sport, the same cannot be said for Ruth. MLB’s ban on black and Latino players watered down the overall quality of play during his career. To get an idea of what was missing, consider that in the 33 years following Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947, black players won 30 league MVPs. There is no question that Ruth benefited from not having to compete against Josh Gibson, Turkey Stearnes, and Oscar Charleston, all prolific home run hitters active during his career.
Lastly, we need to account for MLB’s shift from a national organization to a global one. There were more international players on MLB rosters in 2020 than total players in the American League in 1921. Baseball’s popularity has exploded around the globe, making it harder than ever to reach the majors. This is the classic big fish in a little pond vs. big fish in a big pond scenario. There’s a reason why the smart money is almost always on the latter.
As we conduct inter-era player comparisons in baseball going back to the 1890s, we will notice that degree-of-difficulty becomes less of a factor with each passing generation, and it stopped being a factor altogether by the mid-1990s. The number of teams in MLB has held steady since 1998. Despite constant tinkering, the number of games required to win a championship has remained mostly consistent since the wild card was first used in 1995; and most importantly, MLB has been a global enterprise welcome to all players for decades. Unless MLB chooses to undergo a significant expansion in the future, we should be able to rely on performance relative to peers as our sole method for comparing any two players who played after 1994. For all other comparisons, we’ll need to account for degree-of-difficulty according to our stated definition. Happy scrolling!