• Baseball Statistics & Understanding

    Posted by on February 4th, 2013 · Comments (6)

    Via Ken Davidoff today with a h/t to BBTF -

    In 2006, Jerome Holtzman, a legendary Chicago baseball writer who became MLB’s official historian in 1999, told Selig that he thought the reaction to the “Steroid Era” had been overblown. That the game had been filled with this sort of stuff from its inception. Selig responded with an assignment: Put something on paper for me. Give me some context to what we’re seeing now.

    Holtzman responded with a document that went back to the start of the 20th century. It mentioned gamblers and segregation, corked bats and scuffed balls, amphetamines and steroids. Selig still has it in his office today.

    Holtzman died in 2008. His successor as MLB historian, the great John Thorn, said this to me on Friday: “No number is pure, and no number can be given a rich understanding absent context. Every number has a virtual asterisk alongside it.”

    He added this: “I believe that the average fan looks at numbers like 511 (Cy Young’s wins) or 714 (Ruth’s homers) or 755 (Aaron’s homers) or 762 (Bonds’ homers) as a royal road to understanding. There is no royal road. There is no short cut. They are imperishable remains of events that are vanished. This is all we have. That’s why we venerate them.

    “We look at the numbers differently than other sports in part because baseball is a stop-action game. The memories adhere. That’s one of the reasons that baseball is the great game of memory and conversation.

    “Statistics help, but sometimes they get in the way of understanding.”

    I dunno. I still think that stats, in context, are useful – when you look at them in terms of relativity to the era of play and the body of work a player has crafted. And, if someone who was always “just” a 30-homer guy all of a sudden starts hitting 50-long balls a year, and it’s not the result of his park, then you have to look at the rest of the league. And, if he’s only one of a few doing it, then something is wrong. And, that’s worth noting.

    Comments on Baseball Statistics & Understanding

    1. KPOcala
      February 4th, 2013 | 9:48 pm

      Thanks for that analysis. Yours, and the last three paragraphs of Holztman’s. This is exactly why I’ve had a “problem” with sports and PEDs. And also, that it burns me up that I have no way of judging today’s players from those of, say, pre-1985. So much fun arguing the merits of different players and different eras is lost because of this “issue”.

    2. Raf
      February 5th, 2013 | 12:04 am

      So we’ve had expansion in 1993 & 1998. Players have more resources at their disposals now, what with scouting and video and dissecting tendencies. With the specialization of pitching, we have more lousy pitchers plying their trade out of the bullpen.

      Players travel first class. Stay at top flight hotels. Nothing to do but work on their trade. Whether or not it’s “those good vitamins” (a la Lenny Dykstra), or the quality of food or the team and players taking overall better care of themselves, players are bigger and stronger than they were 10, 15, 20 years ago. Cal Ripken was a big deal, because shortstops weren’t built like that. Now it’s surprising when you don’t see a shortstop who is built like David Eckstein.

      One other thing I’ve always wondered is that if there has been a spike in HR’s, why hasn’t there been a corresponding spike in singles and doubles? Or if there have been an increase, why hasn’t it been covered?

    3. MJ Recanati
      February 5th, 2013 | 8:15 am

      @ Raf:
      Yep. People focusing on the wrong things (and for the wrong reasons).

    4. KPOcala
      February 5th, 2013 | 11:39 am

      @ Raf:Maybe the doubles have gone for HR’s, the singles going for fly-outs, or doubles? It Would make an interesting study….I would also have to wonder if the higher K rates resulted in less hits as well……

    5. Raf
      February 5th, 2013 | 12:59 pm

      @ KPOcala:
      It’s possible
      http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/2B_season.shtml

      But if people are swinging for the fences (implied in singles for fly outs), that would also explain the increase in HR’s. Also, ever see some of those pitches? Meatballs down the middle, hanging breaking balls, etc. Pitches that should be hit for HR’s.

      If the game has developed to the point of “3 true outcomes” then that would explain the spike in home runs as well. If you’re always swinging for the fences, then you should run into a few every so often. Then again, you look at the career of someone like Tony Batista…

    6. KPOcala
      February 6th, 2013 | 1:15 pm

      @ Raf:Raf, I believe it was Reggie that said something to the effect, ‘HR hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords’ or something to that effect. Betcha some players and agents took notice.. ;)

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