Your Great-Grandfather's Stats
There is nothing wrong with baseball's new statistics, EqA, VORP, win percentage, etc., except for when their creators say that old statistics are useless.
First, this is a fool's errand. Baseball is not a game built on innovation. The last new bright idea the sport embraced, widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs, screwed up the game-and especially its statistics so badly that the sabermetric revolution has become collateral damage. The Associated Press is never going to let Rob Neyer or the gang at FireJoeMorgan design an improved box score template for the 21st century.
Second, the not so hidden implication of the folks who sneer at batting average, pitcher's wins, runs scored, RBI, and pretty much all stats invented before 2000 except slugging percentage and home runs is that everyone in baseball was pretty stupid back in the day. What a dope that John McGraw must have been to think Ty Cobb's batting average meant anything about what kind of player he was.
This is both arrogant and dangerous. People learn new things as time passes, but baseball ain't new, and the idea that folks were way dumber in the dead-ball era is laughable. Nils Bohr and Albert Einstein were doing their best work at the time. Also Sigmund Freud. And it creates the precedent that sabermetricians of the 22nd century will be laughing at VORP as failing to account for effects of global warming on ballparks built after 2010 or something similar.
One understands the sabermetricians' defensive contempt for old stats. They take a huge amount of unwarranted guff from baseball writers of my generation, many of whom are personal friends, who in the final analysis just don't want to go to all the trouble of learning all those damn new abbreviations. I include myself in that group, by the way. I have no quarrel with the new stats, which are perfectly valid. I just don't think they illustrate any truths about the sport most fans don't already know. They're not bad stats, they're good stats. They're just not good enough stats to justify kicking the old stats out of the arithmetical lineup.
What IS a baseball statistic? Basically, it's shorthand. A stat is a numerical expression of things that happen in baseball games that help us understand those events without using all the words needed to describe them. Stats SIGNIFY things. It is my contention that the old stats have lingered on not merely because baseball is an incorrigibly hidebound game with a reactionary culture, although it is, but because what they signify is important. Since hypothesis should be subjected to rigorous testing, I will examine the two oldest and most discredited of the old stats, batting average and pitcher's wins.
Batting average has so few friends managers sometimes dump on it these days. Yet it endures, and rightly so. Yes, batting average is only a subset of reaching base, and has no relationship to the one statistic that reflects one of the two big in-game changes in baseball in the 20th century, the prevalence of the home run. But batting average is not a passive subset. It DRIVES on-base percentage. It has at least equal descriptive power of a hitter's ability as does their home run total and in most cases, more.
The simple fact is, there aren't many cases where a player with a mediocre or worse batting average enjoys a high on-base percentage. You don't get many hits, you don't get many walks, because pitchers aren't afraid to throw you strikes. There are power-hitting exceptions to this rule, like Jason Giambi, but not many. And Giambi's subpar batting average is rightly seen as an indictment of his skills. Pitch Jason tough, you should get him out.
Let's take the two guys who may well finish first and second in the National League MVP voting, Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols. Howard leads the majors in homers and RBI. He's a .250 hitter. Pujols' power totals are good but not as good as Howard's. He's hitting .350.
That .100 point difference reflects an obvious truth. Pujols is a better hitter than Howard. Pujols is a classic great batter. Howard is a freak. His batting average reflects the odd fact he's a tremendous hitter who has trouble hitting the ball at all. Howard's prodigious strikeout totals indicate he may well have swung and missed more pitches than he put in play in 2008.
This doesn't mean Howard isn't a terrific player. Homers don't lie. There have been similar batters to Howard in history, and at least of three of them, Ralph Kiner, Harmon Killebrew, and Reggie Jackson, are all in the Hall of Fame. But there can't be anyone involved with baseball, not even this lifelong Phillies fan, who wouldn't admit Pujols is the more complete and therefore more accomplished hitter. A player with a .250 average had damn well better be getting lots of RBI to earn his keep, or else winning a Gold Glove at shortstop or catcher. A .350 hitter is by definition of that stat alone a valuable player who helps his team win a lot of games.
Batting average has signficance, and always will. My guess is it'll be flashed on the scoreboards of ballparks when the game is being played on Mars.
