October is almost upon us, which means that we’ve been subjected to a bunch of long segments on Mike & Mike about baseball. These serve to remind me just how little use I have for baseball, and baseball statistics.
I’ve long thought that baseball fans are stat-obsessed dorks, but my opinion changed somewhat when I started learning the definitions of those statistics. Now, I think they’re foolish stat-obsessed dorks.
It’s a shame, because baseball is one of very few sports where you have a chance of doing meaningful statistical analysis, owing to the approximately three billion games played every season. If nothing else, they have large sample sizes. Which makes it almost tragic that the core statistics of baseball are such… bullshit.
This was brought back to my mind recently during the mini-kerfuffle over CC Sabathia’s near no-hitter a few weeks ago. Watching the highlights as a sensible person, I would say “close, but not quite.” A guy hit the ball with the bat, and ended up safe at first. Your no-hitter is over.
But no– it’s all up to the official scorer, whoever that is. If the guy hit the ball, but somebody “should’ve” caught it, then it’s an error, not a hit, and the “no-hitter” would be preserved. So the whole thing turns into a debate over whether Sabathia bobbled the ball enough for it to count as an error or not.
This sort of nonsense carries over into the core statistics of the game.
Take “batting average,” for example. You’d think there would be nothing more objective and unambiguous than that: You look at how often a player came to the plate, and how many times he reached base safely, and the ratio of those is your batting average.
You’d be wrong to think that, though. That statistic exists, but it’s “on base percentage.” “Batting average” doesn’t include plays judged to be errors, and doesn’t include walks. If a batter reaches base on a walk, that at-bat doesn’t even go into the denominator– it’s like it never happened.
Similar foolishness afflicts pretty much every statistic that gets talked about on ESPN. The whole concept of “wins” and “losses” for a pitcher is a little silly, given that a minimum of eight other people are involved in the game, but if you wanted to keep track of the number of times a team won when a given guy was on the mound in the first inning, that might mean something. That’s not what they do, though– the actual process by which the “winning” and “losing” pitchers are determined is completely insane.
And don’t talk to me about “saves.” Or “Earned Run Average.”
The striking thing about this is how central these statistics are to discussions of baseball. You get bullshit statistics in other sports, but they’re usually somewhat peripheral– in baseball, the core statistics of the sport are all bullshit.
Basketball has three somewhat major stats that involve the same kind of dubious judgment calls as the core baseball stats: assists, steals, and blocks. The real core stats, though, are absolutely unambiguous: when a shot goes up, either it goes in, and somebody is credited with points, or it misses, and somebody is credited with a rebound. There’s no leeway for the official scorer to insert himself, no “well, the opposing center really should’ve blocked that shot, so those points don’t count toward your season total.”.
Pro football has the lowest bullshit level of any major sport. The only commonly-cited statistic that involves a judgment call by the official statistician is “sacks.” Everything else is clear and unambiguous– somebody threw the ball, somebody caught the ball, somebody ran with the ball. No bullshit.
Weirdly, the only major American sport to rival baseball in bullshit stat-geekery is college football, with its ludicrous power rankings. But that’s a rant for another time.