Why Stats Matter in BaseballBy: Sean Pidgeon
I was born on December 30. I share a birthday with Lebron James and Tiger Woods, the world’s greatest basketball player and the world’s greatest fornicator.
Tiger’s greatness need not be attested to at this time. That might be a topic better left to Golf Digest or, perhaps, Penthouse forum. But Lebron’s greatness is evident to even the most casual basketball fan watching just one game. Pop in the video tape of any Cavs game at random, and Lebron will always stand out as the best player on the court. Even in the rare game he is not high scorer, he will still dominate with his passing skills, rebounding prowess, and overall court vision. Basketball skill, like physical beauty, can be understood by what I call the eye test. The best basketball players almost always look like the best basketball players.
Baseball, however, is different. In his classic book “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” He could have been talking about baseball. One player cannot control or dominate a game in the same visible way that a Lebron or a Kobe can dominate basketball (save, maybe, a starting pitcher. Yet even, say, Pedro at his most dominant from ’97-’03 still only took the mound once every five games. There are no more Old Hoss Radbourn’s out there). On any given day, Albert Pujols will get at most 5 at bats (and maybe three pitches to hit) . Carlos Beltran may go a whole game without a single defensive chance in center field. The best player may not even get the opportunity to show off his greatness.
In baseball, the casual fan will most likely not be able to pick out the best player while watching a randomly given game. Greatness is measured over time. The difference between a .333 hitter and a .286 hitter is one hit every 5 or 6 games.* To highlight this point beyond the numbers, the difference between a Hall of Fame level player and a slightly above average player is one hit every 5 or 6 games.** Think about that: the difference between Albert Pujols and Luis Castillo is roughly one base hit per week.*** In basketball terms, this is like the difference between Lebron James and Drew Gooden. Believe me; you don’t have to watch more than five minutes, let alone five games, to see how much better Lebron is. But in baseball you could watch a three game series and not see any discernible evidence attesting to Pujols superiority (although, given enough three game series’ you probably would. I simply point out that a fan is not guaranteed to pick out the best baseball player from a small sample size, though he would in basketball).
*I know most of you reading will know this, but 7 hits in 21 ABs is a .333 BA and 6 for 21 is a .286 BA. Most regulars get 3 or 4 official ABs per game (not counting walks, sacrifices, etc), bringing us to our 5 to 6 game range for a 21 AB span. Thus, a .333 hitter is one hit per week better than a .286 batter.
**Yes, I know batting average is a flawed statistic. On base percentage is a much better indicator of a hitter’s contribution, since the most effective way a player can help his team score runs is by not making outs. And, yes, I know that the combination of on-base percentage plus slugging is important because extra base hits put a player closer to scoring than singles. I am a fan of sabermetrics, otherwise I wouldn’t write for this blog (I’d be one of those guys that worship at the feet of Joe Morgan). That said, players who bat .330 over the course of a Hall-length (10+ years) career tend to end up in the Hall of Fame, unless they gallivant as ghosts on Kevin Costner’s cornfield. Most .286 hitters don’t make the Hall, unless they hit for lots of power and/or play great defense and/or have silly poems written about them.
***Yes, I know a .42 point difference in career BA doesn’t even begin to do justice to how much better Pujols is than Luis Friggin Castillo. Pujols is way superior to Castillo in every possible hitting category except maybe stolen bases. And even in that Pujols is comparable to the current (and execrable) 35 year old version of Castillo! Remember, when I call Castillo a slightly above average player, I speak of the entirety of his career. At this stage he is plain old mediocre. And—of course!—Castillo is still the starting second baseman for the Mets.