Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Turn on ESPN and they're there, both at the bottom of your screen and front-and-center on SportsCenter. Watch a baseball game and they're popping up every 30 seconds, when a batter comes to the plate, in-between pitches in the at-bat, when a pitching change is made, when pitchers are warming up in the bullpen. They're everywhere. Statistics, that is.

Every sport has developed a series of metrics to determine a player's worth. Football has the quarterback rating, TD/Int. ratio, yards-per-game; basketball has points/assists/rebounds/steals-per-game; hockey has plus/minus (a goal differential); baseball has... too many to mention. Batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, on-base plus slugging percentage, earned run average, strikeout-to-walk ratio. And some obscure ones: value over replacement player, equivalent average, batting average on balls in play.

These statistics not yet in the mainstraim -- those found nestled in the catacombs of the databases on BaseballProspectus.com or HardballTimes.com -- anger baseball traditionalists. They kick out the legs of their ordained claims: players are clutch, protection is vital, strikeouts are bad. These newfangled metrics, though -- the ones popularized initially by Bill James in 1977 with his book, The Bill James Baseball Abstract -- blow the baseball purists' assumptions out of the water. Clutch is a myth. So is protection. Strikeouts aren't all that bad.

Bill James and the herd of stat-geeks that scan the annals of baseball statistic databases still mire in relative obscurity. VORP is not a featured statistic on baseball telecasts. No, batting average, HR, and RBI are the metrics of choice for hitters; W-L record and ERA for pitchers -- not PRC (pitching runs created) or FIP (fielding-independent pitching).

It's more fun to believe that Pat Burrell needs to improve on his 2006 season in order to adequately protect Ryan Howard. It's more fun to believe that Derek Jeter is the coolest cat in the bottom of the ninth inning. Statistics takes out some of that fun. Burrell doesn't need to improve on his hitting to protect Howard, as studies have found that protection only improves slugging percentage by four one-thousanths (.004) of a point. Jeter isn't clutch, because clutch is a myth: "[T]here is no discernable change in [players'] abilities when runners are on base, or when the game is tied in extra innings, or when candy and costumes and pumpkins decorate the local GigaMart," according to Joe Sheehan of BaseballProspectus.com.

The biggest reason why stat-heads are loathed is because they eliminate any reason for loving or hating a player for his "intangibles." St. Louis Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein has a loyal following because he, apparently, does the small things and does them well, despite the fact that he's only had one season with an OPS+ over 100 (he had a 103 OPS+ in 2002) in his six-year career. Florida Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera is perceived to be lazy -- "He gets perceived (as being lazy) because of his actions but he wants to win just like anybody else," said New York Mets catcher Paul LoDuca, a former teammate of Cabrera's -- despite the fact that he is the best third baseman in baseball (highest VORP among third basemen; fifth-highest overall).

The underground society of baseball intellectuals will remain buried for the same reason why people still believe in God: they like believing in their fairy tales -- that Jeter is as clutch as you can get; that God exists. It makes them feel better, and makes the game more fun. Who wants to watch a game and analyze statistics? Who wants to believe that there is nothing when we die? Only the small culture of logical, rational individuals; they're content with the unhappy ending to the story as long as the truth is known.