Monday, July 9, 2007

Significant Digits

…baseball statistics, unlike the statistics in any other area, have acquired the powers of language.
--Bill James

It’s been a pretty good year when it comes to numbers. We just had 7/7/07, after all, so maybe it’s destiny. But in any case, watching 500, 600, 350, and 3000, we’ve had our fair share of significant digits. So if those numbers can speak to us as James posits, each of them should have a story to tell. I’m not ready to go quite as far as James and say that baseball statistics are the only numbers that have the power of language, but there is something unique about hardball’s tally marks.

The very nature of the sport lends to its statistics a unique status. So much effort in basketball and (especially) football goes into trying to disentangle individual contributions from those of teammates. Aside from the pesky pitching/defense quandary, baseball is largely free from that issue. I know I’m not breaking new ground here, but it’s worth remembering what exactly makes us love baseball numbers so much. They can instantly call to mind visions of mano-a-mano pitcher/batter duels in the way that rushing yards and rebounds do not. That’s the language James was talking about: we can look at them and instantly translate them from sums to stories.

350 is kind of unique among this year’s notable numbers in the way we make that translation. Roger Clemens’ 350th win is quite distinct narratively from the home run and hit totals. While the offensive stats call to mind brief, violent flashes of accomplishment at the plate, pitcher wins make us think of hours of sustained dominance at a time. A win requires stamina, endurance, and consistency. (At least, the way we imagine them does. I don’t think anyone thinks of a LOOGY grabbing an 8th inning vulture win.) The win gets (rightfully) bashed as a performance-evaluating statistic, but it still has its own tale to tell; one does not pick up 350 wins by accident.

350 sums up tidily the career of possibly the greatest pitcher of all time. Clemens’ continued dominance over two decades of an offensive era matches up with the resume of anyone to ever climb a major league mound. He won those games for four different organizations, winning Cy Youngs and World Series. Other numbers are a better argument in an objective sense for his all-time ranking (a career ERA+ of 144!), but saying “he won 350 major league games” sums up his career in a way that anyone can grasp.

Comparing this year’s 350 to its 600 is an interesting exercise. 600 home runs is kind of a big deal, as you might have heard. But I didn’t hear much celebration for Sammy Sosa’s feat. His 600 tells the story of epic home run chases, corked bats, and congressional testimony; his ascendance to the title of pre-eminent slugger of the late ‘90s has all the makings of a great movie. And last I checked, we have just as much hard evidence linking Sosa to steroids as we do for Clemens (about whom some have whispered rumors as well). Funny how that works out. Until the real evidence rolls in (and I doubt it ever will), Sosa’s 600 should be a happy one. Unfortunately, not every story has a storybook ending.

Frank Thomas’ 500 reeks of domination, pure and simple. His nickname is no accident; he put the Hurt on AL pitching throughout the 1990s, throwing up some of the most dominating seasons of the modern era. (Look at his 1997, for example. .347/.456/.611! Yikes. Also, notice how all I needed to do was give you a few decimals, and you got the point.) When people say “fear” in relation to a hitter, they mean Frank Thomas. Of course, his 500 also holds the frustration of his ugly White Sox divorce, which remains one of the sadder player exits I can remember. (Although, throwing up a 141 OPS+ wasn’t a bad way to cope with the grief in Oakland.)

Speaking of sad ends, we have Craig Biggio’s 3000th hit. In a lot of ways, he and Thomas are polar opposites, even though the traits they share (like, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer) are significant. Biggio’s number is all about the little man’s game; Thomas launched the ball like a catapult. Biggio remained with his original team to the end; Thomas was run out of town. And, of course: Thomas remained productive as he pursued his milestone, while Biggio has gritted his way through substandard seasons and pulled his team’s offense down. I find 3000 to be the saddest of this bunch, for this reason. The aforementioned Bill James once made a pretty decent argument that Biggio was the best player of the ‘90s; he has been either right around average or well below it in each of the last six seasons (measured by OPS+). While the twilight of his career should not obscure the great player that he was, Biggio’s 3000 instead tells the tale of a player seemingly hanging on too long, and an organization unwilling to come to grips with reality.

We haven’t finished our numerology this year—not by a long shot. We still have Tom Glavine (300), Alex Rodriguez (500), and, of course, Barry Bonds. 2007 will certainly be a year for the storybooks—or the stat books. Same difference.

1 comment:

John said...

Wow. Great post.