Dick Allen, RIP: Big stick, bigger man

Dick Allen’s big stick hit home runs that should have had astronauts aboard.

Around noontime Monday (PST), his family announced it on his own Twitter account. I came home from a morning errand to see the news, and I could only open his Twitter and write, without clicking on the heart symbol for a like, “How can you like the passing of a great ballplayer and a good man?”

Dick Allen is dead at 78 after a battle with cancer. There’d been a swell of support for his election to the Hall of Fame in recent years. He might have made it via the Golden Era Committee this year. Except the committee decided that, well, if they couldn’t meet in person to discuss and vote, by God they weren’t going to meet until next year.

When they made that announcement in late August, I zapped the Hall of Fame and the Committee for suddenly discovering their inner Luddism: “Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark seems to think, erroneously, that technology mustn’t overcome the coronavirus’s travel confusions and constrictions to compromise Era Committee nominations and elections.”

They never heard of setting up a Zoom remote conference? Trust me, since I just took part in my own first one. They can be set up simply, such a conference is restricted to invited guests via meeting codes and passwords, and none would have compromised the integrity of the discussions and votes.

The Committee pushed the meeting back to winter 2021. They just might elect Allen this time around. (He missed by one vote the last time around, in 2014.) Only he’ll be well serene and happy in the company of the angels and not on earth to accept the plaque I’m sure his family will accept proudly when it’s awarded.

It’s not that my opinion means two figs, but I’ve championed Allen’s Hall of Fame election for long enough now, and I’ve seen nothing to change my mind about it. I was on the fence about it for a good long while before that, alas, but once and for all I took as deep a look into the record as it was as I could and became convinced. Allen has a no-questions-should-be-asked case as a peak value Hall of Famer.

If you consider his peak to be 1964-1972, Allen’s .936 OPS and 164 OPS+ should say most of it, especially considering most of that peak came in one of the toughest hitting eras ever. If you consider the absolutely unfair and out-of-line racism he was forced to face and fight, especially as a Phillie, it’s to wonder and marvel that he could even check in at the plate, never mind play as he did when he was healthy.

Let’s look at Allen and his big stick by way of my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric. When I first examined Allen that way two years ago, I discovered a flaw: I shouldn’t have included sacrifice bunts or excluded times he was hit by pitches. The former’s flaw: you shouldn’t be credited when you’re surrendering outs willingly; outs are precious. The latter’s flaw: if the pitcher’s fool enough to drill you, let it be on his head and to your credit.

The RBA metric otherwise is a bid to atone for the incompleteness of the traditional batting average, one of the single most flawed statistics ever devised. Hits divided by official at-bats treats all hits equally and misses too much of what batters do to create and produce runs on the scoreboard. (You still think all hits are equal? Tell me why a single’s as good as a double, triple, or home run and vice versa. Didn’t think so.)

My RBA adds total bases (which treats hits the unequal way they deserve), walks, intentional walks (one more time: you should damn well get credit when the other guys prefer you take your base than their heads off), sacrifice flies (you didn’t intend to fly out but it scored a run so credit to you!), and times you were hit by pitches, and divides the sum by your total plate appearances.

And, this is Dick Allen’s peak according to RBA:

Years PA TB BB IBB HBP SF RBA
1964-72 5,457 2,592 685 120 11 33 .631
Career 7,315 3,379 894 138 16 53 .612

Rest assured that these numbers helped rank Allen among the top twenty third basemen who ever played major league baseball. They would also show him with the third-highest RBA of all post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era Hall of Fame third basemen except two: in ascending order, Chipper Jones and Mike Schmidt.

This is before revisiting his breathtaking power or mentioning that Allen was one of the smartest and most effective baserunners of his time. (Did you know Allen took extra bases on followup hits 53 percent of the time he reached base?) And, before lamenting that early enough injuries impacted his defense either at third base or the position to which his injury-weakened throwing arm finally sent him full time, first base.

Allen didn’t just hit home runs. Phrased politely, they didn’t need the proverbial meals and stewardesses aboard. What he hit typically should have had astronauts. When first analysing his performance two years ago, I concluded based on the evidence that, if he’d been far more healthy and uninjured, Allen might have finished his career with 525 home runs or thereabout.

Dick Allen sharing a big laugh with his old Phillies teammate Jim Bunning at an old-timers’ event in Citizens Bank Park.

Hall of Famer Willie Stargell once tried to take the sting out of the Philadelphia boo birds’ booing Allen by suggesting the reason they booed him was that his home runs didn’t always stay in the park to become souvenirs.

