What's in a Number?

Stat love and baseball love

I love baseball statistics as much as the next person, don't get me wrong. In fact, I blame Bill James, Pete Palmer, and all the rest of their pioneering sabermetric cronies for seriously eroding my social skills during a big chunk of my formative years (sabermetrics, for those of you who might have a life, is the term James coined 25 years ago for the rigorous analysis of baseball statistics). James and his theories--virtually all of which I subscribe to, by the way--have been in the news a good deal of late, what with all the noise being generated by Michael Lewis's Moneyball, which is ostensibly a portrait of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, the first baseball executive to embrace sabermetric analysis whole-hog, and to have real success doing so.

I'm now going to assume that anyone who has actually read this far either already knows what that all means or really doesn't give a damn, so I'm not going to talk any more about James, Beane, or sabermetrics here, other than to say that as much as I love plowing through stats annuals and cooking up my own if-I-ran-the-zoo scenarios, I've also developed a growing resentment toward the legion of number crunchers (mostly message board and fantasy league despots, but I'd be there somewhere in the group photo, I suppose) who seem to cling to the desperate belief that they can somehow reduce the entire game of baseball to a perfect and purely explicable science. Lord knows I hear from these sorts of characters every week, and agree with them half the time, but I'm also sometimes saddened by the extent to which this overweening obsession can sometimes sap the game of so many of its essential pleasures.

I fell in love with baseball long before I'd ever heard of on-base percentage or range factor or any of the other currently fashionable (and undeniably useful) statistics. Many of my favorite players growing up, I now realize, would incur nothing but my howling wrath today: Bobby Darwin, for instance, an outfielder with the Twins in the '70s who had middling power, struck out all the time, and posted terrible on-base percentages, but whom I worshiped nonetheless. Or Phil Roof, a catcher with the team during those same years, who once hit two home runs in a game my dad drove us up to, which was enough to inspire me to hoard his baseball cards for a couple of summers after that. Yet would I want Roof on my fantasy league team? Not on your stinking life: The guy was a career .215 hitter with a .319 slugging percentage. As far as hitters go, he was strictly garbage wrapped in skin, and I'd have a hard time rooting for any team that would give him 300 at bats.

This season more than ever before, I find myself spending so much time poking holes in strategic moves or personnel decisions and arguing with the damn game that I end up pissed off rather than entertained. And that's just plain wrong. Armed with so many statistics, and with the opinions formed by those numbers, and determined with each new frustrating skid in the season to dig further into the stats in search of answers, I often feel like one of those scientists who gets so lost in the mysteries of physics that she's no longer capable of recognizing what an everyday miracle this world really is.

And the bottom line is that baseball, despite its essential and attractive order and the fact that so many of its components can now be subjected to rigorous statistical evaluation, is still a largely unpredictable sport, a game in which intangibles and absurdity continue to play regular roles in the outcomes of games. You could pick virtually any great game in the history of baseball whose outcome was affected by anomalous events and obscure, mediocre--even lousy--players whose moment of glory could not have been predicted by any statistical formula or pool of data.

The players understand this better than the writers and the stats junkies do. To them there is virtually no mystery, bizarre occurrence, or unexpected event on a field that can't be explained with a shrug and the oldest clubhouse cliché in the book: "That's baseball."

And they're right, of course. What launched this entire tangent was Sunday's final game of the Twins-Brewers series in Milwaukee. The Twins were wrapping up a miserable road trip through Kansas City and Milwaukee, and prior to Sunday had lost five of the six games, including three of four to the Royals, the team that trails Minnesota in the AL Central. The Twins had spent May erasing Kansas City's eight-game lead (with plenty of help from the Royals), and as recently as June 14 had padded their own margin to five games. Yet by the time the Twins and Brewers took the field on Sunday afternoon, Minnesota's lead was down to one game.

For the first time all year I really wasn't much in the mood to watch baseball, but I was sitting around reading the Sunday papers, so I went ahead and turned on the TV. You can imagine how pleased the stat zombie in me was when I saw that Denny Hocking (he of the .210 batting average), Tom Prince (he of the 30 at bats and the .233 average), and Dustan Mohr (he of the .159 average in June) were all in the starting lineup against ex-Twin Matt Kinney. There ya go, Gardie, I shouted at the television. That's how you light a fire under this ball club: Get Princey and Hock in there! The two guys who have absolutely no business taking up space on yours or any other major league roster. Great fucking idea. I was so disgusted that I snapped off the TV and vowed to take a couple of days away from the increasingly maddening Twins.

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