Modern Pitchers Are No Less Aggressive Than Their Historical Peers

During today’s Blue Jays-Yankees game, color commentator Paul O’Neill made an off-hand assertion that piqued my interest. I forget what exactly led to this comment, but O’Neill said:

“In today’s game, pitchers are afraid to throw the ball over the plate.”

His comment is not meant to be taken literally; he’s not saying that modern pitchers tremble at the thought of throwing a strike. In baseball-ese, however, O’Neill’s observation roughly translates to “modern pitchers throw fewer strikes and are less aggressive in attacking hitters than they used to be.” Although it was just a throwaway line, two reasons drove me into wondering if this was actually true. The first is my heightened sensitivity to any statement – sports-related or not – that implies or asserts that things now are worse than things “back then.” While it’s true in some cases, I believe that such statements result from some combination of ignorance, envy, and insecurity. The second reason for my curiosity is the frequency with which I’ve heard this assertion over the years. O’Neill is merely the most recent in a long line of baseball analysts to have said this.

This was a difficult subject to research. FanGraphs’ Zone% statistic is, essentially, exactly what I was looking for. This statistic simply charts the percentage of a pitcher’s offerings that end up (or would have ended up) in the strike zone. Unfortunately, an unwieldy interface (or user incompetence) combined with only 35 years of data to make this research option unfeasible. So, I decided to track Major League Baseball’s BB/9 statistic since 1901. Obviously, the lower the BB/9, the better the era’s pitchers’ control was. The results were fairly surprising, at least to me:

  • 2000s: 3.37
  • 1990s: 3.45
  • 1980s: 3.23
  • 1970s: 3.31
  • 1960s: 3.14
  • 1950s: 3.59
  • 1940s: 3.59
  • 1930s: 3.28
  • 1920s: 3.04
  • 1910s: 2.95
  • 1900s: 2.53

Predictably, pitchers issued very few walks in the first quarter of the 20th century. What surprised me, however, was the apparent lack of control exhibited in from 1940-1959. Many members of the sports media have levied O’Neill’s criticism against modern pitchers while pointing to this era as a time when pitchers were aggressive and threw strikes. Apparently that’s not true. Ultimately, these numbers reveal that – with the exception of the early 20th century – modern pitchers are no less aggressive or capable than their historical peers.

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One Response to Modern Pitchers Are No Less Aggressive Than Their Historical Peers

  1. Alex says:

    Could have something with players enlisting and then lingering effects after the war?

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