All stats were “made up,” once upon a time

Well, I asked for it. I spotted a social media thread asking people to pick the greatest baseball player of all time if Babe Ruth wasn’t available. (I didn’t respond to that opening, but I’ll repeat here: Ruth was only the greatest of the pre-World War II/pre-integration/pre-night ball players.)

The thread drew a decent volume of responses. The lady who opened it noted Barry Bonds and Pete Rose were the two most often mentioned, and asked if anyone agreed. That’s where I waded in, fool that I can be, to reply that Bonds is in that conversation but Rose isn’t quite there. “I’m curious,” replied one, “why you think Rose isn’t in the conversation.”

I linked the gentleman to a deep analysis I wrote shortly after Rose’s eightieth birthday two years ago. (Long story short: Without his other stuff, Rose would be a Hall of Famer, but not quite the greatest of all time with or without anyone else’s availability.) The good news is that he actually took the time to read it. The bad news is what he posted to me after reading it and, apparently, deciding my Real Batting Average metric was an apparent laugh and a half.

“So wait,” he began, “you made up your own stat to prove Pete isn’t the greatest hitter of all time and expect anyone to take it seriously?” Now it was my turn to enjoy a laugh and a half. “All statistics,” I began my reply, “were ‘made up’ once upon a time, over long periods.” That was over two hours before I sat down to write here and now.

Regarding RBA, I wanted something simpler than weighted runs created (wRC) to give me the best, deepest possible view of a player at the plate. My most recent dip into the deep RBA waters was a look at last year’s RBA leaders. (Hint: the top dog in Show broke Roger Maris’s single-season American League home run record.) It also includes a brief explanation of RBA and its component parts.

My astonished correspondent hasn’t yet responded to my last response. But if he were to ask me to prove that all stats were made up once upon a time, I’d refer him to Mr. Peter Morris’s two-volume baseball bible, A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations That Shaped Baseball.

The original volumes appeared in 2006; a single-volume edition which happens to be in my baseball library appeared in 2010. An entire chapter on statistics appeared in the original volume two, The Game Behind the Scenes. Read the chapter very carefully, and the fan with the widest of open minds should need very little to tell him that somebody invented just about every known baseball statistic once upon a time.

Let’s take the box score. The first one known showed up in an 1845 newspaper. The only things shown were the names of each team’s players, the total runs each scored, and the total outs each made. Fourteen years later, Henry Chadwick delivered the first box score expanded from there, adding total team runs plus hits, putouts, assists, and errors. That wasn’t quite the end of it.

Four months after the Republican Party named Abrahan Lincoln its 1960 presidential candidate, the Detroit Free Press delivered some new box score stats after the Detroit Base Ball Club’s loss on 7 August, by way of tables. One showed outs and runs. A second showed the outs made by each batter according to categories. A third showed the number and type of outs each fielder recorded.

In the interim between the 1845 box and Mr. Chadwick’s expansion, the line score began its passage through its birth canal. The birth took two years until the nine-inning game became the standard in 1957.

You may have noticed that in none of those did base hits turn up. Well, Mr. Morris filled in the gap: “Their absence [from the earliest box scores] seems shocking at first, but on reflection it becomes understandable. Much of baseball’s scoring system was borrowed from cricket, where a hit almost always meant at least one run. As a result, cricket scorekeepers understandably kept track only of runs. The early developers of baseball scorekeeping saw no reason to keep track of base hits in a sport where runs determined the victor.”

Chadwick didn’t begin including base hits until during the 1867 season. He “then began to campaign for the new statistic,” Mr. Morris wrote. “He repeatedly pointed out that run scoring depended on teammates while there could ‘be no mistake as to the feat of a batsman making his first base by a good hit or by an error of a fielder. This therefore becomes the only criterion of batting, and therefore in judging a batsman’s skill we should first look to his score of the number of times he makes his first base on a good hit or by an error of a fielder’.”

You made up your own stat and expect anyone to take it seriously?

In the same year Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D Major premiered in Leipzig (1879), the run batted in was born. (Born, but not baptized by the Show until 1920.) Seven years later, the stolen base was born—as a stat, not an act. Two years after that, along camethe sacrifice hit as its own stat, if not an “official” at-bat—but it took six more years for that kind of sacrifice to be limited to the bunt.

Those babies had fathers, too. They probably also had to withstand those harrumphing that they had no business inventing stats out of whole cloth, thin air, or based on men appearing to them aboard flaming pies, and expecting anyone to take them seriously. Would you like to shoot them now, or wait until you get them home?

The deep stats which annoy the philistine as well as animate the thinking person required another half century or more to emerge. Somebody fathered the defensive putout and assist. Somebody fathered on-base percentage; arguably, it was Branch Rickey’s most important non-playing hire, the statistician Allan Roth. (Branch Rickey’s boy made up his own stat and expected anyone to take it seriously?) For further openers.

It took longer than that for such thinkers as Bill James, his protegé Rob Neyer, Jayson Stark, the minds and hearts at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe, Keith Law, and more, to deliver unto us the win share, the win above replacement-level player, the fielding-independent pitching rate, the win probability, and far more goodies than I have time or space to unfurl here.

All the better to give serious fans a way to see what they were unable to see. And, yes, to quadruple their fun.

You need more than anecdotal evidence to discover what the great players and teams before your own birth truly accomplished, even if the best written among it continues to instruct to a certain extent and delight to a greater one. Unless you’re blessed with compartmentalised viewing abilities and attention mechanisms, too, you can’t see every last baseball game played on given days, in given weeks or month, during given seasons. (But wouldn’t that be a wonderful idea?)

“Baseball emerged as a prominent part of the American experience in the mid-nineteenth century,” Mr. Morris reminded us, “at about the same time that statistics were also becoming a staple of American life.” He cited science historian Thomas Kuhn calling that period “the scene of a second scientific revolution that revolved around quantification” before continuing, “As baseball sought to appeal to adults instead of children, it made use of this emphasis on measurement and quantification.”

So I created my own stat to provide me a simpler but still multi-dimensional look at a player on his own and compared to his peers and predecessors. Would you like to shoot me now or wait until you get me home?


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