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March 25, 2014

Moonshot

Attrition Over Time

by Robert Arthur


Of the four major sports that permeate American culture (football, basketball, hockey, and the best, baseball), none has existed in its current form for as long. Yet despite its relative stasis, baseball has evolved. Although the basic rules of the game have remained the same, it is not isolated from the broader currents of time and technology. One of those currents has been medicine’s ceaseless march toward the curing of disease and the extension of healthy life.

We’ve seen this current manifest in baseball via the introduction of new treatments and surgeries. Only 30 years ago, the notion of Bartolo Colon going abroad to get stem cell injections to heal his arm would have been science fiction. One year ago, this treatment was likely behind the success of a 40-year-old pitcher with a 92 mph fastball and a 2.65 ERA.

More broadly, Colon’s medical miracle raises the question of whether medicine is prolonging careers and if so, how. Technically and statistically, studying career length is not trivial. But, as before, I’ll use a Cox Proportional Hazards model, borrowed from epidemiology, to understand how career length has varied over baseball’s long history.

The Marvel of Modern Medicine
I’ll draw once again on Lahman’s database, from which I use only the time period 1910-1989. I compute each player’s year as the first year in which he appeared in an MLB game (his debut), and his dominant position as the one at which he fielded the most innings.

As a point of departure, I ask the simplest question possible: Are careers getting longer or shorter over time?

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Related Content:  Health,  Attrition,  Career Length

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