Pitcher's wins is a stat whose value HAS changed. That's because pitching has changed. Winning pitcher used to have tremendous significance. Today, not so much, and in some cases, none whatsoever. But it still means something, just something different.
In 1908, winning and losing pitcher equaled "starting pitcher." Case in point, some run-of-the-mill righty named Christy Mathewson. Big Six appeared in 56 games and had 48 decisions (37-11). He also had five saves, which led the National League. Mathewson did not make "quality starts." His job was to provide quality finishes. Wins are the perfect metric to capture that duty.
Then came relief pitcher, followed by Tony LaRussa's theory, now common practice, that whole staffs win or lose games, not individual pitchers. Mathewson threw 34 complete games that season. In 2008, a pitcher with more than 5 is considered a throwback iron man. Winning pitcher is an honor that is often awarded by default. How many 13-8 slugfests with 12 pitching changes have we all seen where the winning hurler was selected by default? The official scorer threw his pencil in the air and said, "Hey, he sucked the least today, he gets the win."
To take the most extreme example of how wins have changed, look at any closer. Take, for example, Mariano Rivera. Rivera has 5 wins this season, and 3 of them represent FAILURE, not success. They were games where he blew a save and his teammates bailed him out by coming back to score runs.
In the case of relievers, wins have devolved to be nearly meaningless. A sensible reform would be to drop the idea that a game has to HAVE a winning pitcher. In those 13-8 slugfests, the official scorer could simply say, "nobody deserves a W today."
For starting pitchers, wins still mean something, just as much as they once did. A W equals "pitched at least five innings and left the game with his team having a lead the rest of the team didn't blow." That's not a neglible contribution, but it's not one that would turn my head were a salary arbitrator.
Again, I believe the starting pitcher's W could recover its lost dignity and significance with another simple reform. All that's needed is to extend the number of innings a starter must pitch to qualify for a win. Move it from 5 to 7. A win would no longer be an indication of the horseshit "quality start." Given the way managers remove starters at the slightest hint of difficulty, the 7-inning win would signify that the starter was dominant for the lion's share of the game. He contributed enough to the win to earn a W as an individual honor.
Baseball's scoring rules are way more complicated than the bailout bill, and a change of that magnitude is not going to happen in my lifetime. But it is better to light a blog post than curse the dark hole of statistics.
My goal is peace in our time. As a representive of the proud tribe of old-school ball scribes, I offer this up to the figure filberts (early 20th century term for sabermetricians) as a gesture towards ending a useless, stupid, and above all, boring, war.
HEAD FOR THE HILLS!!!! (See story on page B18)
Rupert Murdoch, who paid my wages from 1987-1994, has one thing in common with his former employee. We both like big banner headlines. It's a tabloid thing. There's something about a catchy headline that, well, catches us.
The thing is, I read newspapers. Murdoch owns 'em. Most especially, he owns the "Wall Street Journal." There has been a lot of big news in finance recently, and I have noticed that under Murdoch, the Journal has featured a big banner headline every day of the alleged "crisis." This almost never happened under the previous fuddy-duddy ownership team.
I hate to disagree with a mogul, but I think Mr. Murdoch may be a making a mistake here. The "Journal" isn't any old paper. It reports on money-a subject people take to heart like no other.
Put it this way. Most big banner headlines in general-interest newspapers are, of course, bad news. But sometimes they're not. "MAN WALKS ON MOON." "HOME TEAM WINS SUPER BOWL." The reader can go out to the end of his driveway, spy the big type, and not be quite sure the story is about a catastrophe.
A banner headline in the Journal is NEVER good. There just isn't ever gonna be a financial story whose headline is "EVERYONE'S RICH, INCLUDING YOU!" Big screaming type on the front page of this particular newspaper creates no reaction but stark fear.
Considering the amount of money the average Journal subscriber has, and their median age, which I'm guessing is in the late 40s-early 50s range, Murdoch's penchant for big banner headlines might just infarct and aneurize its way to a substantial loss in the newspaper's circulation base.
Troy Brown, all the football player anyone would ever want, retired today. Although the two men could not be more different, in that Brown is good fellow and his athletic doppleganger is a twisted sleaze, AS A PLAYER in his sport, the person Brown most reminded me of was Pete Rose.
