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Better, faster, stronger and much, much better equipped

Apr 29, 2014, 2:58 PM EDT

Mike Trout

I’m not usually a fan of TED talks — and this one from David Epstein doesn’t mention baseball once — but I found it fascinating and quite relevant to some of the things we talk about around here from time to time.

Specifically, the arguments about eras and comparing players across them. And, by extension, a lot of the arguments which get made about performance-enhancement and the notion that one can look at the accomplishments of Player X at age Y in year Z, compare it to what Player A did at age B in year C and claim — somehow — that one of those players is unnatural or some such thing.

But the fact is that changing technology, changing gene pools and the changing mindset of athletes make what the athletes of today accomplish fundamentally different than that which the athletes of yesterday accomplished. It’s apples and oranges, dudes, and your claim that what a guy did decades ago is somehow better than what a guy has done today is up against some pretty hard evidence.

Now, of course, you can normalize, or at least attempt to, across eras. Epstein does this with track and field records and shows that Usain Bolt is, actually, much closer in skill and speed to Jesse Owens than the stopwatch alone would lead us to believe. But it’s much more difficult to do with multi-variable pursuits than it is when it’s basically man vs. clock.

Anyway, some illuminating facts here about the human body and athletic achievement. And about how much the human body and athletic achievement have been aided by what one could generically call “performance enhancement” over the years.

  1. dillongeeescapeplan - Apr 29, 2014 at 3:08 PM

    At first I thought it said David Eckstein. Then yeah, everyone’s gonna appear bigger.

  2. Joe - Apr 29, 2014 at 3:09 PM

    At first I thought you wrote David ECKstein. Which wouldn’t have surprised me. That guy could do everything!

  3. dowhatifeellike - Apr 29, 2014 at 3:25 PM

    Missed opportunity for a Daft Punk reference.

  4. cur'68 - Apr 29, 2014 at 3:26 PM

    But…PEDs! It HAS to be! It can’t just be technology and equipment…

    On a serious note, I love those TED talks and that one was really well presented.

  5. jrob23 - Apr 29, 2014 at 4:40 PM

    Has little to do with the fact that PED caused a massive spike in power numbers and now that they have been taken away substantially, the numbers are down big time, injuries are up. Cool video though

    • js20011041 - Apr 29, 2014 at 4:48 PM

      Power numbers aren’t down, or at least are not down significantly. The reason that offense is low is because strikeouts have skyrocketed. Players are hitting balls just as far today as they used to. They’re just putting fewer of them in play.

      • [citation needed] fka COPO - Apr 29, 2014 at 4:54 PM

        Don’t bother arguing with him. jrob is allergic to math so articles like this one, which corroborate what you are saying, just get ignored:

  6. golfrangeman - Apr 29, 2014 at 5:00 PM

    Here’s the problem I have with this. Look at boston marathon times they continue to go down despite the fact they’ve run the same course and same conditions for decades.

    • cur'68 - Apr 29, 2014 at 5:53 PM

      Actually it has not changed in win time appreciably since 1975 or so. Its been in the neighbourhood of 2 hours, 10 minutes since Bill Rogers, in 1975, weather depending. Anyhow, leading up to 1975 the roads changed. They went from cobbled to paved. The shoes changed. The athletes changed: more and better ones started showing up. Also, the winners are precisely who Epstein said they would be: by and large Kenyans since 1991.

    • indaburg - Apr 29, 2014 at 5:57 PM

      While the course and conditions may have remained pretty much the same, the other two variables–gene pool and mindset–are dramatically different. That accounts for the decreasing times.

  7. crackersnap - Apr 29, 2014 at 6:54 PM

    So if the playing surface for baseball remains static, and if the playing dimensions remain static (relatively), and if the weather remains static, and if the equipment remains static (juiced baseball conspiracies notwithstanding), and if the rules remain static (with well documented exceptions such as mound height, DH) , doesn’t this imply that (according to much of the lecturer’s premise) within baseball one CAN do a more accurate comparison of players across eras?

    We can project theories about larger gene pools, and athletic selection, and improved training regimens, and better nutrition, but fastballs have not gotten faster and home runs have not gotten longer. Barry Bonds was a generational standout even before PEDs. Willie Mays was such a standout before him and Mike Trout promises to be such a standout over the next 10 – 15 years. What is it about this lecture that implies we cannot compare them to one another?

  8. denny65 - Apr 29, 2014 at 9:41 PM

    Love TED Talks. One of the best I’ve ever heard/seen was given by Mike Rowe (yeah, him, “Deadliest Catch”).

    Well worth running down on YouTube.

  9. Reflex - Apr 29, 2014 at 9:54 PM

    In general humans have improved physically and mentally over the past century, by a pretty dramatic amount. These numbers are for males in the united states from the best sources I could find.