That’s putting things too politely. Allen once told a Phillies historian (and an Allen biographer), William C. Kashatus, “I thought of myself as a victim of racism. I was also something of a jerk. There were others who had to deal with racism, and some of them handled it better than I did. But that’s all in the past. I’m at peace with my career, and grateful that the Lord gave me the opportunity.”

A man who grew up in a racially tolerant and accommodating Pennsylvania hamlet, but whom the Phillies sent to 1963 Little Rock with no support system, who once remembered, “Maybe if the Phillies had called me in, man to man, like the Dodgers had done with Jackie Robinson, and said, “Dick, this is what we have in mind. It’s going to be very difficult but we’re with you”—at least I would have been prepared,” has no reason to apologise.

Whether you believe he was a jerk or just immature, some people persist in believing Allen’s career was shortened by it. Not so, argued Rob Neyer when writing The Big Book of Baseball Lineups: “I don’t think his immaturity had much to do with the length of his career. He just got hurt, and so he didn’t enjoy the sort of late career that most great hitters do. It’s that, as much as all the other stuff, that has kept him out of the Hall of Fame.”

Oh, the sad irony. When the Phillies finally traded Allen out of town, to the St. Louis Cardinals, they thought they were getting Curt Flood in return in the package. To Flood, the trade smacked of treating even a $90,000 a year center fielder as a piece of property like a slave. To Allen, who’d been to hell and back almost daily in Philadelphia and rooted for Flood’s reserve clause lawsuit, the trade was his Emancipation Proclamation.

Allen incurred assorted nagging injuries and severe leg injuries after leaving Philadelphia and especially during his otherwise shining time with the Chicago White Sox. (He won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in his first White Sox season.) “[W]hat he did for us in Chicago was amazing,” said Allen’s White Sox manager, Chuck Tanner.

Dick was the leader of our team, the captain, the manager on the field. He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth . . . He played hurt for us so many times that they thought he was Superman.  But he wasn’t; he was human.  If anything, he was hurting himself trying to come back too soon.

The best short summary of the hell through which Allen was put so unconscionably in his Philadelphia years—by Little Rock, by a Philadelphia sports press and population uncertain or unthinking about the city’s racial growing pains, by some teammates likewise uncertain or unthinking—belongs to Jay Jaffe, in The Cooperstown Casebook:

[C]hoosing to vote for him means focusing on that considerable peak while giving him the benefit of the doubt on the factors that shortened his career. From here, the litany is sizable enough to justify that. Allen did nothing to deserve the racism and hatred he battled in Little Rock and Philadelphia, or the condescension of the lily-white media that refused to even call him by his correct name. To underplay the extent to which those forces shaped his conduct and his public persona thereafter is to hold him to an impossibly high standard; not everyone can be Jackie Robinson or Ernie Banks. The distortions that influenced the negative views of him . . . were damaging. To give them the upper hand is to reject honest inquiry into his career.

His death before the Hall election he deserves inflicts a final injustice upon a man accompanied by too many injustices too long. It elevates him and reduces his critics further that he eventually found equilibrium in his life and peace with baseball.

Allen knew and survived heartbreak enough outside of the racial buffetings: a painful divorce, the unexpected murder of his daughter, Terri, the electrical-fire destruction of the farm on which he hoped to raise thoroughbred horses. (“If my horse can’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it,” he once cracked about artificial turf.)

He overcame those to re-marry happily, keep friends and family close, become one of the most popular members of the Phillies’ speakers’ bureau under a very different organisation than the one for which he played, and a friendly social media presence who beamed justifiably when the Negro Leagues Hall of Fame inducted him in 2018.

When the Phillies finally retired Allen’s uniform number 15 in September, the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested the timing might have been intended partially to push for Allen’s at-last enshrinement in Cooperstown. Allen himself once told Kashatus, “What I’ve done, I’m pretty happy with it. So whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, I’m fine with it. Besides, I’m just a name. God gave me the talent to hit a baseball, and I used it the best I could. I just thank Him for blessing me with that ability and allowing me to play the game when I did.”

Former Phillies pitcher Larry Christenson, an Allen teammate when the latter returned to Philadelphia in 1975, remembered then a teammate’s teammate who preferred to lead by quiet example and humanness. Allen often invited Christenson to lunch on road trips and once signed a bat for him as a memento: “To L.C., two homers with my bat. How about that? Dick Allen.”

