Someone hit 73 home runs once, or why Chris Davis is wrong

1. We don’t know whether he is or isn’t wrong, of course, as far as his wording: we would need a survey to tell whether a majority of fans do in fact “still view Maris as being the all-time home run record [holder]”.

On the other hand, it’s tough to argue that a majority of fans would have agreed at the time the records were being broken, or at least if they did, they found an odd way of expressing it. Check out the increase in attendance from 1997 to 1998 at Busch Stadium (home of McGwire’s 70 home runs) and Wrigley Field (home of Sosa’s 66 home runs):

                           1997                    1998
Busch            2,364,387          3,195,691
Wrigley        2,190,308          2,623,194

Even more curiously, attendance at both ballparks had DROPPED considerably from 1996 to 1997, making the 1998 increase even more dramatic. I doubt MLB objected to the McGwire-Sosa bounce at the time either. Also, as Will Carroll noted in THE JUICE, androstenedione, the anabolic steroid McGwire took that season, was illegal in other sports and the Olympics but legal in MLB at the time.

2. More philosophically, granting that Barry Bonds took something performance-enhancing the season he hit 73 home runs in 2001 and at minimum violated some commonly understood code of professionalism, I don’t know how we can say either a. he needed it in order to compete (he wasn’t Jason Grimsley; whatever he took wasn’t the difference between the majors and the minors for him– furthermore, if it was, would this have been wrong in itself, or would it depend on the why, e.g. fulfilling family obligations as opposed to his ego, etc.) or b. he would only have hit 73-minus-X=non-record number of home runs without taking it. Unless you can assume without any proof that whatever he took was the difference between Bonds being completely healthy vs. him missing the entire season, or a substantial part of the season, due to injury (PEDs can both increase muscle mass and decrease recovery time between workouts and from injury), you can probably figure a “clean” Bonds would have hit somewhere between zero and 73 home runs that season– but how many? Zero would be the extreme low, 73 the extreme high, but how many do you take away? How many home runs do or would PEDs actually add to a player like Barry Bonds– as opposed to a player like Derek Bell, or Jeff Keppinger, or Yuniesky Betancourt? (Note: these are random names, not other rumored PED users.) Ten? (73-10= still a record compared to Maris.) Fifteen? (73-15= not a record.) Once you begin taking away home runs, where does it end?

3. Statistical outliers happen all the time in baseball, none more notable to casual fans than in the home run column. Check out George Foster’s seasonal breakdown (I’m obviously simplifying by removing at-bats and walks; home runs per at-bat would be more accurate but we’re just talking raw numbers here): 0, 1, 13, 2, 4, 7, 23, 29, 52, 40, 30, 25, 22, 13, 28, 24, 21, 14. Or recent Hall of Fame inductee Andre Dawson, who hit 49 home runs his first season as a Cub and never topped 32 in any other season as a Cub (five more years of up to 81 home games in Wrigley), Expo, Red Sock, or Marlin.

In terms of the home run record, as Joe Sheehan recently noted on Twitter, 73 home runs was “only” a 49% increase from the previous season for Bonds, whereas 61 home runs was a 56% increase from the previous season for Maris in 1960 (following a 144% increase the year before for Maris vs. a 44% increase the year before for Bonds). Who’s the outlier, especially in the post-expansion, post-Coors Field era that was ~1993-2006 MLB (think 1980s hockey)? Whatever happened to context? Or, as one Baseball Think Factory commenter wrote with regard to Davis: If we’re going to start putting conditions on records then Davis better start buying train tickets, foregoing cortisone shots, wearing flannel uniforms, he better sit out games against the Rays, Astros, Blue Jays, Royals, Rangers, Angels, and Mariners, and don’t even think about counting any ball going over the fence in all the parks except Fenway and even there his homers better be heavily modified to adjust for the changed setup of Fenway.

4. I’m not arguing that PED use should be either legalized or ignored–I would disagree with both statements. My only argument is that 73 home runs (and 70 home runs, and 66 home runs, and 63 home runs, and 64 home runs) happened, and shouldn’t un-happen; it should only be contextualized and understood along with the PED use that was a factor in it, along with other factors such as Coors Field, expansion, roster construction, etc. Quoting Joe Sheehan again, from his January newsletter:

The double expansion of the 1990s was more offense-inflating because of how teams were deploying their talent relative to how they had been doing so in previous expansions. They were steadily asking less of their pitchers while using more roster spots on them to make up for this…Because of changing roster construction, the double expansion of the 1990s expanded the pool of pitchers much more rapidly than it did the pool of hitters, while giving less work to the best pitchers of the period. That washes out over time, but in the short run, the combination of four new teams and changing roster construction altered the pool of talent playing in MLB, making pitching worse, relative to 1992, than hitting. This factor is what set the stage for 70 and 73. The top six home-run seasons of all time didn’t happen because steroids are magic, they happened because conditions, led by the double expansion, created the environment in which they could happen.

Taking all of the above into account is a more nuanced and more accurate position, and better math, than suggesting that on some level 61 is greater than 73. (Full disclosure: I’m not and never was a Catholic, but I also don’t understand the concept of annulment.)

5. On an even larger level, this exposes the lie that “sabermetrics” destroys baseball’s cherished narratives and replaces them with the cold calculus of numbers. In fact, as Sam Miller suggests in his recent ESPN The Magazine piece on Wins Above Replacement, sabermetrics expands narratives by refusing to accept the status quo of “baseball wisdom”, demanding more and better answers while simultaneously creating new narratives. Pretending Barry Bonds never hit 73 home runs, rather than accepting that he did and understanding the various factors that went into it, takes the opposite approach: the refusal of narrative in favor of a single cherished number (Maris’s 61).

Sabermetricians (and lawyers) have (and often deserve) a bad reputation for questioning everything without being able to offer any acceptable answers, but sometimes the only alternative we have is not questioning anything and not having any acceptable answers.


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