Sunday, September 28, 2008

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.


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