Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tell Your Statistics to Shut Up #1

I want to make it clear: I love baseball statistics—have since I was a lad. Reading a box score or a table of batting or pitching statistics is a pastime I thoroughly enjoy; perhaps it appeals to the same odd segment of my mind that has led me at times to peruse musical fake books. Yes, odd bedtime reading, I agree.

Statistical information for professional baseball is venerable: we have a statistical record dating back to the 19th century. Not to say that stats keeping hasn’t changed: indeed, since the 1980s, the introduction of sabermetrics has led to an increasing complexity in the record, as players are now evaluated according to complex mathematical formulas; in addition to being used by teams as an evaluative tool, this information is freely used & quoted by fans of all stripes. I was brought up on the more “traditional” stats, many of them simply a result of counting: how many home runs a batter hit or how many batters a pitcher struck out & so forth. The few “traditional” percentage-based statistics involve formulas using basic division & multiplication.

These traditional statistics have been characterized as painting players’ performances with a broad brush. I think that’s a fair criticism, & I also believe the new stats do overall present a more complex & detailed portrait of each player. Still, having said all this—& also recognizing that within the game itself, most evaluation is still done the “old-fashioned way,” by actually watching players perform in order to evaluate them—I do wonder sometimes about the proliferation of statistical information. What does this proliferation, qua proliferation, mean? I mean, sabermetrics was the subject of a Simpson’s episode, so it’s definitely a cultural “thing.”


An easy answer—& an answer that should never be neglected in analyzing any phenomenon connected to sports in the U.S.—is money. A formidable amount of literature  is produced annually to present & interpret sabermetric statistical information,  both in traditional book form & on the internet. Much sabremetric information is freely available (for instance, the baseball fan’s online Bible, Baseball Reference, is a free site); but much of it, including a number of sites that purport to analyze the data, such  Baseball Prospectus, are subscription sites. Baseball Prospectus exists both as a book publication & a website—I own the 2012 print edition, which set me back a cool $24.95 (which I don’t regret), & this book is a New York Times Bestseller (I don’t subscribe to the site, however.) There are a number of similar publications; Bill James, perhaps the most famous of the sabermetricians, (& who makes a cameo in the Simpson’s episode I mentioned above), also publishes a full line of such books. On the Simpson’s show, he’s made to say, “I've made baseball as much fun as doing your taxes.” 

 In addition, the phenomenon known as Fantasy Baseball or Rotisserie Baseball has grown up in the days since the sabremetric revolution began. Now many fantasy baseball leagues, such as the one I belong to, are statistically “basic” & free: there’s no money whatsoever on the line. While there are many such leagues, there are also many leagues that require entrance fees, that require the players to “purchase” the players they will use on their team—with real money—in the promise of cash prizes & payouts for building a collection of players that performs well in a variety of statistical categories.  Theoretically at least, being able to “predict” how a player will continue to perform based both on current & past performance would be a real advantage in such a game.

Of course, this latter incarnation of fantasy baseball is pretty recognizable as gambling—I have no moral compunctions against gambling at all, tho I no longer indulge; but I’m also old enough to know who really makes money in these gambling games: hint—it’s not the people who are paying to “field” their fantasy teams & who are studying involved statistical analyses to get an edge.

But there’s more to the statistical revolution than creating a couple of niche industries, however lucrative they may be for various corporate entities. The other aspect to analyze when considering sports: dreams.

I said last time out that baseball is an imaginary sport. As kids, so many in this country look on professional sports—especially the big three of football, baseball & basketball—as a sort of Valhalla to which they too might be initiated if they “have what it takes.” Of course, there are 30 major league baseball teams, each of which carries a 25-man active roster for the majority of the season—that’s 750 players. Even if we expand that to the larger 40-man roster, which includes not only the chosen 25, but also 15 others who have a real shot at playing in the big leagues at any given time, that only brings us to 1200. In the year 2000, there were roughly 40 million men in the US aged between 20 & 40, which pretty much delimits the age parameters of a major league baseball career. You see the odds. Even if we expanded it to include all the minor league professional players—who by & large lead an unglamorous life in a short-lived career that pays a scant fraction of what the major leaguers make—you can see it’s an infinitesimal fraction of the millions of dreamers.

 It seems that the stats always give us access to something: a way of understanding the game that we didn’t have the skills to play at any level even remotely approaching glory. Now as statistics have become increasingly byzantine, there’s the lure that we can “really” understand the game, even tho we don’t have the requisite physical skills—this is an especially seductive idea because importance of the sabermetric stats is not universally accepted within the game itself. It also occurs to me that the “dream” these days may be shifting from being a big league ballplayer to being a general manager, the administrator who oversees player moves such as trades, contractual bargaining & the like. Baseball fans from time immemorial have believed they could direct a team during the actual game better than the team’s field manager, but I think the general manager yen is—at least in its current degree—a newer phenomenon, & born of the idea that understanding mathematical formulas & certain current truisms born from those formulas could lead the average Joe (or Jane) to be able to run a major league ball club as well as the guy the team hired to do it.  As was said on The Simpson’s: “baseball is a game played by the dextrous but only understood by the poindextrous.”

Is this the new dream?

All images link to their source
The title is a quote from a Charlie Brown cartoon in which, after Schroeder reads Charlie Brown a litany of statistics to describe how all the other teams they play are miles & miles better than them, Charlie Brown responds: "Tell your statistics to shut up."


  1. Hi John,
    this was a totally enjoyable read, even for this very part-time and haphazard baseball fan. It's delightful to read a blog that's long enough to sink your teeth into (hmm - a baseball game hotdog metaphor here?)

    I was interested to read about 19th century statistics - around the same time that a new popularization of astrology was taking place? Any connection?

    I love what you wrote about dreams and baseball - the shift from a dream of fantasized action to a dream of fantasized understanding. I defer to Dog, the Cultural Archivist, and Platypuss-in-Boots, Mythographer who present these possible interpretations of that shift: 1)it could be seen as a positive evolution, a movement toward valuing understanding rather than action (Pinky insisted there be one optimistic interpretation.) 2) The deep malaise of cultural/economic disaster has led people to give up on the possibility of meaningful action and try to regain a sense of power through "understanding." 3) Control of information (aka "understanding") is the new frontier, and the fantasizing conquistador heads out, armed with statistics!

    Thanks for this post- I'm looking forward to more.

    1. Hi Eberle: Thanks so much for stopping by & commenting! Much appreciated. I don't know much about the "fossil record" of baseball stats, only that it exists. Some stats were kept differently then--for instance, a stolen base up until the early 20th century meant not only what it does to day, but also any time a baserunner took an extra base on a hit--for instance, a runner on first going to third when the hitter behind him got a single--or scoring from first on a double.

      I do think that the information/"understanding" versus action matrix has a lot to do with it. I also think that fans--male fans in particular--feel some sense of empowerment toward a sport they're unable to play at a high level of skill by being apparently able to have access to some deeper understanding of the game than even the players themselves might have. This is an illusion, of course--tho they may have a "different" understanding, & while that understanding may be deep in its own way, it really can't be deeper at an equivalent level. Of course, what this suggests is the good old critic versus artist dichotomy!

      Thanks again!

  2. I love to see this different voice of yours. Also, who wouldn't enjoy a poet/musician's take on baseball?

    1. Hi Caroline: Thanks so much for stopping by here! Really appreciated :)


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