February 27, 2017

What If Baseball Statistics Did Not Exist?

A very interesting article from ESPN's Sam Miller about a baseball world without statistics of any kind:
What if some ministry of information outlawed the collection of baseball statistics and we were all left to judge players exclusively by what we saw, what we perceived and what we remembered? Who would be perceived as the best player in baseball? ...

Imagine you're watching a game on Opening Day. If you're paying close attention, you might notice that one guy goes hitless, strikes out a couple times and makes the final out of the game. Maybe he's lodged in your memory because of that final out, so you notice he goes hitless in the second game too. Finally, he gets two hits in the third game and one in the fourth and one in the fifth. Is he good? How about if he goes hitless in the next game but then homers in the seventh, then goes hitless, then two singles, then hitless, then 1-for-4, then 1-for-4, then 1-for-4, then hitless, then three hits. Is he good?

Most likely, you have no idea. Even right now, staring at that paragraph, you have no idea because you aren't allowed to add all those games up and figure out whether they add up to something good. In fact, I can tell you what they add up to -- a .259/.359/.370 slash line -- and you still don't know if they're any good unless you know everybody else's slash lines. And that's just one guy, whom you happen to be paying suspiciously close attention to. There are 750 active players, spread out across 15 games every day. What are the odds you'd remember all 60 plate appearances from one player if you were trying to keep track of hundreds?
This is something I have thought a lot about, especially when crotchety sportswriters and ignorant fans bemoan (and ridicule) the introduction of new (and better) ways of measuring player performance. (As though the very idea of possessing more information is inherently bad.)

No one is capable of watching and retaining the memory of every single pitch of every single game of every single season, of every single fielding play or every runner on the base paths, year after year after year. We need information about those thousands of at-bats, those catches and extra bases taken; we need records of everything that happens on the field; we need statistics. The game is nearly meaningless without them. And the more precise and accurate those statistics are, the better we can understand and appreciate the game and its players.

1 comment:

Zenslinger said...

Yeah. It's easy to see how subjective one can be based on games you happen to watch. I thought Melancon's new Giants contract was a huge overpay -- largely because he didn't do well in his short stint as a Red Sox. I also felt like Zeigler was bad for us -- untrue. Ditto every other subjective Cafardoesque narrative: Dice-K was overhyped and sucked (he had two good-to-excellent years, got hurt, and was never the same.) Ellsbury is a wimp (you take a crazy person's knee to the ribs in a collison and see how quickly you come back to peak form.)

It's part of the reason why other sports seem so empty of meaning and interest to me. Stats have come up a bit in a sport like hockey, but there's no way to say, "OK, this guy is slightly above/below average overall." The revolution in statistics has only increased my joy in the game.