It used to be said that the camera never lies – until
someone invented the digital camera, and scarcely a photographic truth has been
Statistics never had a good reputation to begin with.
Yet baseball has increasingly come to be defined by stats,
as people with even higher geek-quotients than me invent ever more
spreadsheet-based acronyms with which to measure people against each other. Scouting
has become a numbers game too, with far less reliance on gut instinct and far
more on the number-crunching pioneered by Oakland Athletics’ GM Billy Beane and
described in the best-seller ‘Moneyball’.
But I’m not talking about comparing today’s players with
each other, I’m referring to the endless debates about which of today’s players
could match up with the stars of yesteryear, such as A-Rod vs. Babe Ruth, Bob
Gibson vs. Tim Lincecum and so on.
There are many reasons why such debates are pointless, and
that comparing players from different eras is like saying the world’s first
four-minute miler – Roger Bannister – was no good because his time was a full
16 seconds slower in 1954 than Hicham El Guerrouj managed in 1999.
The designated hitter; the exclusion of black players until
1947; free agency (since 1975); the unbalanced schedule (since 2001); lower
pitching mounds since 1969; the move to a 162-game schedule in 1961 (AL) and
1962 (NL), and the massive influx of Latin American players since the 1970’s
have all affected the relevance of statistical comparisons across the ages.
But the biggest reason why statistics mean so little is the
same reason they still mean everything: most players cheat, so you can’t get
rid of some statistics without getting rid of almost all of them.
Catchers cheat every day when they try to persuade umpires
that balls are in fact strikes – they rationalize this by calling it “framing
the pitch”. What it means is at the same instant they catch the ball, they move
their glove to within the area of the strike zone to make it look like that is
where the ball went.
Opposing teams try to “steal” signs – i.e. find out what the
pitcher is about to pitch so the hitter knows where and when to swing. In the
90’s and early 00’s a sizeable minority of players were on steroids, and in the
70’s on amphetamines. Pitchers have, since the dawn of time, tried to scratch
baseballs to make them move unpredictably. Shortstops frequently don’t touch
second base when completing double-plays, outfielders pretend to have caught
balls on the fly when they’re really bump balls, infielders pretend to make
tags when they haven’t touched the runner…the list goes on.
In conclusion, we should feel free to keep arguing, and
remember that our conclusions mean as much as the statistics they’re based on:
Oh, and by the way, statistical analysis shows that Babe
Ruth was better than everyone…