Brown and Rose shared an invaluable trait. They had more ways to help win a game than others in their sports. Whatever it took to win, they made happen.
Brown was a wide receiver and the career Patriots' reception leader. Rose had more career base hits than any other player. And yet, their signature plays had nothing to do with those specialties. They were examples of improvisational art.
For Rose (at least if you're a Phillies fan, and I am), the self-defining play was in the field, when he caught the pop foul that dropped out of Bob Boone's catcher's mitt in Game 6 of the 1980 World Series. There have been many, well, a good number anyhow, of players greater than Rose in baseball history. None of 'em, not Mays, not Gehrig, not Wagner, could have made that particular play. Just Pete.
Brown's most memorable play, cited by Bill Belichick I'm happy to say, was his return of a blocked field goal followed by a lateral for a touchdown in the 2001 AFC Championship Game against the Steelers. Brown, who a Pro Bowl wideout that year, was on the field to guard against a fake field goal play that went outside.
Think about that one for a minute. Imagine what Terrell Owens (a better pass catcher than Brown) would say to Wade Phillips if the Cowboys' coach suggests he pull that duty this Sunday. Special teams grunt work. Basically, Brown was being asked to perform night watchman duty on the play.
And Brown had the creativity, reflexes, and poise to turn a nothing assignment into a touchdown, mixed in with the one play that NEVER works, a lateral. The odds on that play being repeated are the same odds we get our money back from Hank Paulson's bailout. No bet. There aren't any other players in the NFL with the mental, physical, and emotional skill set to make that happen.
Almost forgot to mention. Brown had ALREADY run back a punt for a touchdown in that game. He also caught 8 passes for 121 yards. Otherwise, he took the day off.
Brown was a wide receiver in several Super Bowl victories and a defensive back in another. When he was unable to dress for a Patriots Super Bowl, they lost. Coincidence? Perhaps.
It is a pleasure to write about Troy Brown, football player. One only hopes the pleasure will return when Brown's career receives the official honors its deserves. As far as I'm concerned, it deserves his sport's ultimate honor-even though he won't get it.
Pete Rose isn't in Cooperstown because he bet on baseball. Troy Brown's bust will never see Canton, Ohio because while everyone in the football world says it's a team game, not enough of them really believe it.
Football is a Simple Game, Chapter the Millionth
A team can have Tom Brady or Sammy Baugh at quarterback. It can have Bill Belichick or Paul Brown as head coach. In the NFL, when said team allows 200 yards and four touchdowns rushing, it loses and loses badly.
An addendum to said axiom. When a team has had two wins in which goal-line stands were key elements of the victory, it's defense has used up a great deal of its season quota of big play karma.
House Pride of the Yankees
The nostalgia machine is in full force. By the end of September, the air at 161st St and Jerome Ave. will be so thick and sweet with sentimentality, it'd choke the producers of "Extreme Makeover."
The most fabled ballpark in all of sports, Yankee Stadium, is in its last days. Cue the Babe Ruth footage. Cue Gary Cooper, Reggie Jackson, several Popes, and Joe Louis. While you're at it, cue consumer fraud. The "last" days of the "old" Yankee Stadium are a disgraceful shuck made possible only because America abolished history as being too difficult to remember sometime in the 1990s. It's an attempt to wring a few more bucks out of the most lucrative franchise extant.
What's being demolished this winter, and, may I add, good riddance, isn't old at all. It's the "formerly new" Yankee Stadium, another monument to the nadir of architectural design, the '70s. The "original" or "real" Yankee Stadium closed for the 1974 and 1975 seasons while it was
"renovated" at, need I add, taxpayer expense. The Yanks shared Shea Stadium with the Mets.
Were the 1970s so long ago nobody remembers this? I do, and while not young, I'm not quite in Grandpa Simpson territory yet. In fact, I have been to the real Yankee Stadium. Went to the home opener of that 1973 season with Rusty and Bernice Heilprin and Neil Silverman. We got stoned, drank beer, ate far too many peanuts, and watched New York thump the Red Sox.
The current Stadium is nothing like the original. Death Valley was removed, the fences were made higher, the monuments were taken out of play, and the facade removed. The House That Ruth Built was transformed into the House Some City Planners Approved, much more like other parks than before, but with wider concourses. Yippee. What'd history ever do for George Steinbrenner, other than make him richer than he'd ever dreamed?
