Stats in Baseball

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

It's October. That means baseball players are casting long shadows across the beautiful outfields of Yankee Stadium and seven other parks as the Major League Playoffs get under way this week. Baseball naturally lends itself to poetry. Maybe that's because the game unfolds so slowly. You have time in between batters, in between pitches, to weave a textured yarn. Literature and film are filled with heartbreaking as well as uplifting baseball stories. Garrison Keillor forgot his glasses, on which he is evidently very dependent, for a baseball game one late afternoon and by the time he described the scene on the stage for A Prairie Home Companion, the game had become a delicious potpourri of sensations. The crack of the bat, the gentle movement of white chess pieces around a smooth expanse of green, the smell of popcorn...

The game does inspire poetic imagery, as well as larger than life Babe Ruthian story telling. And yet there is the odd dichotomy of baseball also being the ultimate game of cold, unpoetic statistics.

Stats to be sure are part and parcel of all sports in this computer Internet age. Football announcers regale us with meaningless stats such as which running back has gained the most yards from third down in the second quarter in a home game against a non-conference opponent. But baseball is the undisputed heavyweight champ when in comes to statistics.

We can all understand why we need to know a player's batting average. That's the benchmark for deciding the line-up and the order of the line-up. But you might be wide-eyed to peruse some of these hundreds of books dedicated to the statistics of America's pastime. Just one example: There is a formula for something called "Adjusted Production". This is an advanced statistic which adjusts slugging average and on-base percentage by measuring in factors on the player's home park and the player's particular league. It's a stat often used to compare players from different eras in different parks. And there, most likely, is the bedrock of baseball statistics.

The game is so old that it is statistics that help us understand just how good a player was back in 1935, compared to our sluggers of today.

It is largely agreed that the stats of baseball came into significant status in the 1980's by the mathematical computations and insights of a man named Bill James. James established the abstracts and formulas for every possible scenario on the diamond. But you can easily find the most basic stats, such as batting averages, in newspapers from the late 1800's. The editor of Baseball Magazine from 1908 to 1930, F.C. Lane, long before data of the game was recorded, used to assign his staff the task of deciphering how often, for instance, a player would score after hitting a double. In the 1950's, a man named George Lindsay, obviously without a computer, scored 1700 games over ten years himself so that he could determine how often a player scores from second base on a single.

Baseball is often called the ultimate sport of intuition. The players are considered "naturals". There's an understanding that instinct drives a manager's decisions. But it turns out that many of the pitches thrown and swings taken are dictated by cold, hard statistics. Some credit the Oakland A's of the 1980's for that. A lawyer named Sandy Alderson became GM of the A's in 1982 and it was Alderson who relied on on-base percentage and other stats to draft and to trade players. Alderson's disciples grew up with his stats approach and are now peppered throughout the Major Leagues.

When you see the close-up of that coach, giving that seemingly ridiculous series of hand signals--brush the cap, tap the chest three times, swipe the belt area, brush the cap again, but twice this time---that's not some instinct he has that the batter is going to try to bunt. It's a communiqué that says this guy hits well low and inside on the first pitch.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad