Baseball: Stats all, folks

The news that a proposed movie based on Moneyball has been shelved could be viewed in a few ways. For one thing, just imagine you’re A’s general manager Billy Beane and you suddenly discover there isn’t going to be a movie with Brad Pitt playing you. Now, if that were me, I’d be majorly bummed. I’d have been telling everybody I knew, “Brad Pitt is going to be me in a movie!” (Yeah, I know, you’re looking at that photo and thinking I would be lucky to get Jack Black.)

ray 'n' homerAnother view is to say this is a strike against the stat-heavy view of baseball, because Beane so famously is enamored of numbers in evaluating talent. The news should make for a happy day among those who deride the progeny of Bill James as baseball nerds.

(Not to beat this whole Brad Pitt thing into the ground, but having him portray a stat-head should be enough to remove the nerd tag.)

At the same time, we have a rather curious blog post by MLB Network commentator Harold Reynolds — whose work I have always enjoyed — who takes a puzzling, tortuous path to say he doesn’t buy the importance of the OPS stat (on-base plus slugging percentage).  I’d summarize his argument if I could figure it out.

(Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski has a wonderfully off-the-wall reaction to Reynolds’ post in his own blog. Thanks to Deadspin for pointing these out.)

Some former players — and apparently Reynolds is one of them, with Joe Morgan being the most prominent example — want to disregard the statistical analysis they seem to believe takes the human element out of baseball and reduces their visceral experience to dry numbers on a page or computer screen.

And, as we all know, baseball isn’t dry. There’s all that sweat, not to mention tobacco juice.

However, those who rail against stat-ic cling (yeah, I thought of that all by myself) are misjudging the proper application of the numbers. Take OPS, for example.

A look at baseball’s all-time OPS leaders reveals a top 10 that includes Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds and Jimmie Foxx. So, would any reasonable person argue they aren’t among the greatest hitters in the game’s history? Of course not. Now, maybe the appearance of Todd Helton and Lance Berkman in the top 20 rubs you the wrong way. (If so, look at Rogers Hornsby’s name high on the list to make that rubbing feel better, though I’d think the flannel uniforms of Hornsby’s day might actually chafe much more.)

However, the point isn’t to prove Helton and Berkman are among baseball’s greatest 20 hitters of all time, ahead of Ty Cobb and Willie Mays. (Helton and Berkman also rank higher than Joe Jackson, who can, though, claim to have recorded a song with one of pop music’s greatest hooks ever.)

No, the point of OPS or any other reliable statistic is to gain an appreciation for a player’s skills, how he should be evaluated among his peers or even historically. The OPS figures of Helton and Berkman merely point out they have been terrific hitters. In their case, the fact they rate so high on the all-time list should just make us take notice of how under-appreciated they might have been during under-publicized careers.

(Having grown up a Phillies fan, I wish Dick Allen somehow could be higher than No. 56. I would argue he should get extra percentage points for the second greatest quote ever about artificial turf: “If a horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it.” The greatest quote, of course, belongs to Tug McGraw, who, when asked his preference for grass or the fake stuff, said: “I don’t know. I never smoked any AstroTurf.” )

(Oh, and while I’m feeling parenthetical, I have one story about Berkman. Back in the days when newspapers could send writers around the country, we at The Baltimore Sun dispatched Peter Schmuck, then our national baseball reporter, to Houston to do a piece on Berkman and the Astros. I always thought Berkman had a vaguely Jewish-sounding name, so, as one of Schmuck’s editors, I asked him to indulge my curiosity and check whether Berkman is MOT — Member of the Tribe. After all, we have so few Jewish ballplayers, being how most of us are busy controlling the media and the banks and the movies. [Which, if it were true, could somebody help a brother out?] When it came time for Schmuck to interview Berkman, one of his first questions was: “Are you Jewish?” Berkman’s reply: “They sent you all the way to Houston to ask me that?” As it turns out, the answer was no. However, as it also turns out, Hank Greenberg ranks No. 7 in all-time OPS, nine ahead of Berkman.)

To return to my pre-parenthetical point, the deal with baseball stats is commentators should think of them like, say, bottles of skin conditioning lotion. Ignore them and you end up being crusty. Apply them too liberally and you look sloppy. But used correctly, they can make you look smooth.

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