Nobody made much of a fuss over this, because the Yanks started winning when the renovated Stadium opened in 1976, and pretty much kept on winning, with a few dry spells. As a building, the formerly new Stadium lacks charm and comfort, but stuff happened there. Reggie. Rivera. Game 7 ALCS, the Yankees kept on making memories inside a ballpark that was a shell of its former self.
So pardon me for not choking up. I may not stand before you the luckiest man on earth, but at least my memory's still working. Saying farewell to the current Yankee Stadium is saying farewell to a structure that was neither fish nor fowl, one that tried to straddle history, not enshrine it.
The "newest" Yankee Stadium is likely to be more expensive than I can tolerate. But at least it won't pretend it's old.
People forget, especially people who
The Quarterback as Laboratory Subject
Hypothesis: A quarterback who did not throw an interception for an entire season would give his team a better chance of winning the Super Bowl than one who set a record for touchdown passes.
Past research: No quarterback has thrown enough passes to be eligible for the season's quarterback ratings without throwing an interception. Not one. Ever. Joe Ferguson of the Bills had 151 pass attempts with only one pick in 1976. That's the closest anyone ever came, and the Bills didn't win the Super Bowl that year, obviously.
BUT, there have been two quarterbacks who set a record for touchdown passes in a season, had their teams reach the Super Bowl, and both those teams lost. Dan Marino of the 1984 Dolphins, and Tom Brady of the 2007 Patriots.
This leaves Matt Cassel. Two games, 46 attempts, no interceptions, two wins. In the interests of science, perhaps Matt can keep it up.
There's a Place for Matt Cassell in Here Somewhere
Baseball and football comparisons are dangerous. Nevertheless, it is worth nothing that the Red Sox, a very good team, subtracted Manny Ramirez, a great hitter, from their lineup and replaced him with Jason Bay, a nice player, and kept on winning.
That is, after all, all the Patriots want Matt Cassel to be-a nice player. Make a few plays to keep the chains moving. Get the ball to Randy every so often. Don't screw up. The the other guys do it. Were I Bill Belichick, I would have had Cassel watch Super Bowl XLII, with the message "Tom spent that game picking the grass out of his ears-and we still almost won. You don't have to be the hero."
Cassel could be an enormous flop. My point is, he's not auditioning for Canton this season. He is attempting to fit into a select group of 32 starting NFL quarterbacks-more than of whom, just like Matt, has the job because his team didn't have anybody else. He's entering as a newbie, but he's not in remedial signal-calling necessarily.
Let's review the NFL quarterback situation, leaving Cassel out.
1. Jets. Brett Favre. Hall of Famer coming out of short retirement. If not in twilight of career, the Jets had better keep the lights on anyway.
2. Bills. Trent Edwards. Promising young player
3. Dolphins. Chad Pennington. Excellent player with serious health-related limitations, such as throwing the ball past 10 yards.
1. Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger. Excellent quarterback.
2. Bengals. Carson Palmer. Ditto.
3. Browns. Derek Anderson. One good year.
4. Ravens. Joe Flacco. Rookie.
1. Colts. Peyton Manning. Hall of Famer recovering from surgery.
2. Jaguars. David Garrard. Has been successful-in one year as starter.
3. Titans. Vince Young. Oy!
4. Texas. Matt Schaub. A classic great backup turned meh starter.
1. Chargers. Philip Rivers. Very good player.
2. Broncos. Jay Cutler. Highly touted, but I don't see it.
3. Chiefs. Damon Huard. Why can't we get guys like that?
4. Raiders. JaMarcus Russell. Might as well be rookie.
1. Cowboys. Tony Romo. Pro Bowler
2. Eagles. Donovan McNabb. Pro Bowler who gets hurt a lot.
3. Giants. Eli Manning. Super Bowl champ with, shall we say, an erratic history of past performance.
4. Redskins. Jason Campbell. Mediocre at best.
1. Saints. Drew Brees. Good player.
2. Bucs. Brian Griese. Somewhere between journeyman and stiff.
3. Falcons. Matt Ryan. Rookie.
4. Panthers. Jake Delhomme. Good player who gets hurt a lot.
1. Packers. Aaron Rodgers. Making second NFL start today.
2. Vikings. Tahardtospell Jackson. The next Brian Griese.
3. Bears. Kyle Orton. Wishes he was as good as Brian Griese.
4. Lions. Jon Kitna. Probably the median member of this group.
1. Seahawks. Matt Hasselbeck. Quality player.
2. Rams. Marc Bulger. Good player, hard to tell on this team.
3. 49ers. J. T. O'Sullivan. Personally selected by Mike Martz. Enough said.