Christenson once borrowed Allen’s once-fabled 40-ounce bat in a game. “Son,” Allen told the pitcher, “if you can swing it, you can use it.” Christenson used it to hit a home run in that day’s game.

Bereft on earth now are Allen’s loving wife, Willa, his family, his friends, and all of those who saw through the cluttering, clattering nonsense and saw the player and the real young man who didn’t deserve his seasons in hell and deserved election to the Hall of Fame. Now that election will have to be posthumous on earth, damn it.

But surely the Lord’s angels escorted Allen kindly and gently to the Elysian Fields, and that was the only other thing we could ask through our own loss.

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Some portions of this essay have been published by the author previously.

One more grip of Jim Bouton

Wasn’t it true, Don Vito Corleone wondered while commiserating with a fellow Mafia chief in The Godfather (the novel, not the film), that great misfortune often led to unforeseen reward? It proved to be for the late pitcher/writer Jim Bouton, whose sometimes deceptive but nearly-incurable optimism was finally smashed when his youngest child was killed in August 1997.

Driving home in New Jersey, Laurie Bouton stopped short to stay out of an accident in front of her, but a driver behind her didn’t do likewise, smashing into her car. The 31-year-old an uncle described as “Jim all over again” for her free spirit died hours later. It destroyed Bouton’s generally sunny view of life—until it reconciled him to the New York Yankees.

In fact, as biographer Mitchell Nathanson also notes in Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original, Bouton struggled for months to follow until Laurie’s oldest brother, Michael, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times urging the Yankees to do what had never yet been done and invite his father back for an Old Timers Day. (Father once revealed his son’s essay moved him to tears.)

What nobody including Bouton knew was that his decades-long blackballing from the Yankees—for whom he once starred as a pitcher, before his too-hard throwing style ruined his arm and shoulder, reducing him to the margins and back to a knuckleball he abandoned earlier in his career—had absolutely nothing to do with Bouton’s own longtime prime suspect.

Mickey Mantle was hardly thrilled at Bouton’s Ball Four revelations about him, but six years before Laurie’s death the death of one of Mantle’s sons provoked a sympathy letter from Bouton. That prompted Mantle to call his old teammate to say yes, he was ok with Ball Four at last and, no, he wasn’t the reason for Bouton’s Old Timers Day freeze-outs.

The freeze-outs turned out to be courtesy of former Newark Star-Ledger writer Jim Ogle, whom Bouton zinged in Ball Four for treating players “purely on how much they were helping the Yankees to win. Charm, personality, intelligence—nothing counted. Only winning. Ogle didn’t have even the pretense of objectivity . . . in fact, Ogle’s ambition was to work for the Yankees. But they would never give him a job.”

Until they did. The Yankees hired Ogle to direct their club alumni association in 1975, his duties including, as Nathanson writes, “keeping the Yankees in the good graces of their most iconic alumni and organizing Old Timers Days. In his mind both responsibilities could be best discharged by blackballing Jim Bouton.”

Nathanson’s book unfurls Bouton’s story with both affection and the kind of candor Bouton himself would have appreciated. (And in fact insisted upon, when he and his wife agreed to let Nathanson have access to everything from family doings and undoings to the still-preserved Ball Four notes and tapes that ended up sold to the Library of Congress during Bouton’s final illness.)

It’s the story of an intelligent and sensitive young man who didn’t become a pitcher because he looked to turn sacred cows into steak or to write the book that secured his name and sent baseball and about half the world of sports journalism to the rye bottle, either.

Nathanson’s Bouton is a pitcher who had eyes to see, ears to hear, and a conscience to heed, with no malice aforethought but flying in the face of an establishment unwilling to concede the great and glorious game (A. Bartlett Giamatti’s phrase) was only too human. He couldn’t deny the caprices he saw in front of him, whether front office people engaging one-sided, lopsided, deceitful contract talks with players to players themselves proving unheroic often enough while letting the fans in the stands or with their morning after newspapers worship them as gods.

The fun-loving Bouton loved the game but hated its business and duplicities. The longer his pitching career went despite the arm issues, the less Bouton could turn the blind eye. Unlike most players even then, Bouton talked freely when interviewed and didn’t try to hide the sides of him that were unlike the typical jock of his time. Some respected him for it, others rejected him for it.

