83 years ago Friday, a young superstar-to-be made his MLB debut with the New York Yankees. Joe DiMaggio broke onto the scene showcasing the pure hitting ability and graceful outfield play that would immortalize him as one of the greatest to ever step on a baseball field. Over eight decades after his first game, DiMiaggio symbolizes just how much the game has changed since 1936.
He batted third & collected 3 hits, including a triple. pic.twitter.com/1GYnAqtMGx
— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) May 3, 2019
Career at a Glance
Joe Dimaggio is famous for his record 56-game hitting streak in 1941. He hit .408 over that stretch with 15 home runs and 55 RBI. The start of his career overlapped that of Lou Gehrig, while the end coincided with Mickey Mantle.
Every bit a five-tool player, DiMaggio could do it all. To be a five-tool player, someone must hit for average, hit with power, and run well. His offensive statistics speak volumes to that. His career slash line is .325/.398/.579 with 361 home runs. While he was not a stolen base threat, he showcased his speed by way of the triple. He hit 131 triples in his career. For reference, the active leader is Curtis Granderson with 94. Granderson has already played three more seasons then DiMaggio did.
The final two tools are the abilities to field and throw. He totaled 153 assists from the outfield and only committed 104 errors in 4,774 chances. His range factor per nine innings (RF/9) is 2.78. The active leader in RF/9 is Kevin Kiermaier, revered as one of, if not, the best defenders in the game today. Kiermaier’s RF/9 is is 2.85. DiMaggio could truly do it all on the diamond.
He won nine World Series titles and three MVP awards in total. His third MVP award came in 1947, his second season following a three-year hiatus after serving in the military. He was voted to the All-Star Game in all 13 seasons he played. This culminated in his election to the Hall of Fame in 1955.
How the Game Has Changed
Logistics and Geography
One of the most obvious yet often overlooked changes since the DiMaggio era are expansion and playoff formats. There were only 16 MLB teams in 1936, eight in each league. A trip west meant traveling to St. Louis or Chicago. The American League and National League only squared off twice a year; the All-Star Game and the World Series.
That all changed in 1961. The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants were a few years removed from moving to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, and the league began adding expansion teams all throughout the country. The league gradually continued expanding until it reached the 30 team, 15 per league, format with daily inter-league play that exists today.
DiMiaggio played in ten World Series, which is twice as many as Derek Jeter did. That being said, Jeter played in three times as many playoff games as DiMiaggio. This is because the playoff structure in DiMaggio’s era constituted no divisions or wild cards. The best team in each league went straight to the World Series with no series before that unless a tie breaker was needed.
As the league continued to expand, it introduced divisional play in 1969, the wild card in 1995, and the second wild card in 2012. Winning the World Series proves to be much harder now than it once was as there are more teams at play (five per league). This also holds true because a team must win 11, sometimes 12, games to claim the title rather the four required prior to the introduction of divisional play.
One of the most impressive facts about Joe DiMaggio’s career is that he hit 361 home runs and 389 doubles, but he only struck out 369 times. DiMaggio struck out 39 times during his rookie season, the most he would ever strike out in one season. He only struck out 13 times during 1941, the same year as his hitting streak. He averaged 34 strikeouts per season.
These caliber of contact numbers are unheard of in baseball today. The men who craft the rosters of MLB teams do not discriminate against run production. Striking out upwards of 150 or even 200 times in one year is fine as long as that player manages to hit an abundance of home runs and drive in 100 RBI.
The highest standard for not striking out is when a player has a K% of 10% or lower. Over the course of a 600-at-bat season, that equates to 60 strikeouts. Therefore, what is accepted as an elite strikeout total still has a player striking out nearly twice as much as Joe DiMaggio did on average.
Sure, DiMaggio is just one player, but consider that the 30 highest single season strikeout totals for hitters have all come since 2004. The all-time list is riddled with seasons that occurred since the turn of the century. Therefore, the game is moving away from players like DiMaggio as the strikeout becomes accepted and more commonplace.
When Joe DiMaggio played, there was much more of a premium on starting pitcher then there is in 2019. In 1936, the purpose of the starting pitcher was to go out and pitch as long as possible, preferably completing the game. The bullpen was essentially comprised of pitchers who were not good enough to start games. They would come in for mop up duty when the starter did not finish the game.
In 2019, bullpens are an essential piece to a team’s success. Starting pitchers are only asked to get through five or six innings pitched before unleashing a plethora of flame throwing pitchers to account for the finals outs. A fastball touching 100 MPH is a commonality in 2019 with several players even throwing harder than that.
In 1936, Bob Feller was also a rookie for the Cleveland Indians. Feller would wow the imaginations of fans with his ability to throw a baseball. Although there is debate to just how fast Feller could throw his fastball, it officially topped out at 98.6 MPH during his career.
The extensive use of bullpens also leads to batters facing more pitchers throughout a game and throughout a season. For example, DiMaggio only faced 54 pitchers during his 56-game hitting streak. In 2016, Boston Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. faced 65 pitchers during a 29-game hitting streak. The aforementioned expansion of teams does play into this, but the main reason is due to the new-age utilization of bullpens.
It has been 83 years since Joe DiMaggio debuted in MLB, and generations later, the same game is played, analyzed, and organized drastically different then it was in the yesteryear of 1936.
Main Photo:Embed from Getty Images