4. Cardinals. Kurt Warner. Weirdest career in NFL history. Averages out to journeyman.
There you have it. As a body, the NFL quarterbacks should not intimidate Cassell. This is a club where he can be a member. He doesn't need to be Brady. Hell, Cassell doesn't even need to be Eli Manning. If he can approximate the MEDIAN level of quarterback performance, that is, if he can be roughly as good as Jon Kitna, the Patriots will win the AFC East with ease.
The Corner of "42nd Street" and Route One
As understudies go, Matt Cassell wasn't quite Ruby Keeler. Close, though.
In his first action in an NFL game where the issue was in doubt, Cassell turned in the following contributions to the Patriots' 17-10 victory over the Chiefs last Sunday. He averaged over 8 yards a pass attempt. Cassell made a big play to get out from inside the Pats' five-yard line (a skill at which Tom Brady is unsurpassed in history). He led a 98-yard touchdown drive, led another TD drive after the Pats forced a turnover, and, above all, had no interceptions.
That's more than just "managing the game." Those are positive contributions that any quarterback would be happy to turn in each Sunday. Brady, Peyton Manning, anyone. So Cassell handled his traumatic battlefield promotion better than anyone, himself included, could have imagined.
As to whether Cassell can keep that stuff up for an entire season, nobody knows and Bill Belichick doesn't intend to try and find out. Cassell will be given the playbook many NFL quarterbacks receive, a one-page memo that reads "Don't fuck it up."
A large number of NFL teams have had winning seasons with the quarterback mandated to do as little as possible. Some, very few but some, have won Super Bowls that way. I am almost prepared to say that the Patriots can do the first, and more than prepared to say they won't do the latter.
Overreaction is the natural state of mind of New England sports. Many persons who understandably were devasted by Brady's knee injury are now saying that things won't be too bad for the Pats this season-that they could even be great.
All things are possible. But quarterback is kind of an important position. Losing a Hall of Fame quarterback, the reigning Most Valuable Player, leaves a team weaker-much, much weaker. It's all very well to say the rest of the team can make up for Brady's absence. Some games, they will. Some games, they won't come close.
For all the good things Cassell did against Kansas City, the Pats only scored 17 points, and needed a goal-line stand to beat a team minus ITS starting quarterback (I know, it was only Bradie Coyle) that figures to be prominently mentioned in "what should they do with the first draft pick?" speculation by November. This performance should generate neither extreme pessimism nor any form of optimism about the Pats' prospects the rest of the way.
The unknown is the scariest thing of all. As of today, the Patriots are an unknown quantity-unknown to themselves as much as to the rest of us.
If fans and media need an emotional benchmark by which to evaluate the Patriots, let me suggest an easy one. Curiosity.
Who'd Be a Coach?
Bill Belichick doesn't have much to say after a game. All that thinking and fretting is very tiring, and truth to tell, the Pats coach can barely stand up after the final gun, win or lose. I've always been very understanding of those horrid, information-free cliches Belichick spouts in his post-game pressers. They come from taking a standing eight-count in the bout of life.
So imagine my astonishment at Belichick's performance after today's game with the Chiefs, which we can safely call a moderately stressful one for him. A goal-line stand to preserve victory is tough enough. A knee injury of unknown severity to Tom Brady, well, that's the ultimate Code Blue for the New England franchise.
And yet, Belichick was cracking jokes. Those dry sidelong wisecracks he made about reporters not wanting to know about Brady and the one about the Pats medical staff, those were jokes. Belichick's sense of humor is understated. This is in direct opposition to the exaggerated comic style of today, so his wit passes many by, but he was making semi-funnies in what could be a dire situation, and once, even SMILED when he did it. I saw the guy fail to smile after winning Super Bowls. This was weird.