When his established sportswriting friend Leonard Shecter suggested he keep a kind of running diary on his 1969 season with the expansion Seattle Pilots, Bouton revealed he’d already begun taking notes. Anyone could do it regarding the old imperial Yankees; who else would have thought about doing it among an expansion team of fellow outcasts just trying to keep their jobs and their sanity?

Many Bouton teammates weren’t sympathetic to his final product. The embarrassments of some kept them from seeing that Bouton humanised them and thus elevated them. He was as observant of their field or mound struggles as their off-field shenanigans, sorrows, and oft-ignored or mistreated injuries. He told the world these were human men when it seemed often enough that baseball ignored or denied their humanness.

Bouton had already stepped beyond the bounds of baseball’s proprieties before starting his Ball Four season. He’d supported publicly a threatened American boycott of the 1968 summer Olympics if South Africa’s then whites-only teams were allowed to compete. He spoke against the Vietnam War whenever asked.

Bouton’s original notes, tapes, and the pages shaped by his editor/friend Leonard Shecter for Ball Four now repose in the Library of Congress.

But with Ball Four he was considered either a revelator by those who loved the book or a traitor by those including then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn who tried to suppress it. (Or, in the case of the San Diego Padres, leaving a burned copy of it on the Astros’ dugout steps.) It was enough to seed a followup, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally, about the controversy, his final pitching days before his first retirement, and his early days as a New York sports reporter.

That book wasn’t quite the hit Ball Four was, of course, but it offered a few more insights into what Bouton thought and felt about becoming an unexpected literary star. Not to mention his further thoughts on the real reason the old guard sportswriters resented him: he’d told the stories they thought they should have told but, for assorted and not always edifying reasons, couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Some saw themselves as keepers of the proverbial baseball flame. Others saw themselves as club adjuncts. Jim Brosnan, whose from-the-inside books Nathanson called “tell-some” books, had annoyed them enough. This was too much of enough already.

But Ball Four proved in due course as significant as any other evidence, when it was introduced at the arbitration hearings through which pitcher Andy Messersmith finished what outfielder Curt Flood’s brave but failed prior lawsuit (begun the same year in which Ball Four first appeared) started, ending the reserve era and its suppressions of player pay and rights. Well after its literary stature was affirmed.

The book inspired a rash of further tell-alls from baseball’s insides, from players and collaborators who lacked Bouton’s wit and Shecter’s sensibilities. They hardly understood  that Ball Four‘s success lay as much in Bouton’s ability to show baseball’s humanness as in the, shall we say, steamy revelations on which those subsequent books leaned most heavily. (“More outrageous than Ball Four” was a tellingly typical cover blurb.)

Nathanson goes into fine detail Bouton’s years as a sports reporter, his head-buttings with those who thought sports reporting equaled promoting their teams instead of, you know, real reporting. He also goes deeper into the truest conflict inside Bouton’s psyche and life—the guy who achieved beyond his own expectations but couldn’t resist a challenge because he had something to prove past the challenge itself.

His love of baseball the game prompted him toward a comeback bid in the mid-to-late 1970s, including a spell with the minor league legend Portland Mavericks. He eventually made it back with the Atlanta Braves for a September 1978 spell—he once went mano-a-mano with Houston’s ill-fated howitzer J.R. Richard, pitching him to a draw—then walked away feeling for the first time that he didn’t have to prove a thing anymore.

His first baseball retirement led to the crumpling of his first marriage; Bouton and his first wife, Bobbie, had simply grown apart, though Bouton wasn’t immune to the occasional extracurricular activity, with the emphasis on occasional. (They divorced in 1981.) He didn’t really move to do something about it, though, until he met an attractive academic named Paula Kurman unexpectedly at a fundraiser to which both were invited.

Jim Bouton and second wife Paula Kurman, at a Ball Four retrospective.

It was Kurman (a speech therapist with Ph.d in interpersonal communications) who showed Bouton most of all what even his own family couldn’t, that he no longer had to take up quixotic challenges to prove himself to himself. The deception in his optimism until then was that it masked a man who had a difficult if not sometimes impossible time believing in his own worthiness. They married in 1982.

Bouton promoted Big League Chew (his Mavericks teammate Rob Nelson came up with the idea but Bouton sold and promoted it to buyer Wrigley), became a motivational speaker, helped to renovate an old but somewhat storied minor league ballpark, joined his wife learning and becoming a competitive ballroom dancer, continued writing, and eventually also became a stonemason who’d build walls and other supplementing fixtures for their home in the Berkshires.

