Tupper Lake man pivots from studying acid rain to baseball scores
By Tim Rowland
And the best single-season home run hitter of all time was — Babe Ruth? Barry Bonds? Chris Davis? Wait, Chris who?
Don’t be too fast to respond until you’ve read “Jacks: The Most Incredible Home Run Seasons in MLB History,” a book (available on Amazon) by climate scientist and numbers guy Jed Dukett of Tupper Lake that analyzes home runs, known in baseball parlance as jacks, and standardizes them through baseball’s disparate eras.
To Dukett, there isn’t all that much difference between a statistical analysis of Lake Howard and Washington Senators slugger Frank Howard. “I look at the chemistry of Adirondack ponds the way I look at the back of a baseball card,” said Dukett, who was on the vanguard of scientists studying the effects of acid rain — an environmental success story that resulted in the installation of scrubbers on the stacks of Midwestern, coal-fired power plants.
The solution to the problem of acid rain ended fish mortality in high-elevation Adirondack ponds, and it also ended Dukett’s employment as a contractor assigned to study a specific issue. But the newfound free time allowed him to turn his attention to baseball, his lifetime love.
That love had been dealt a blow in 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa mesmerized the nation with dueling home runs nightly, resulting in the shattering of Roger Maris’ single-season home record of 61. McGwire hit 70 that year and Sosa 66; Dukett writes that he celebrated the season by purchasing a commemorative card of McGwire’s 62nd home run from the QVC shopping channel.
But Dukett came to learn that he’d been had — not by QVC, but by McGwire, who along with Barry Bonds became the face of baseball’s steroid era. “We found out we’d been fooled, and a lot of us here hurt,” he said.
Out of the acid rain business, Dukett started wondering if there might be a mathematical way to right the ship, to subtract out all the shenanigans and create a metric that would put home run hitters on a level playing field.
Steroids are the most obvious example of home run inequity, but not the only one. Rule changes, like lowering the pitchers’ mound, can affect home run totals. So can juiced baseballs or the introduction of expansion teams that water down the pitching talent.
Dukett created a formula that assigns players a “Jacks score” by analyzing seasonal deviations among home run leaders. For example, in 1998, Bonds and Sosa weren’t the only ones hitting eye-opening numbers of homers.
That indicated that McGwire’s 70 homers weren’t quite as impressive as they seemed at first blush. It was later that baseball fans came to understand that this plethora of power was chemically fueled, but, under Dukett’s formula, it would have been apparent back in 1998 that “something” was amiss, even if no one yet knew what that something was.
By contrast, Jose Bautista hit 54 homers in 2010, a year that no one else even hit 40 — an achievement that was grossly overlooked in light of steroid-assisted totals. “We were like ‘ho-hum, he hit 54,’” Dukett said. “I thought there’s got to be a better way to make this mean something.”
“Jacks” recognizes Babe Ruth as the greatest of all time, but the book focuses more on the modern, post-1960 era. An admitted Yankees fan and admirer of good guys, Dukett speaks fondly of Roger Maris (even though the man who broke Ruth’s single-season homer record doesn’t do particularly well under Dukett’s system) and Ken Griffey Jr., who had the misfortune of playing in the era of McGwire and Sosa.
JOIN A COMMUNITY OF PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT ADIRONDACK JOURNALISM
Dukett’s system shows that, even subtracting out the steroid dividend, the top home run hitters were still very good. Barry Bonds, the current single-season home run leader with 73, held the modern-era Jacks score following his 2001 season, followed by McGwire’s 1998 season.
To restore equilibrium in the game in his mind, some slugger would have to beat Bonds and McGwire, Duquett wrote. Bautista came close, but just missed. A hero finally arrived in the unlikely form of Chris Davis, who hit 53 taters for the Baltimore Orioles in 2013, putting his Jacks score just ahead of Bonds.
But as if to prove nothing is ever simple, Davis was later suspended for using amphetamines, a common drug in 20th century clubhouses.
Both were surpassed by Aaron Judge, whose 62-homer season last year is viewed by some purists as the real single-season (non-steroid assisted) season. For Dukett, Judge had indeed meted out some long-overdue justice.
Don’t miss a thing
Sign up for our “Adk News Briefing” newsletter, a weekly look at the hottest Adirondack stories