What is Stat Inflation?
When it comes to sports and money, they go hand in hand. Whether we’re discussing the value of a player’s contract or the price of a hotdog at the stadium, it is safe to say that you no longer receive the same bang for your buck.
Inflation is not only limited to the dollars earned on the field, however, as the benchmark for how much a player is worth has also changed.
This is what we call Stat Inflation, which is the league-wide changes that have occurred over the history of the sport.
A passing yard is not worth the same as it once was in the NFL, alongside a three-pointer in the NBA and a home run in MLB. So, when it seems as though a new record is being broken every season, it is not just because the players before them were that inferior. Instead, it is just because the game has evolved, thus allowing players to push the boundaries set before them.
Take Dan Marino’s 1984 season, when he became the first quarterback to throw for over 5,000 yards. Since passing attempts have inflated 9.1% and the average yards per attempt have gone up 14.5% over the span, Marino’s total passing yards would be the equivalent of 6,645 in 2021.
The same goes for Reggie Miller, who has the fourth-most made threes in NBA history currently, but if he were to play his entire career in the most recent era, he would have nearly an additional 2,000 threes made to easily place him at the top of the throne all-time.
The change is not always positive though, for example, if we take Bob Gibson’s 1968 season where he posted a 1.12 ERA, and put it in 2021’s season averages, it would inflate 60% to a 1.79.
Simply put, Stat Inflations’ main purpose is to balance a player’s stats in comparison to the league average at the time, which makes player-to-player or team-to-team debates from separate eras more comparable.
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NBA – Pre-3-Point Line Scoring
When comparing players before the installation of the 3-point line in 1976, it’s difficult to determine how those players would fare in attempts from beyond the arc. However, it is possible to calculate how players post-addition would perform if there was no added value to shooting from distance.
To calculate these scoring statistics, we take a player’s three-point attempts and trips to the free throw line in comparison to their overall field goal attempts and their usage percentage to determine how many more/fewer attempts they would take inside the arc if the benefit of an additional point was nonexistent.
Then, for these additional attempts, we evenly distribute it towards their percentage of attempts between the midrange, paint and at the rim and multiply each shot type by their career percentage from those distances to figure out how much their per-game scoring would be impacted.
While there are certainly players whose NBA careers would be vastly different without the three-point line (Stephen Curry, Kyle Korver, etc.), it is a good demonstration of players who could score in just about any era of the NBA.
Take Michael Jordan for example, who despite losing half a three per game in his career (0.5 3p for 1.7 3pa), he would still average 29.2 points a night on 21.7 field goal attempts and 8.6 free throw attempts.
MLB – The Babe Ruth Outlier
While sometimes a pioneer of a statistical category will see a boost to their numbers that may be hard to believe, there is no better example of this than George Herman Ruth, aka “Babe”.
The highest single-season home run rate Babe Ruth played during was 0.63 in 1930. The last time modern MLB had a season below 0.63 homers per game was 1976.
For Ruth’s career, the league average of homers per game was 0.46. That means importing his career into most eras would take his remarkable home run production, and put it to a near-unsustainable level.
Take the Steroid Era for example, which would take his 714 career homers and inflate them by 109.5 % to double his production for 1,496. To actually pull this off, The Bambino would need 22 years of surpassing his single-season high in homers with 68.
So, in circumstances like this, we have to add a portion of the equation that considers the player’s hit type percentage.
By balancing his homers to comprehend with his overall hits and overall plate appearances, Bonds would be on pace to hit 1,199 homers if he played solely in the Steroid Era.
This is still obviously difficult to picture and should be taken with a grain of salt, and with an appreciation of how much of an outlier Ruth truly was against the rest of the league at the time.
But, it is also the reasoning for sometimes in videos/articles where we will purposely exclude a player from a particular year, for that they will throw off the rest of group being compared in an even league average.