There are only a few possible conclusions. One, Brady isn't hurt all that badly, and Belichick knows it. That's not how it looked when Tom was helped off the field, however. I've seen knee injuries before. This one didn't look like rubbing dirt on it would help much.
Or, Belichick was simply in shock. Possible, but the coach is a better crisis manager than that. If he didn't feel in control of himself, we would have seen the terse, grim Belichick that so satisfies his critics.
My guess is that Belichick was simply staggered that the Pats won. To survive one's worst nightmare encourages giddiness in the most stoic soul. The moment of ultimate dread for the Pats arrived, and they overcame it. Woo-hoo!
Belichick may not feel that way now, and I'm sure he won't tomorrow. That's the thing about NFL coaches, though, all of them. Sufficient unto their day is the evil thereof, especially on Sundays. On Sunday, there is no such thing as Monday.
The Limits of Public Opinion Research-Another Non-Ideological Political Post.
Survey USA, one of the more reputable of the 11,9754,879 organizations polling the presidential election, conducted a survey it published yesterday on Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. One statistic jumped out of the report, and it had nothing to do with Palin herself.
Seventy-five percent of registered voters polled said they had seen Palin's speech at the Republican convention.
Now, a lot of people did see Palin speak. According to Nielsen's TV ratings, which are an electronic sample of television sets, not people answering questions, 37 million Americans tuned in to hear the newcomer from Alaska. But, lest we forget, our population is over 300 million.
Thirty-seven million people is not three-fourths of all registered voters. It's less than one-third of the people who actually VOTED in the 2004 election. There may be 150 million registered voters.
This leads one to the inescapable conclusion that a significant percentage of registered voters in the survey cited above, maybe as many as half, are big-time liars who didn't want to admit they goofed off on their civic duty and watched "Project Runway." This leads one to the further inescapable conclusion that if people will lie about something so mundane as what they watched on TV last night, their statements on something as personal as voting should be treated with considerable skepticism.
Save Time and Sanity in One Easy Step.
Cable news is bullshit. You don't need to watch it ever again. It has the same relationship to real news as the Frito-Lay corporation has to real food.
This was proven beyond a doubt today when Republican bigwigs Mike Murphy and Peggy Noonan, unaware their mics were live when the camera went off, said some mighty uncomplimentary things about John McCain picking Sarah Palin as his running mate. These statements were, to put at mildly, at variance with their public comments.
So there you have it. All the people interviewed on cable news are lying to you, Republicans, Democrats, vegetarians, all of them. And cable news won't call them on it, because the lies are how it fills the time. Fox, CNN, MSNBC, it's all bullshit, just from different breeds of bull.
If you watch cable news, you will get stupider. You will know less about politics, business, you name it, than you did before tuning in. You will be demeaning yourself, patronizing a business that makes its fortune by knowingly deceiving you.
Give it. Eschew all cable TV but entertainment programming. Oh, and sports and weather. But if you watch ESPN and the Weather Channel, for your own safety, make sure the sound is off.
A Sports Sociological Moment
My son Josh lived his whole life, college included, in Boston, until March, when he moved to New York to seek his fortune. As a sports journalist, I am interested to see how his fandom (which is not extreme) will be affected.
In baseball, nothing has happened. Josh decided to follow and patronize the Mets, to avoid conflicts of interest. Football is a TV sport, and one can root for any team in any large city and still find a community with which to root. New Yorkers hate the Knicks worse than anyone else does these days, so there's little chance Josh will be lured to Woody Allen's dark side.
So far, so unassimilated. Until last night that is. Josh called to proudly announce that he had scarfed a Labor Day ticket to the US Open.
Watching US Open tennis in person is the ultimate New York City sports fan experience. Nobody else does it. The Open is so New York it was in a Seinfeld episode. And doing so on Labor Day, surrounded by swells who came in from the Hamptons to celebrate their end of summer eating $15 hot dogs at staring at Rafael Nadal's pecs, well, it just doesn't get any more gloriously, sickeningly Gotham than that.
So I'm a little worried. If Josh ever quotes Mike Francesa to me, I'll REALLY worry.