In other words, this unfairly reputed miserable smasher of icons for its own sake was as normal, life-affirming, and human a man as his critics didn’t or couldn’t see. (Well, not everyone gets dance lessons from stage and film legend Marge Champion.) That 1978 Old Timers Day appearance simply began Bouton’s return from the ranks of the living dead into which his daughter’s senseless death plunged him.

“Looking up in the stands, at all of the family and friends who were there . . . ,” Nathanson writes (they included a contingent of friends bannering themselves “Laurie’s Girls!”), “[Bouton] understood that life could and would go on. It was what he needed to know at the precise moment he needed to know it most.”

The only thing that could and did knock Bouton out permanently enough was the 2012 stroke he suffered on the fifteenth anniversary of Laurie Bouton’s death. It exposed a condition of cerebral amyloid angiopathy and presented him the first and only challenge he couldn’t take on as successfully as he had others. It didn’t rob his intelligence, but his intelligence made him too aware of what he’d lose.

The most famous single line in Ball Four is the one that closed it: “You see, you spend a good part of your life gripping a baseball, and it turns out that it was the other way around all along.” On the day of Bouton’s death in 2019, his ability to speak gone, “in the netherworld between life and death,” his wife put a baseball into his right hand.

In his final act of life on earth, Bouton did with that ball what Nathanson’s biography will do to you once you open the covers and start reading. He gripped it tight.

You have nothing to fear but fear itself

Baseball fans my age or older tend to quake when you tell them such things as that the traditional batting average is an incomplete statistic. It still has isolated, situational value to a certain extent, such as how a batter does with men on base or in various leverage situations. But as a cumulative view it’s really a false picture.

Why? Think of its basic formula: it divides hits by at-bats. That’s all. It doesn’t account for the actual hits and their actual worth. “That batting average turns a blind eye to so many outcomes,” writes MLB.com columnist Anthony Castrovince, “is not even the greatest flaw in its role as a batter barometer. No, the greatest flaw is the implied insistence that all hits are created equal.”

For better or worse, I’ve phrased it a little more snarkily in past writings: if you really think a single’s as valuable as a double, a double’s as valuable as a triple, a triple’s as valuable as a home run, a single’s as valuable as all the above, you shouldn’t hang a shingle as a baseball observer or analyst any time soon. Castrovince discusses that and numerous other statistical advances, depths, and challenges, in A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics, in language that’s snarky where appropriate but sensitive, smart, and nuanced all at once.

His book should be required reading for any baseball fan who thinks statistics—the life blood of the thinking person’s sport—should conform to prejudice instead of offering the bigger and deeper picture. Sacred cows be damned to steak.

One of the issues with too many articles and books about baseball analytics is that they can be and too often are, well, too analytical. To the average baseball fan they’re the alphabet soup and you can’t even see the soup. Castrovince gives the alphabet—well, the numbers—the places they deserve without letting the soup disappear. He writes a lot more entertainingly about his statistical beliefs than I could hope to write, and he makes plain that he has no intention of burying baseball fans or dismissing them as dumb.

“I’m here to build you up, not break you down,” he writes in his introduction. “While there is plenty of math in this book . . . I’m presenting it as casually as I can. Plus, when things get super-duper complicated, I’ll give you a brief lay of the land instead of wandering too deep into the woods and weeds.”

He explains the newer, deeper numbers in language plain enough that even Yapper McFlapper in the nosebleed seats, who only thinks that he could out-play million-dollar Swinger Swofford or out-think manager Brainy Boner with one arm in a cast and half his cerebrum in formaldehyde, can get it. Yapper might be pleasantly surprised and entertained at once over how he doesn’t have to matriculate back to college to get it.

Castrovince knows it should be child’s play to debunk the traditional batting average and a passel of other old stats that have more flaws than a glass onion. “Stats such as batting average, RBIs, errors, wins, and saves are all baseball backbones,” he writes in the on-deck circle. ” . . . But not acknowledging their faults and trusting them as the be-all and end-all is a mistake.”

Then, he checks in at the plate. “There have been .400 hitters who weren’t even the most productive players in their league in a given season, and there have been .300 hitters whose performance, at large, did not rate as positively as players whose averages had a ‘2’ right after the decimal.”