    Lifespan –

    1900: 48
    2011: 76
    Gain: 37%

    Height –

    1900: 5’9″
    2010: 5’10.5″
    Gain: 3%

    Weight –

    1900: 160
    2013: 191
    Gain: 17%

    IQ –

    1900: 67
    2012: 100
    Gain: 33%

    (IQ is normalized each year, 100 is always average, the 67 is what an IQ of ‘100’ in 1900 would be the equivalent of today)

    In short, we are bigger, stronger, faster and smarter, we live significantly longer and have far more wealth at our disposal to do things like spend our entire lives training for athletic events. We have the finest nutrition, kinesiologists, physicians, physical mechanics and trainers of every type. We have optimized diets and nutrition and the finest medical care one can imagine (today). In short, we have the health and money to make athletics and mental pursuits something a person has the luxury of spending their entire life focused on to the exclusion of virtually all else.

    The results are on the field, but also in the general population. I doubt many of the old time elite athletes could even compare remotely to what we have today. This is why while I don’t dismiss the impact of PEDs, in fact I abhor their use and abuse, I am also aware that they are a very small part of why athletes of today are as elite as they are.

    And all of this is before we get into the fact that our gene pool is more diversified and we permit all players on the field, not simply those who fit certain social, racial or demographic classes.

    • crackersnap - Apr 30, 2014 at 1:08 AM

      All very fine declarative statements, but pitchers are not throwing 105, 110 mph. Hitters are not launching home runs out of stadiums. Baserunners are not stealing 90 bases per season. Outfielders are not throwing out runners at the plate from the warning track with regularity, nor are they reaching every fly ball into the outfield with ease.

      In fact, the accomplishments on the field today are fairly consistent with those of 30, 50, 70 years ago.Check BBR for per-game averages over the years ( Look at BA, HR, SLG. All consistent except for that power uptick that ran from about 1994 through 2008, which is now coming back to all-time rates. SB’s per game are way up, nearly double, but since we don’t have individuals blowing SB records away year over year, this might be more of a strategic evolution than anything.

      “The results on the field” seem to suggest not that today’s baseball athletes are vastly superior, but they do suggest that yesterday’s athletes were competing equitably with athletes today.

      • Reflex - Apr 30, 2014 at 3:12 PM

        I’m sorry, what? You do realize there are other factors in play, right? I’ve pointed out many times in the past that since 1990 2/3 of all the ballparks in baseball were replaced, the first third almost entirely going from pitchers parks to hitters parks, and the latter third going almost entirely from hitters parks to pitchers parks. It correlates very well with the shifts in offence during that time period. Others have live ball/dead ball theories. And then there is the fact that PEDs were used routinely in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, which kind of disqualifies them from being responsible for the 90’s uptick.

        Average fastball velocity has been increasing. But the skills of hitters have been increasing as well. Your statement really only makes sense if each improvement occurs only in a vaccum, but it does not. For every better hitter there is also a better pitcher and defender.

      • crackersnap - May 1, 2014 at 12:55 AM

        That doesn’t make sense. If you take the existing parks with existing park factors and divide them into thirds, then take 1/3 and rebuild them in such a way as to improve offense, take 1/3 and rebuild them as to improve defense, and leave the other 1/3 as is…how does that necessarily equate to being the root cause of an overall offensive climb?? The first third should raise offense, the second third should lower offense, and the last third should leave it as is.

        By the way, the average pitching speed is slowing climbing because more pitchers are throwing their fastballs more often, NOT because humans are more capable of throwing the same baseball faster.

      • Reflex - May 5, 2014 at 1:29 AM

        The parks were changed gradually over two decades, starting in 1990. Throughout the 90’s, all but one of the parks built were fairly extreme (by historical standards) hitters parks. The remaining 2/3rds remained as-is, a mix of hitters and pitchers parks. Many of the new parks directly replaced historical pitchers parks with hitters parks, and others replaced extreme pitchers parks (Candlestick) with less extreme pitchers parks (PacBell). As a result, through the 90’s offense steadily increased.

        Starting in 1999 with SafeCo Field, the trend reversed, virtually every park built with only a couple of notable exceptions became a strong pitchers park. Often these replaced strong hitters parks (for instance, the Kingdome). As a result, offense started trending back the other direction and now we are in an era of offense only a little above what we had in the 80’s, which happens to be the point right before the parks started getting replaced.

        Since 1990, 20 out of 30 parks have been replaced, which has significantly affected the impact of offense and pitching throughout. Have fun looking at the list:

    • infieldhit - Apr 30, 2014 at 3:14 AM

      So now the average is 5’10.5″? Great…

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