Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A lesson in applied evolutionary biology

At the New York Times, J. C. Bradbury looks into a phenomenon that, in the eyes of many of its fans, has 'ruined' baseball. In particular, he's referring to the sudden and vast increase in home runs, something that has often been blamed on the spread of performance-enhancing drugs:

To many baseball fans the game has been ruined — hallowed records toppled, managers playing less small ball as they wait for that three-run homer.
Now, it's been years since I've seen a major league game (the same number of years that I've lived in Germany, in fact), but this is a discussion I remember going on in the 90s. (Indeed, it seems to be a perennial complaint that the game has been spoiled by something. Baseball fans seem to be more attached than most to the idea of a 'golden age'.)

Anyway, whether the game's actually gotten worse or not, Bradbury has an interesting explanation for the changes in its dynamics:

The origin of the modern home run era can in fact be traced to the expansion of the league. In the 1990s, Major League Baseball grew to 30 teams from 26 — the Marlins and the Rockies joined in 1993, the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks in 1998. The influx of inferior talent filling those new roster spots fundamentally altered the competitive environment: it allowed elite players, especially hitters, to excel.

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, an avid baseball fan, hypothesized that in competitive environments, as the variance of the quality of participants shrinks, opportunities for great performances diminish. For most of its history, the major leagues were progressively populated by better and better baseball players — through natural population growth, racial integration and immigration — which meant that opportunities for achievements like hitting .400 were decreasing. As superior players replaced the weakest ones, even the very best had fewer chances at turning in remarkable performances.

Expansion abruptly reversed the trend; today, the variance in quality of major league pitchers, based on E.R.A., is at an all-time high. By letting in the riffraff for baseball’s elite to exploit, expansion increased the likelihood of great achievements. Without even bringing steroids into the discussion, it is no surprise that some already fine hitters performed even better after the early 1990s.


In the expansion era, home runs per game are up 30 percent over the previous decade, strikeouts 15 percent and hit batters a whopping 70 percent. All are likely the result of expansion’s dilution of pitching talent.

Without denying the scourge of steroids (and without having thought about it all that much) this seems convincing to me. Indeed, the dialectical relationship between mediocrity and excellence seems obvious when you think about it...and not only with regard to baseball.

Nonetheless, as a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, I can attest that in baseball--unlike in nature--being an adorable loser seems to be an adaptive strategy.

After all, as an article from today's NYT points out, despite having a grim record--their last World Series win was in 1908, their last World Series appearance was in 1945--they've been successful in other ways:

On Forbes magazine’s 2006 assessment of franchise values, the Cubs ranked fifth among baseball’s 30 clubs at $448 million, with revenue of $179 million and a $7.9 million operating profit. (The team had been valued at $247 million in 2001, representing 12 percent annual growth.) ... [T]he Cubs are expected to fetch $600 million or more. In 2002, the Boston Red Sox were sold for a league-record $660 million to a group led by John Henry.
Winning, so it seems, ain't everything.

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