Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Folly of Benchmarks

I love box scores. Baseball box scores, specifically. Look at the top of my blog and you'll see box score from all kinds of sports, NCAA, football, but mostly baseball. That's because no other sport treasures stats the way baseball fans do, and with reason. The game of baseball is beautiful and in all the box scores and stat sheets, you can see people trying to quantify the beautiful game in front of them. Trying to explain by breaking it down into numbers and charts. Other sports do the same, but no other game is quite like baseball in exactly this way.

The only problem with this is you create a church of the numbers—a unshakable standard by which you define greatness. 300 wins, 500 HRs, 3000 hits. Reach this number and you are great. Do not, and you are not. Which is really kind of silly. Had Roberto Clemente not ripped a Jon Matlack pitch for his 3,000th hit and instead had gotten only 2,999, would they have not given him a place in Cooperstown? Seriously. The man had earned his way whether he got that last hit or not.

Conversely, consider Gary Antonin Sheffield. Looking at his career, anyone can see Gary has some nice numbers—he’s at 484 HRs; if he gets to 500, he’s a shoo-in for the Hall, yes?

Ummm, no. Despite the nice numbers, Gary, to my mind, has done more to hurt the game of baseball and the integrity therein than almost any other player of his generation (excepting, of course, Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco). A player's achievements can be overshadowed to some degree by bad sportsmanship, like, say, purposely dropping fly balls or overthrowing first base to show his disdain for the team. Throwing teammates under the bus and generally being a clubhouse cancer practically every stop of his career. Or heck, I don’t know, cheating at the game by taking illegal drugs. Really, no matter how nice your stats, at some point, the numbers go out the window.

However, baseball's Hall of Fame has fairly clear parameters and benchmarks. They want definable greatness, and if a player doesn't have it; they are, to put it reluctant to include him in the discussion.

One person really nailed by this ridiculous need for a benchmark number is Bert Blyleven. Seriously, check his stats. The guy had an amazing career. For starters, the guy is 5th all-time in strikeouts (ahead of some Hall-worthy names like Walter Johnson, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, and Warren Spahn), 9th all-time in shutouts (ahead of Sutton, Steve Carlton, and Early Wynn). He had 242 complete games, placing him ahead of HOF pitchers, Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver. His SO-to-BB ratio ranks him ahead of Gaylord Perry, Seaver, and yes, Don Sutton.

So what's the difference between Blyleven and all the names mentioned above. Blyleven has comparable (if not, in many cases, better) numbers than all of them...except one. Every single one of them not named Bert Blyleven is a Hall-of-Famer and every single one of them has 300 wins.

I could go through a whole litany of statistics culled from various (wonderful and terrible) web sites, but believe me when I say that Blyleven matches up to Sutton, Perry, Seaver, Ryan and the like. (You can have Walter Johnson—he was much better.) The only stat that Blyleven lacks is the wins. Unlike Sutton or Seaver, who played for much better teams, Blyleven played for a whole slew of bad teams (hence the need for him to eat a lot of
innings when maybe he could have been taken out earlier in some games). The result is while his ERA is an extremely commendable 3.31 (again, especially considering he pitched in some hitter's parks for many years), his W-L wasn't where it should be—at least where the HOF people think it should be. Therefore, a pitcher whose stats—excepting the benchmark one—are worthy, gets left out.

But this article really wasn't about Blyleven; it was about statistics—lies, damned lies and statistics. It's not that I don't think numbers aren't important—I use them myself to prove a point all the time. But it doesn't account for the whole picture, for the entirety of the player and his effect on the team. Sometimes a player is more than his stats. Just look at Phil Rizzuto and 1950; the year he won the MVP by a huge margin (he was 2nd place the year before). His teammate, Yogi Berra, if you look at the stats was better. Their BA was comparable; Rizzuto's .324 to Berra's .322. But Berra had 28 HRs to Rizzuto's 7; his OPS was 916 to Rizzuto's .857. But talk to anyone from that era, and they will tell you Rizzuto deserved it; it wasn't just about good stats—he was the engine that made those Yankees run, and the guys who saw Rizzuto play knew it. In fact, Ted Williams famously said, "The Red Sox would have won all those pennants if [Rizzuto] had played in front of me."

Yes, we need them when a player's career is done, to verify his worthiness. But really, it doesn't do justice to a player’s legacy. Bill James, the stat guru—nay Messiah—himself, and self-purported gatekeeper of the Hall of Fame feels stats don't tell all about a player. In his book The Politics of Glory, James himself says that it's "a terrible idea" to establish fixed statistical standards to judge candidates for the Hall of Fame.

And to that we should say, Amen.

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