I can make that just as simple. Let me give you two players. They both had two decades-plus major league careers. Their lifetime batting averages are within a single point of each other. Knowing going in that the old-schooler is going to say the wrong player was more valuable at the plate, here are the batting averages:

By one batting average point, Yapper McFlapper pronounces Player A the better hitter. Let’s give Yapper a cookie and admit Player A has more lifetime hits than Player B, and Player B has over 3,000 of those. Time to go a little deeper. Player B has a higher on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS, not to mention that Player B also walked more unintentionally and intentionally and hit twelve more sacrifice flies—all in almost four thousand fewer trips to the plate.

If Yapper McFlapper sees from that that Player A wasn’t half the real presence at the plate than Player B, why can’t anyone else? And I didn’t even think about measuring them according to my own Real Batting Average (RBA) measure—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. Oh, what the hell:

If Yapper looks at that and still clings to the prejudice that a .303 lifetime traditional batting average makes Player A the slightly better player than Player B, then Yapper’s got some splainin’ to do. That’s without showing Yapper Player A’s three “batting titles” against Player B’s one, by the way.

Castrovince lists the ten ways any trip to the plate ends: hit, walk, out, sacrifice bunt, sacrifice fly, hit by a pitch, reaching base on a fielder’s choice, reaching base on an error, a dropped third strike on which you reach first safely, and defensive interference. You know that five of them don’t count as “at-bats.” (If you don’t . . . )

The so-called “batting title” goes to the hitter from each league who has the highest batting average, yet you need 502 plate appearances . . . to even qualify for the title. So the five outcomes that, for whatever reason, don’t matter when tabulating batting average suddenly matter when assessing who has the best batting average.

It’s enough to drive you batty.

(Why didn’t I include sacrifice bunts in my RBA metric? Sorry, but those are outs made deliberately. You shouldn’t get credit when you make an out on purpose. But you should get credit for the sacrifice fly because it sends home a run and you weren’t trying to hit one right into Leather Sackorocks’s glove.)

That’s not the only thing that drives Castrovince batty. Like me, he thinks runs batted in don’t say as much as Yapper McFlapper and Frostie Fingerflipper think they say about a player’s run productivity and clutch ability. Peel yourselves from the ceiling, Yapper and Flappie.

You can’t drive in the runs if nobody else reaches base ahead of you, unless you hit one out. You can’t look at the RBI total alone and conclude a player’s clutch. Good luck, by the way, scoring runs without a little help from your friends—unless you can steal every base including home every time you reach first. (Well, maybe Rickey Henderson could have, if he wanted to . . . )

Some people accuse the Angels’ all-universe Mike Trout of being a little less than clutch because he isn’t knocking 100+ runs in every full season he plays. “The only thing Mike Trout lacked,” Castrovince writes, with the virtue of truth on his side, “was . . . Mike Trout batting in front of him.” Trout at this writing has a .418 lifetime on-base percentage. Would indeed that he’d had a couple of Mike Trouts batting in front of him.

Here’s one instance where the old batting average does make sense: hitting with men on base. Trout through this writing has hit .306 with men on base and .318 with runners in scoring position. His OPS for the former: 1.082. For the latter: 1.013. (Oh, the futility of the “RISP” stat, because it counts guys on second base or better only. Technically, you’re in scoring position the minute you reach base at all, even just first. If you’re a home run hitter, you’re in scoring position the moment you step into the batter’s box.)

Aside from OBP, SLG, and OPS, Castrovince believes the best way to measure a batter’s value is with runs created, isolated power, weighted OBP, weighted runs created and OPS+, and baserunning. He’ll give you the mathematical formulae and conjugate it in language so simple a schoolboy or schoolgirl can comprehend it a lot more readily than they might algebra or calculus. He’ll tell you why they really matter.

Runs created, whose formula factors the same things my RBA does with a little more complexity: “the central job of a hitter is to help his team score runs.” Isolated power: “batting average does not tell you how often a player’s hits go for extra bases, and slugging percentage does not discriminate between singles and extra-base hits.”

Weighted on-base average: “not all methods of reaching base are equal. OBP goes only so far in measuring offensive value, whereas wOBA assigns the proper value to each event in terms of its impact on scoring runs.” Weighted runs created: “while runs created and OPS were both huge steps forward from more antiquated offensive metrics, neither one is adjusted for the context of a given season or a player’s home park.”

Baserunning (BsR): “with stolen base attempts on a continual decline—and the art of baserunning extending beyond stolen bases—it’s better to look at a context-driven and all-encompassing stat.” Sub-stat: ultimate baserunning, crediting a runner “for advancement on the bases relative to the frequency with which the league average runner advances in the same situation.”

