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Monday, February 04, 2013

Davidoff: Baseball statistics aren’t as pure as you think

John Thorn...“Every number has a virtual asterisk alongside it.”

In 2006, Jerome Holtzman, a legendary Chicago baseball writer who became MLB’s official historian in 1999, told Selig that he thought the reaction to the “Steroid Era” had been overblown. That the game had been filled with this sort of stuff from its inception. Selig responded with an assignment: Put something on paper for me. Give me some context to what we’re seeing now.

Holtzman responded with a document that went back to the start of the 20th century. It mentioned gamblers and segregation, corked bats and scuffed balls, amphetamines and steroids. Selig still has it in his office today.

Holtzman died in 2008. His successor as MLB historian, the great John Thorn, said this to me on Friday: “No number is pure, and no number can be given a rich understanding absent context. Every number has a virtual asterisk alongside it.”

He added this: “I believe that the average fan looks at numbers like 511 (Cy Young’s wins) or 714 (Ruth’s homers) or 755 (Aaron’s homers) or 762 (Bonds’ homers) as a royal road to understanding. There is no royal road. There is no short cut. They are imperishable remains of events that are vanished. This is all we have. That’s why we venerate them.

“We look at the numbers differently than other sports in part because baseball is a stop-action game. The memories adhere. That’s one of the reasons that baseball is the great game of memory and conversation.

“Statistics help, but sometimes they get in the way of understanding.”

Repoz Posted: February 04, 2013 at 12:34 PM | 10 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: history

Reader Comments and Retorts

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   1. Voros McCracken of Pinkus Posted: February 04, 2013 at 01:48 PM (#4362381)
You got that right. "Put outs?" I think that speaks for itself.
   2. Bob Tufts Posted: February 04, 2013 at 01:50 PM (#4362387)
Ken is an underappreciated sportswriter and deserves more national credit for taking contrarian and (usually) accurate views on the game.
   3. ERROR---Jolly Old St. Nick Posted: February 04, 2013 at 01:59 PM (#4362401)
Fans who understand the full context in which records have been set derive a much deeper enjoyment of the game's history than fans who don't, even if the fans who don't understand that context fail to realize what they're missing. It's also what separates the good sportswriters from the hacks.
   4. vivaelpujols Posted: February 04, 2013 at 02:22 PM (#4362435)
Fans who understand the full context in which records have been set derive a much deeper enjoyment of the game's history than fans who don't, even if the fans who don't understand that context fail to realize what they're missing.


Not sure this is always true. I know this guy who stopped watching baseball when he found out about PED's. Some of the simplicity of unadjusted numbers is nice. But really once you older than like 14 it should be obvious that the environment is a huge factor.
   5. Shredder Posted: February 04, 2013 at 02:45 PM (#4362468)
Maybe he was on a word limit, but I felt like he could have explained his point a lot better. He doesn't need to do that for us, obviously, but BTFers aren't really the audience here. He started to do it with the "hitters park" vs. "pitchers park" argument, but that's maybe one of the weakest of the context adjustment arguments.

I'm not from New York, so I don't know the average intelligence of your everyday NY Post reader (though I'd suppose it's not great), but just leaving it "segregation, gambling, etc." probably isn't that helpful.
   6. RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: February 04, 2013 at 02:51 PM (#4362474)
“Statistics help, but sometimes they get in the way of understanding.”


If only we had an opportunity for education and dialogue.
   7. villageidiom Posted: February 04, 2013 at 03:15 PM (#4362501)
derive a much deeper enjoyment of the game's history
This is useless without a rigorous formula to quantify the depth of enjoyment.
   8. villageidiom Posted: February 04, 2013 at 03:15 PM (#4362504)
If anyone has turned their sarcasm detector off, turn it back on and reread #7.
   9. Everybody Loves Tyrus Raymond Posted: February 04, 2013 at 03:58 PM (#4362542)
This is useless without a rigorous formula to quantify the depth of enjoyment.


I experience life at replacement-level enjoyment.
   10. depletion Posted: February 04, 2013 at 04:01 PM (#4362549)
I'm afraid we're both in danger of being designated for assignment, EverybodyLoves.

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