Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Some Thoughts On Baseball

A while back my favorite economist (since Milton Friedman is no longer around) Thomas Sowell, (also an avid baseball fan) commented that had Lou Gehrig not contracted his eponymous disease, he could have been considered the best player ever. This is certainly true. Gehrig began exhibiting the effects of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) in 1938 at the age of 34. He was finished with baseball early the next year. (By way of comparison, Derek Jeter is at the top of his game and is presently 35). Assuming that Gehrig could have had six or seven more productive years - not unreasonable, since he kept in excellent shape - his final numbers might have looked something like this, (with his actual stats in parentheses) :
Games - 3000 (2164)
At Bats - 11500 (8001)
Runs - 2600 (1888)
Hits - 3850 (2721)
Doubles - 730 (534)
Triples - 200 (163)
Home Runs - 700 (493)
RBI - 2700 (1995)
Consecutive Games - 2500?, 2800?, 3000? (2130)
These stats are unmatched by any player to date and, without chemical assistance, will probably be unmatchable in the future. (Though Albert Pujols is making threatening noises). The only negative in considering Gehrig as the best ever was that he played a relatively undemanding position (first base) and was only considered an average fielder.
Another point (made by baseball statistics nut Allen Barra) is that had Ted Williams not missed a significant portion of his career due to his participation in World War 2 and the Korean War, his final numbers would be similarly off the charts.

The bane of televised baseball is the centerfield camera. It reduces the great panoramic game with nine fielders, four umpires, two coaches and a batter to a small area populated by four guys. It distorts the speed of the pitches by shrinking the distance from the mound to home plate, making them look slower and more hittable than they truly are. Presumably it's used so balls and strikes can be more easily discerned by the viewer, but it fails even that since the camera angle makes pitches look further to the right side of the plate (facing the field) than they really are. An occasional use of the centerfield camera would be alright, but it's used almost exclusively. More than anything else, I believe it's responsible for the relative lack of popularity of televised baseball. On the other hand, it makes watching a game in person much more desirable by comparison.

I don't read many baseball books, but I do enjoy reading just about anything written by Bill James. His unrelenting enthusiasm for the game's minutia is infectious. Anyone who would dedicate 34 pages of a book (Whatever Happened To The Hall of Fame?") debating whether Don Drysdale belongs in the Hall of Fame is a serious fanatic. (Conclusion - Drysdale doesn't belong).

When President Obama made his comment about "Cominsky Field" at the All Star game on national TV, he showed that he knows as much about baseball as he does about the economy or U.S. history. Maybe he thinks it's Kaminsky Field, named after David Daniel Kaminsky (aka Danny Kaye). Hillary Clinton, however, remains the greatest phony baseball fan in politics, who, while running for her New York Senate seat proclaimed that she had always been a Yankee fan. Hillary wouldn't know Bobby Richardson from Bobby Murcer from Bobby Jindal.

It's said, correctly, that Babe Ruth had a revolutionary effect on the game. When he began playing as a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox in 1914, it was rare that a player would reach a double digit total of home runs during a season. In 1918 Ruth hit 11 homers. Then he hit 29 in 1919, 54 in 1920, and 59 in 1921. Even Wilt Chamberlain, when he scored over 4,000 points in the NBA in 1961-62, only roughly doubled the point total that would have led the league a few years before. Ruth's 1920-21 home run numbers quintupled the previous league leading numbers. For whatever reason (higher quality baseballs, prohibition of the spitball, a shift of focus to a power game) this trend spread throughout baseball and home runs became much more commonplace. It has stayed this way ever since. One effect this has had is that it distorts the relationship between the difficulty of getting a type of hit and the value of that hit. What I mean is the following. It may seem obvious but a home run is worth more than a triple, a triple is worth more than a double and a double is worth more than a single. But in baseball today, (and this has been true since the twenties), it is easier to hit a home run than a triple and in some cases easier to hit than a double. It should not be that way. In sports (as in life) the more difficult the achievement, the more it should be rewarded. In football a touchdown is valued twice what a field goal is since it's more difficult to achieve. Similarly, in basketball, a 3-point field goal is more difficult than a 2 point field goal which is more difficult than a 1 point foul shot. Shooting percentages correctly reflect these degrees of difficulty, (with occasional aberrations, like Shaquille O'Neal). Baseball is not like that. Until Ruth, every player, (as far as I could determine though I may have missed someone), had the expected pattern of singles, doubles, triples and home runs.
For example here's Honus Wagner's career statistical line.
1B - 2422, 2B - 640, 3B - 252, HR - 101.
And Nap Lajoie's.
1B - 2340, 2B - 617, 3B - 163, HR - 82.
And a lesser player, Harry Steinfeldt (third baseman in the Tinker, Evers, Chance infield).
1B - 1175, 2B - 284, 3B - 90, HR - 27.
Even Frank "Home Run" Baker, who played until 1922 (into the Ruth era) had more triples (103) than home runs (96).
Now look at Mickey Mantle's stats.
1B - 1463, 2B - 344, 3B - 72, HR - 536.
And Frank Robinson's.
1B - 1757, 2B - 528, 3B - 72, HR - 586.
For sluggers like Mantle and Robinson it was easier to hit a home run than even a double. It was much, much easier than a triple. Well Mantle and Sosa are sluggers. How about a contact hitter like Tony Gwynn?
1B - 2378, 2B - 543, 3B - 85, HR - 135.
Even a line drive hitter like Gwynn hit more home runs than triples.
Or Paul Molitor, a similar hitter to Gwynn with somewhat more power.
1B - 2366, 2B - 605, 3B - 114, HR - 234.
More than twice as many home runs than triples.
The statistical distortion reached a pinnacle (nadir?) with Mark McGwire.
1B - 785, 2B - 252, 3B - 6, HR - 583.
McGwire had almost 100 times as many home runs as triples and more than twice as many homers as doubles. In his final season (2001) he hit more home runs than singles, 29 vs. 23.
There were and are a few rare throwbacks to the pre-Ruth era. Former players such as Nellie Fox, Maury Wills, Luis Aparicio and Willie Wilson and current ones such as Christian Guzman and Juan Pierre have the "proper" hit frequencies of 1B>2B>3B>HR. However, post Ruth, this has not been the norm.
So what to do, if anything? Well people like to see home runs, (I do), so probably nothing. But it would be interesting to see the game played as it was a century ago by today's athletes. To do that you'd have to either a) make ballparks larger, or b) make the balls softer. Option b) would be more practical.

I have another complaint about baseball statistics, though this is more a bookkeeping problem rather than a fundamental flaw. Back on August 9, Andy Pettitte of the Yankees pitched seven scoreless innings against the Red Sox before leaving the game with a 1-0 lead. Phil Coke took over in the eighth and gave up a 2 run homer giving the Red Sox a 2-1 lead. Coke finished the eighth inning without any further damage. In the bottom of the eighth, the Yankees scored four runs, taking back the lead, 5-2. Mariano Rivera came on in the ninth and retired the Red Sox, preserving the win. Since Coke was the Yankee pitcher when they took the lead for the final time, he got the win. Rivera got a save and Pettitte, who pitched brilliantly, got no decision. I know that several years ago, official scorers had the discretion to award a win to a pitcher who normally wouldn't qualify. The circumstances by which it would be appropriate to do so are perfectly illustrated by the Pettitte-Coke example. Pettitte pitched quite well over a long period, Coke screwed up in a short period, so Pettitte should get the win, not Coke. I don't know if this scorers' discretionary power still exisits, but if it does, it should have been utilized in this case.

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