Recently, Lenny Dykstra claimed on The Herd that in the early 1990s he paid investigators to dig up dirt on umpires so that he could use it in games to get more favorable calls. This, he claims, was the main reason he led the league in walks, particularly during the Phillies’ run to the World Series in 1993. Now, Dykstra hasn’t exactly been the most reliable source, so I thought I would take a look at the data and see if there is anything out of the ordinary. Did he benefit from some sort of blackmail scheme when at the plate? Let’s start with a simple look at Dykstra’s walk rate below across his entire career.
So we do seem to see a jump in walk rate after 1992. While this might be some indication of something, the difference here isn’t particularly out of the ordinary fluctuation we might see across the league. Certainly Dykstra always had a solid eye at the plate. And unfortunately, he didn’t play very many full seasons to get a nice sample and compare. As it turns out, Dykstra’s percentage increase in walk rate from 1992 to 1993 ranks only 262nd among qualified batters from 1984 through 2015 for a single year change in walk rate. It’s not clear that this is strong evidence of foul play. Then again, many of these walk rate jumps were among younger players that just started getting the hang of the game, so it’s not insignificant. 262nd out of about 6,000 is in the top 5%.
One may wonder that if Dykstra was scaring the umpires into submission with his vague threats after a bad call, would this spill over to his teammates? If teammates of Dykstra also saw similar spikes in walk rate, this might give us a bit more evidence that something was amiss. Let’s take a look at more prominent teammates John Kruk and Darren Daulton (and let’s also be clear I’m not implicating them in this supposed scheme).
Interestingly, we also see spikes for these two players, though they have similarly short careers with sporadic play time at each end of the career trajectory (particularly Daulton, who did see more than 181 PAs until 1989). Given the rather small samples prior to 1988 or 1989, it may be best to focus on these few years after 1988, rather than the noisy early data.
In this case, we see a bit more of a jump at the point implied by Dykstra in the interview. But things aren’t lining up here. Daulton and Kruk started peaking prior to 1993, and they both dropped off in 1994 rather quickly, with Dykstra following in 1995. Plus, Dykstra doesn’t mention the specific year he started this. He seemed to imply 1993 and 1994 (the years he led the league in walks) were the ones of interest. But a spike prior to this among his teammates tells us they might not have been getting much benefit here, and we’re just looking at natural progression of player skill. Still not particularly convincing, although we can see why the Phillies made the World Series in 1993: excellent years from all 3 of these guys (it is worth noting that Dave Hollins also had a nice year, with an up to that point career high walk rate, which he would eclipse later in 1996).
Of course, this is just a sample of players. If we expect spillovers to Kruk and Daulton, why not the rest of the team? Here is the Phillies’ walk rates from season to season. Let’s plot the entire Phillies team against each of the other (non-1990s expansion) teams in the league.
OK. So there again seems to be a jump here in 1993–as we would expect when we already know 3 key players saw a jump in this statistic–but they hardly look to be any sort of outlier as a team. Sure, maybe something is going on. Then again, maybe they just all hit their prime at the right time. It happens, and it’s not completely out of the question here. Plus, this marked a time when the walk rate across the entire league had just begun its increase through 2000. Further, we might also expect that the Dykstra effects could spill over to pitchers. However, there isn’t much evidence for this in the data from what I can see.
All in all, maybe there’s some evidence that Dykstra was benefiting from some sort of scheme. The Phillies definitely had some good teams during this time period when he claims to have hired private investigators, and some of those skills are directly tied to what umpires may have some control over. But we’d want to look at bit more into expectations about changes in walk rates. Offense was on the rise at the time of these claims, and especially so after the player strike, when Dykstra left the game. It is common for players to improve their eye as they get more experience in the league. It’s tough to say from the outside whether anything was going on here, and this is anything but a rigorous analysis of the data.
We have some evidence of improvement of Dykstra and his teammates in the plate discipline department, as well as Dykstra’s apparent jump in ISO power in 1993 and 1994. It might be worth looking at how Dykstra’s walk rate changed relative to others his age during this time period. There’s plenty more we could do with the data, but it would take a bit more than a blog post to do a full treatment of this sort of forensic investigation. I’ll leave that for another day, and I think it would be an interesting to delve into a bit further.