A Counting Game

by dustylittlefascinations

Read this John Thorn piece on the early history of advanced statistical analysis in baseball. Do it before the season starts next week. (Next week! The season starts next week!) Read it even if you don’t care a lick for baseball but you can appreciate a good story about the growth and complication of a simple idea. (Modestly stated, that there might be better ways to evaluate the quality of a ballplayer than batting average and pitchers’ wins.) Thorn:

Although the old ideas remained in place despite his efforts, [General Manager Branch] Rickey had shaken them to their foundations. He attacked the batting average and proposed in its place the On Base Average; advocated the use of Isolated Power (extra bases beyond singles, divided by at bats) as a better measure than slugging percentage; introduced a “clutch” measure of run-scoring efficiency for teams, and a similar concept for pitchers (earned runs divided by baserunners allowed); reaffirmed the basic validity of the ERA and saw the strikeout for the insubstantial stat it was; and more. But the most important thing Rickey did for baseball statistics was to pull it back along the wrong path it had taken at the crossroads long ago: to strip the game and its stats to their essentials and start again, this time remembering that individual stats came into being as an attempt to apportion the players’ contributions to achieving victory, for that is what the game is about.

Some of this stuff – Rickey’s “G,” or Earnshaw Cook’s “Scoring Index” statistic from Percentage Baseball (1964) – will seem neolithic to in-the-know fans of advanced baseball metrics. But you catch in it little glimpses of greater statistics to come – of wins above replacement, of weighted on-base average, of expected fielding independent pitching. More important than the alphabet soup is the crucial attitude – the skepticism, the belief that there are unsettled questions about baseball, that numbers can help us to answer those questions, and that a goodly portion of the conventional wisdom about the National Game (about life!) is just bunk.

Baseball is a traditional game and practically a museum unto itself. No surprise, then, that it took decades for numbers-heavy analysis with complex methodologies practiced by professional statisticians to catch on in the front offices. It still hasn’t really penetrated the baseball fan-base or baseball journalism, which is a predictable shame. (See: The Trout/Cabrera 2012 MVP kerfuffle.) There’s a good story there, too, and it’s as much a human drama as a mathematical one. If that’s more your speed, you can’t go wrong reading Moneyball.