Friday, January 22, 2010

The numbers tell the story

I'm a stat head. I say so only because there's no way I can deny it. I loves me some baseball statistics, and the traditional ones (batting average, wins and losses, RBIs) just don't cut it for me. When I check out baseball-reference, my eye is drawn towards WHIP and ERA+. I love researching players' VORP and pitchers' BAPIP. I love these things. They're not for everyone, but hey, we're all united in the love of the game, right?

Well, not everyone sees it that way. A certain writer for a certain local newspaper, for example, rips on stat-heads regularly. Mr. Shaughnessy views us all as basement-dwelling robots who view baseball as a game ruled by numbers, played on spreadsheets and calculators. Shaughnessy, and many other writers (most of whom were mentioned on the brilliant and now closed view statistics as a threat to others' abilities to enjoy baseball.

Speaking as a stat-head who truly loves this game, I have to disagree. My love of statistics is born out of my love of the game. Amazingly, embracing new statistics doesn't limit or distort anything I used to love about baseball. On the contrary, the new world of stats has given me a whole new view of the game I love, and the ability to analyze what has happened on the field with infinitely more nuance and detail. The numbers are full of stories, and they are stories anyone who loves baseball can appreciate.

For example, I don't need stats to tell me that Pedro Martinez was historically dominant in 1999 and 2000. Hell, Pedro is almost single-handedly responsible for my being a Red Sox fan. Watching him pitch when I was 12 years old was a mind-boggling experience. I'll never forget the way he toyed with hitters, how, when he was really on, could seemingly throw any pitch at will, regardless of the hitter or the count.

But then... the numbers. Not the win-totals. 23-4 and 18-6 , respectively, are very good and all, but they expose the flaws with wins and losses as a measure of pitchers, considering that Pedro was perhaps better in 2000. No, I look at his incredible WHIP (walks+hits per inning pitched) of .737 in 2000. In case you're wondering, that's insanity. A pitcher should not be able to average fewer than 7 hits and walks every nine innings, certainly not during the height of the steroid era. I look at Pedro's 291 ERA+ in 2000. Ridiculous. His ERA was 191% better than the league average! His OBP against in 2000? .213. Slugging% against? .259. He struck out 8.88 times as many hitters as he walked.

These numbers are incomprehensibly good. They are, in their own way, beautiful. They add to my memories. It's equally fun for me to look at these in awe as it is for me to rely on my own memories. Additionally, they tell me much more than a glance at his traditional pitcher's Triple Crown stats could. 18-6, 284 K's, and a 1.74 ERA are all dominant, but but they don't show just how much so.

Dwight Gooden, in his legendary 1985 season, won more games and had a lower ERA. But his ERA was "only" 128% better than the league average (extraordinary, but not Pedro-level). He struck out 3.88 times as many batters as he walked. His WHIP was .965. Batters OBP'd .254 against him. All remarkable numbers. None as good as Pedro in 2000. Using only traditional stats, there'd be no way to know this. Sandy Koufax, at his best, never posted an ERA+ above 200. Randy Johnson never posted a sub .9 WHIP. Both brilliant pitchers, but never could they quite equal Pedro at his absolute peak. We need the numbers to bear it out. Discoveries like that are what make statistics such a joy to me.

And that, I think, is the point that writers like Shaughnessy miss. I don't think that "numbers play the game", an oft-repeated mantra of the anti-stat crowd. No, the numbers are a reflection of what has already happened. They are objective, and, in concert with my own empirical observations, they make baseball even more fun for me. Watching the games is, by far, my favorite part of being a baseball fan. But as a lover of stories, the numbers open doors to tales that never would exist otherwise.Writers like Shaughnessy would seal that door forever under the guise that they are preserving the purity of the game. The game, however, will always speak for itself. With statistics, we get to hear the full extent of its voice.