In 2020, the major league average for extra bases taken on followup hits was 42 percent. Think about that. Damn near half the time men reached base they were advancing more than the expected minimum when the next guys swung the bat. (The aforementioned Rickey Henderson did it 55 percent of the time he was on base when the next guy[s] swing the bat[s].) Today’s players are smarter than you think when they reach base.

Castrovince doesn’t let the traditional pitching stats off the hook, either. He thinks pitching wins are baseball’s most deceptive pitching stat and should have been put in their grave when Jacob deGrom won the 2018 National League Cy Young Award. (He won the award with ten wins and nine losses.) “Jacob deGrom’s issue,” Castrovince writes, “wasn’t that he ‘didn’t know how to win.’ It was that he didn’t know how not to be on the 2018 New York Mets.”

DeGrom “won” as many games as the White Sox’s Lucas Giolito in 2018. He posted a 1.70 ERA to Giolito’s 6.13. He also posted a 1.99 fielding-independent pitching rate to Giolito’s 5.56. Trained strictly on what a pitcher actually does control (strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit batsmen, home runs), FIP “is a better tool than ERA—which is influenced by the whims of a pitcher’s defense or the rulings of an official scorer—in evaluating a pitcher’s effectiveness. A pitcher has little control over what happens once the ball is put in play.”

Castrovince even exhumes that only six pitchers in the live-ball era qualified for the ERA title while posting ERAs and FIPs below 2.00 in the qualifying season: Hal Newhouser (1946), Sandy Koufax (1963), Bob Gibson (1968), Tom Seaver (1971), Clayton Kershaw (2014), and Jacob deGrom (2018). The Cy Young Award wasn’t invented when Newhouser pitched, but only one of the other pitchers didn’t win the Cy Young Award in his such season: Seaver, who “won” four fewer than winner Ferguson Jenkins who also “lost” four more. How does a guy who lost four more beat the guy who lost four less?

Want to lean on pitching wins that badly, Yapper and Frostie? Show me the pitcher who strikes 27 straight batters out. (Not even Nolan Ryan ever did that.) Uh oh, Flinger Flounder’s team got shut out, too, not by 27 up and 27 struck out, they’re going to extra innings, and Flinger’s 27 straight punchouts left him an arm and shoulder begging for their lives after nine full. Guess who’s going to get credit for the “win” if he happens to be on the mound when the winning run scores even if it’s only in the tenth inning when it scores?

The author also loves walks/hits per inning pitched, WHIP for short, as I do: “Because, as is the case on your morning commute, traffic is bad. WHIP tells us how well a pitcher has performed the very fundamental role of not letting the traffic pile up—obviously an important element in run prevention.” Pitchers and fielders have the opposite job of batters: their job is to keep the other guys from putting more runs on the board than their guys do.

Castrovince gives fielders their propers, too, meaning you can throw away every defensive stat you grew up with, really, including errors, and focus on defensive runs saved in hand with the ultimate zone rating:

[E]rror counts doled out by scorekeepers in the press box barely tell us anything about what makes a successful defender. DRS and UZR are better approximating of defensive value, as they include elements such as range, efficiency on double play chances, and first-step quickness.

The error, he argues, is “the most capricious and arbitrarily (and often unfairly) applied statistic in all of professional sports. The error, which of course generated fielding percentage, tells us not what happened but what an observer of the game felt should have happened. And its uselessness is matched only by its unreliability, because, on a given day, a play ruled an error in one ballpark could very well be ruled a hit in another.”

Would you consider Bill Buckner’s in Game Six of the 1986 World Series the most infamous “error” in baseball history? Do you remember Mookie Wilson’s slow-rolling ground ball up the line taking a wicked skid on the Shea Stadium grass through Buckner’s feet beneath his mitt instead of the tiny hop up into the mitt, leaving Buckner helpless on the play? Do you remember that Wilson would have beaten the play at first base if the ball did get into Buckner’s mitt, because he was about a step ahead of Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley ambling over to cover first?

It doesn’t let Red Sox manager John McNamara off the hook for failing to do what he normally did, replacing Buckner at first with Dave Stapleton for that should-have-been final inning. (It doesn’t let the Red Sox bullpen off the hook for surrendering the two-out hits that re-tied the game, either.) But it should have made Red Sox Nation and just about all of baseball nation think twice, thrice, and quadruple, before deciding Billy Buck was Beelze Bub incarnate.

