2016: not so bad a year for baseball passings

Much has been made of the apparently large number of celebrity passings during 2016. We thought we’d have a look back at 2016 in MLB, and see how the year stacked up.  Short answer: In terms of former MLB players who have gotten their next call-up, 2016 was a rather typical year.

As of this writing, 84 former MLB players have been identified as having passed away during the 2016 calendar year. This figure is surely not quite complete, as reports do trickle in over time, but experience of previous years suggests we can make a good estimate two weeks into 2017. This figure compares to 88 each in 2015 and 2014. The last year in which 100 former MLBers passed away was 2011.

These are rather typical figures for recent years. In fact, the bad years for MLB passings were the 1960s: every year from 1958 through 1974 saw at least 100, peaking at 142 in 1969 and 140 in 1970.

A corollary of this is that the number of people living today who played in MLB is larger than ever.  Set against last year’s death toll of 84 are the 258 players who saw their first MLB action. The last years which did not see an increase in the living MLB fraternity were 1976 and 1970 (in which debuts exactly equal known deaths).  The worst single year was 1959, in which the 91 debutants were overshadowed by the 119 passings, for a net population decrease of 28.

We should note here that there are currently 174 who debuted before 1911 for whom no year of death is yet known. Filtering them out, we can estimate that the average age currently of living people who have appeared in MLB is around 49.5. (I have computed this crudely as 2016 – average birth year + 1/2, which should be good enough for present purposes.) That is up from about 49.1 in 2010 and 48.6 in 2000. But in 1990 it was around 49.0 and in 1960 48.4; you have to go back to, for example, 1940, when it was 46.9, or 1930 (44.1) to see a substantial shift.

The combination of expansion and more fluid rosters have more than compensated for the fact that people live longer. The average age of those who passed in 2016 (which again I have crudely estimated as death year – birth year) was 78.6; it has been over 78 almost every year since 2000, but was 76.6 in 1990, 74.4 in 1980, 69.3 in 1970, 70.4 in 1960, 66.7 in 1950… you get the drift.

However, it seems improbable that this trend of debuts outstripping passings can continue indefinitely; one would not think that too much more expansion would be in the cards any time soon, and likewise increasing the debut count would presumably require changes to roster rules.  But it could be quite some time. There are somewhere around 9449 current and former players who debuted since 1937 for whom we don’t have a death date; of them only about 1348 are over 70, 479 are over 80, and 76 are over 90.  It would be interesting for someone a bit more actuarially inclined to estimate when we might next see deaths matching debuts given the current age profile of MLBers.

Meanwhile, for those who are interesting, here are the counts of debuts and (known) deaths of (current or former) players, by year, since 1871:

year debuts deaths net
1871 115 0 115
1872 64 2 62
1873 34 1 33
1874 30 1 29
1875 84 1 83
1876 28 2 26
1877 18 1 17
1878 21 1 20
1879 55 3 52
1880 38 1 37
1881 21 10 11
1882 95 2 93
1883 79 4 75
1884 356 6 350
1885 51 5 46
1886 73 10 63
1887 73 6 67
1888 75 17 58
1889 71 11 60
1890 191 11 180
1891 78 16 62
1892 54 18 36
1893 56 19 37
1894 63 20 43
1895 85 20 65
1896 62 12 50
1897 59 23 36
1898 83 19 64
1899 81 20 61
1900 21 23 -2
1901 131 25 106
1902 138 22 116
1903 98 26 72
1904 92 28 64
1905 114 35 79
1906 109 21 88
1907 99 30 69
1908 124 30 94
1909 158 29 129
1910 155 36 119
1911 188 30 158
1912 221 42 179
1913 201 34 167
1914 235 37 198
1915 178 43 135
1916 100 47 53
1917 93 39 54
1918 76 48 28
1919 99 36 63
1920 137 43 94
1921 119 37 82
1922 137 53 84
1923 149 49 100
1924 123 50 73
1925 116 39 77
1926 96 56 40
1927 108 48 60
1928 112 64 48
1929 109 73 36
1930 98 54 44
1931 102 52 50
1932 93 54 39
1933 70 65 5
1934 113 80 33
1935 115 64 51
1936 101 69 32
1937 110 88 22
1938 109 75 34
1939 127 55 72
1940 104 79 25
1941 120 79 41
1942 110 73 37
1943 146 73 73
1944 153 73 80
1945 124 81 43
1946 107 74 33
1947 98 93 5
1948 114 80 34
1949 92 90 2
1950 105 94 11
1951 110 91 19
1952 114 83 31
1953 100 93 7
1954 121 78 43
1955 137 99 38
1956 89 98 -9
1957 96 82 14
1958 107 101 6
1959 91 119 -28
1960 104 103 1
1961 112 111 1
1962 147 121 26
1963 132 110 22
1964 130 108 22
1965 117 112 5
1966 103 109 -6
1967 115 104 11
1968 108 122 -14
1969 183 142 41
1970 140 140 0
1971 113 102 11
1972 122 100 22
1973 131 108 23
1974 144 110 34
1975 130 91 39
1976 106 106 0
1977 159 102 57
1978 148 90 58
1979 123 94 29
1980 145 117 28
1981 146 90 56
1982 142 100 42
1983 158 85 73
1984 132 88 44
1985 125 74 51
1986 164 99 65
1987 155 72 83
1988 141 83 58
1989 150 80 70
1990 169 84 85
1991 192 95 97
1992 162 76 86
1993 203 106 97
1994 114 101 13
1995 247 81 166
1996 194 100 94
1997 180 97 83
1998 208 76 132
1999 210 79 131
2000 204 78 126
2001 199 92 107
2002 204 98 106
2003 182 91 91
2004 208 86 122
2005 206 79 127
2006 221 94 127
2007 211 80 131
2008 238 83 155
2009 204 79 125
2010 203 96 107
2011 239 100 139
2012 206 78 128
2013 230 95 135
2014 234 88 146
2015 254 88 166
2016 258 84 174