I love baseball stats, love them as least as much or more than the next woman. And like so many others, the explosion of the statistical analysis of baseball was what drew me deeper into the grip of the game at a moment in my life when I was just starting to pull away.
Maybe it doesn’t happen the same way for everyone, but in my case there was a period of vulnerability after I stopped thinking of baseball as a game I could play, and before I learned to think of it as a game I could simply enjoy. This would have been the late ’70s and early ’80s. There was not yet cable television in my hometown, and beyond the Sporting News and Baseball Digest there wasn’t much in the way of baseball literature available at the local newstand/bookstore. We could watch the Game of the Week, listen to Twins broadcasts on WCCO, and drive up to the occasional game in the Cities. But for most of my early life pretty much everything I knew about Major League players laboring beyond Minnesota I learned from Topps baseball cards and from watching whatever teams I was exposed to in the post-season.
For a few precarious years there in my adolescence I barely followed the game. I guess I could blame Jim Dandy and Black Oak Arkansas, who came to my hometown and played Riverside Arena in the late ’70s. I could blame Ted Nugent (same story), or Blue Oyster Cult (again, same story). Eventually, I suppose, I could blame The Ramones and The Clash and dozens of other bands that helped salve my crushed dreams of being a professional baseball player. I could blame all the garfong I smoked and all the Special Export (the Green Death!) I drank while parked in the darkness along Toke Road just outside town.
I could blame adolescence and hormones and Calvin Griffith and the Metrodome and Paul Thormodsgard and Glenn Borgmann and Craig Kusick and Terry Felton and the 1981 strike and all those mediocre Twins teams in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
By the time I moved to Minneapolis in 1981, however, I had discovered Bill James, a guy with a gift for contextualizing all those statistics in the Baseball Encyclopedia and cooking up stats of his own that made the game seem as intricate and difficult and complex and wondrous and just plain fun as it had ever seemed to me as a 15-year-old struggling with the realization that the skills necessary to succeed at the sport were light years beyond my own abilities.
I learned about James from a geek at the local public library, and through him I received dog-eared, hand-me-down copies of some of James’ earliest, self-produced Abstracts. By the time Ballantine started publishing the annual Bill James Baseball Abstract in 1982, I –who had been a sub-indifferent math student in high school– was a full-on stats geek.
For years, in fact, I was a junkie. At a time when all of my friends were going to college or playing in bands, I was working in a series of parking lots and ramps, where I had ample time to pore over numbers, fiddle around with statistical formulas, and listen to games on the radio. Two years running I chucked everything and went to Florida for spring training. In 1987 I got a job at Tinker Field in Orlando, then the spring home of the Twins.
Perhaps I was born for ruination, but there is no doubt in my mind that baseball accelerated the process. It was fun, though, at least for the most part. And the stuff I learned from James, and from the people who popped up in his wake (I’m thinking of John Thorn and Pete Palmer’s 1984 collaboration, The Hidden Game of Baseball, and Earnshaw Cook’s pioneering book from the sixties, Percentage Baseball, which I learned of from James), made the game a lot more interesting, and gave the off-season an obsessive focus that probably wasn’t entirely healthy.
Eventually, of course, pretty much every serious baseball fan got indoctrinated into the Sabermetric army, and the stuff got increasingly complicated or –even worse– rarefied. It started to worm itself into even popular discussion of the sport, into the mass media, and into television analysis. James and a legion of his proteges became baseball celebrities (James is now a senior advisor in the employ of the Red Sox, and one of his most talented disciples, Rob Neyer, is a columnist for ESPN.com).
I still love James (he has a terrific new book just out, by the way, Bill James Gold Mine 2008), but I also think it’s time to admit that I’ve become something of a heretic. I used to know the basic formula for James’ Run Created stat off the top of my head; I don’t anymore. With the explosion of baseball punditry made possible by the internet, and the mind boggling proliferation of baseball bloggers, the statistical vivisection of the game has become wearisome. There’s only so much of the stuff a guy can digest before it starts to get in the way of simply watching a game for the sheer pleasure of witnessing marvelous athletes playing the most difficult sport in the world.
And here’s my essential problem with the now incessant barrage of baseball statistics: while the best of the new (and relatively new) stats can provide a remarkably accurate view of the big picture (given a large enough sample size), and are excellent hindsight tools as barometers of past performance and its bearing on future expectations, they can never adequately address the snapshot quality of any individual game. Because in any individual game, or any series of individual games, all sorts of unexpected shit still happens on a regular basis. Great players can kill teams for sustained stretches almost as brutally as lousy players, and the brutality can be all the more painful as a result of the expectations. Minor players, shit players, footnotes, reclamation projects, and journeymen can do astonishing things that are, in the context of expectations, as thrilling as a monster game from a superstar. Season to season and game to game, aberrations are a big part of what makes the sport so consistently gratifying.
My other problem is this: Bill James was not only a terrifically entertaining writer; he was also –and this was crucial– consistently challenging and possessed of a playful mind and a wide-ranging curiosity about all sorts of stuff that he was more than willing to admit was technically and practically useless. There was always a sense –and there is still a sense– that he was working very hard to make his egghead nonsense fun. He was funny. He was attuned to the peripheral delights of baseball, the ugly guys and fat guys, the regular affronts and abominations, whether they be inexcusable uniforms, terrible ballparks, or particularly brutal lines in the boxscore.
James was the best. He still is the best, even if he has a lot to answer for. And, sorry, but after thirty years of poking around in the shit he spawned, I see very little but a legion of pale, earnest imitators, attic bachelors and basement barons who have long since lost sight of the forest for the trees. Or the trees for the forest. I can’t quite decide which.
And after all those years, and all that rooting around (and just plain rooting, the numbers be damned), I feel like I’m now in a position to draw my own conclusions about players and teams based on –and, yes, thanks to people like James– what I’ve learned and what I know and what I see. My father, who knew nothing about any of the new-fangled statistics, could watch a handful of games and zero in on exactly the sorts of players that analysis and stats now confirm for u
s are valuable. And he considered them great players for –at least generally speaking– precisely those reasons that the statistics validate them as such.
He’s gone now, but if we sat down over a couple days and ran down all the statistical categories that are around today, I believe he would agree with me that there are only a handful –OBP (on base percentage), OPS (on base percentage plus slugging), and WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched), for instance– that contribute a damn thing to the appreciation of watching a game or critiquing a ballclub, no matter how much they might contribute to a player’s leverage in an arbitration hearing or salary negotiation.
Pathetically, I suppose, the one most valuable thing I’ve learned from watching thousands of baseball games is that the team that scores more runs than it allows wins; the team that does that most often wins the most games; and four runs is the magic number: the team that scores four or more runs wins the overwhelming majority of its games. And sometimes the good teams (at least on paper), the expected teams, are the clubs that pull off that trick. But often enough –just often enough to keep things interesting, and more often than the stats slaves are perhaps willing to admit– they’re not.
And sometimes a guy like Roger Maris hits 61 homers, or a guy like Norm Cash hits .361. Or a team like the ’87 Twins win the World Series.
Even when you can’t understand a damn thing about it –and perhaps especially then– baseball is a beautiful game.