Yapper McFlapper and Frostie Fingerflipper haven’t come to terms with wins above replacement, or WAR. Castrovince saves WAR for last in his book, just as I have for this review. Maybe Yapper can’t stop singing the ancient Edwin Starr hit: “War/what is it good for/absolutely nothing.” Maybe Frostie thinks it means baseball during World War II. What the hell is WAR, really?

“A measure,” Castrovince writes, “of a player’s value in all facets of the game by determining how many more wins he is worth than a readily-available replacement at the same position.”

For position players, it’s the number of runs above average Swinger Swofford’s worth through a combination of batting, running, and fielding, adjusted for his field position (some of which are tougher work than others), the league averages thereof, and the number of runs the mere replacement might be worth. For pitchers, it’s either runs allowed per nine innings (earned and unearned) or FIP adjusted to the league averages and the ballparks, relative to Slinger O’Slick’s innings pitched.

Castrovince admits WAR isn’t the final, most perfect measurement, but he knows its best use may be in showing you that there was more than met your eyes when you watched a particular player during a given season. A player with 8 WAR or better is MVP level. A player with 6-8 WAR is a mere superstar. A player with 4-6 WAR is an All-Star level player. A player with 2-4 WAR is a good, dependable regular. A player with 1-2 WAR is a role player. A player with 0-1 WAR is a pine rider. A player under 0 shouldn’t even ride the major league pine.

But WAR has its uses for measuring a player’s career, too. If they measured WAR during Lou Whitaker’s career, that longtime Detroit second base bellwether might have been in the Hall of Fame two decades ago, instead of one-and-done on the writers’ ballot and waiting for an Eras Committee to reconsider him yet again. Whitaker finished his career with 75.1 career WAR. The average Hall of Fame second baseman’s career WAR is 69.5. Whitaker’s entry into Cooperstown would hike the average a tick or three. Still think WAR’s good for absolutely nothing?

What the old-schooler fears, perhaps, is being left for dead in the woods and weeds with the sabermetric advance. The old-schooler may fear that everything he or she ever learned on baseball cards or in those ancient annual pocket-size volumes of Who’s Who in Baseball turned out to be like an old gag about condensing Romeo and Juliet: a couple of moony teenagers ran off together and died.

You might care to note that was the first time I deployed the S-word here. By design. I, too, have no wish to leave you for dead in the woods and the weeds when I talk or write sabermetrically or analytically. Fellow old-timer, I too grew up with Who’s Who in Baseball as my pocket Bible.

But I also collided happily with The Elias Baseball Analyst most years of the 1980s and Total Baseball pre-Internet. Who’s Who in Baseball was rendered irrelevant by Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet, where the basic stats go deeper than the baseball card, and one or two clicks sends you to the kind of advanced stats for which Total Baseball cost you an arm (and maybe a wrist, if you weren’t careful with a book as heavy as a foundation block), a leg, and the annual updated supplement.

My God, the Internet’s made statistical diving simpler than all that. What’s to be afraid of? Castrovince is the Franklin D. Roosevelt of baseball analytics: you have nothing to fear but fear itself. I was the world’s worst math student in my school days. My teachers then would flip to see me now diving into the deep stats the way oceanic explorers dive for subterranean discoveries. If I can do it, anybody can.

So why should you do it? I was afraid you’d ask. Very well, I surrender—no matter how much of a baseball nut you are, no matter how many subscriptions to ESPN or MLB Network you have and use, you can’t see every last baseball game played when baseball is in season, and you’ve got no other way—not even YouTube clips—to know what the players you couldn’t watch really did above and beyond their surface stats. The box score won’t tell you the whole game story.

You don’t “need” stats to, you know, watch and enjoy the game? Well, you watched and enjoyed the games growing up and couldn’t wait to compare what you saw with what was on those guys’ limited baseball cards or in Who’s Who in Baseball—when you weren’t busy flipping the cards in the schoolyard or on the corner, or clipping them to your bicycle to clatter and fart against the turning spokes.

Pick up A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics without fear, with a wide open and fearless mind, and relax with the idea that you’re actually going to get what you wished for, back when you were bound (and gagged?) once upon a time to slog through high school mathematics. The formulae simplified, the concepts making sense, your game eyes not playing tricks on you, and the entertainment as immense and joyous as watching the merry-go-round go ’round on the bases.

Oh. By the way. Refer back to Player A and Player B. Player A is Pete Rose. Player B is Willie Mays. You are now free to ask yourself whom between nine Charlie Hustlers and nine Say Hey Kids will create more runs and hang them on the scoreboard.