Joe Gray discusses why statistics and milestones are so useful in baseball, and then turns to explore what milestones are achievable in the British top tier.
IÂ like to say that Iâ€™ve always been a sports fanatic. The truth is, though, that â€“ womb judo aside â€“ I was largely unaware of sports for the first 4 years of my life, and then spent the next 4 years researching the subject, before achieving official fanatic status on 26 June 1990, the day that David Platt turned on Paul Gascoigneâ€™s 119th-minute free-kick and connected for that volley against Belgium in the second round of the soccer World Cup.
In the same way that Iâ€™ve â€œalwaysâ€ been a sports fanatic, Iâ€™ve always had a liking for numbers. It was no great surprise, then, that baseball â€“ a sport mainly played on the wrong side of the Atlantic but with an unparalleled wealth of numbers to easily compensate for the geographical inconvenience â€“ would grab my attention.Â
The more I learned about baseball, however, the more it became apparent that it was not the breadth and depth of the statistics that was making it so attractive to me as a numerical sports fan. Instead, the appeal of the sportâ€™s numbers lay in their simplicity. For example, a single figure, given to three decimal places, could provide most of what you might wish to know about a particular hitter, while a grid of statistics (or, even better, a scoresheet) could be used to retell the story of a 3-hour contest.
Digital statistics in an analogue world
In representing a sporting contest in statistics, you are converting something that is analogue into a digital summary. In music, the reason that CDs offer an acceptable representation of analogue formats such as vinyl is that they contain sufficiently short samples of musical data to make the digital format sound the same as the analogue to most ears. In summarizing sport using numbers, however, you are not only digitizing an analogue event, but also discarding most of the data. Fortunately, with baseball, this can be easily achieved without losing any of the really important information, and there are two main reasons for this.
Reason 1: The action comprises a series of discrete events with a finite array of outcomes
Baseball is played as a hierarchy of discrete events: a game comprises nine innings, which are each composed of a series of plate appearances, which are, in turn, made up of a sequence of pitches. At every level, the discrete events have their own finite array of possible outcomes. Games will conclude with a win or a loss; innings will end with a change in the number of runs scored; plate appearances will finish with a transformation in the number of outs and the location of base-runners; and pitches will lead to a shift in the count (and possibly in the configuration of base-runners too). Having an intricate hierarchy of discrete events, each with a finite array of outcomes, makes numbers alone perfectly adequate for summarizing a game.
So this explains why numbers are of more use in summarizing baseball games than they are for a sport like soccer, where the hierarchy of discrete events only breaks down to the granularity of a 45-minute half. A soccer game is at its most exhilarating when wave after wave of carefully constructed attacks and counter-attacks climax with a sublimely struck goal. This is something that simply cannot be expressed statistically without losing the essence of the game.
But what about sports other than baseball that do have sophisticated hierarchies of discrete events? American football, for instance, splits halves into downs and downs into plays, while cricket (which is so often compared with baseball) has its innings, overs, and deliveries. This is where Reason 2 kicks in.
Reason 2: The enjoyment lies more in what happens than how it happens
I believe that the joy of experiencing a baseball game lies more in what happens than how it happens. The main explanation I can offer for this concerns the instant when the pitchâ€™s fate transfers from the hurler to the hitter, at the moment of contact between bat and ball. The thin, rounded form of the baseball bat gives a hitter little control over a ballâ€™s trajectory, meaning that there is a large element of randomness in whether a ball in play ends up as a hit or as an out. So when fans applaud a hit, they are acknowledging their joy at the outcome rather than necessarily how it was achieved. That is to say, they do not consider a hit to be the result of a good swing, and an out on a well-hit ball to be the result of a poor swing (the truth is, the swing will look essentially identical in the two cases). Rather, they know that the skill is in being able to make good contact (ideally, transferring as much power into the ball as possible). This line of reasoning applies to more than just hits and outs. For instance, fans will boo a slumping player who struck out on a foul-tip just as much as they would have if the player had missed the ball by a foot. The manner of the out is not nearly as important as the outcome.
The contrast with other sports can be seen by taking cricket as an example. There is much more scope to guide a batted ball in cricket, and a far greater variety of strokes, both within and between the repertoires of different players. A flashing cut for a single to deep square leg will probably elicit a greater volume of applause than a nervous edge through the slip cordon for four on the next delivery. The joy for spectators lies as much in how the outcome was achieved as in what it was. Accordingly, trying to represent a batsmanâ€™s half-century with numbers alone will not be particularly informative to someone who was not at the ground. We could learn from a statistical breakdown that the runs came quickly and that there were a couple of huge blows in the knock, but we would know nothing of the exquisitely executed cover drive to get the batsman off the mark, or the deft footwork employed to dig out a series of yorkers.
Similarly, with American football, a statistical summary of a scoring drive â€“ while easy to produce â€“ makes bland reading. To remove the concussion-inducing hit on the running back on the opening play or the smart spin by the quarterback to escape a sack on 2nd and goal is to take away the essence of the game.
This is not to say that there is no enjoyment in observing the flawless swing demonstrated by the on-deck hitter or in watching a curve ball suddenly break earthward in the manner of Wile E Coyote on realizing that gravity exists. But taking this layer of the game away, as is done in a box score, leaves something behind that is still a perfectly compelling account of a game. (This also explains why baseball converts so well to radio commentary.)
But what about fielding?
The one area of baseball where the enjoyment lies more in the how than the what is spectacular fielding plays. This explains why a novice fan who is enthralled by a diving catch that nullifies an extra-base hit or a bang-bang play on a from-the-knees throw may be unmoved by a dozen straight foul balls (unless the spectator is sitting directly in the line of oneâ€™s path). It also explains why I will not feel a strong urge to seek out a video clip for a home run or a clutch strike-out from a game Iâ€™ve listened to, but will be desperately keen to see how exactly the pitcher managed to turn a white-hot comebacker into an inning-ending double play.
Milestones: an intrinsic part of baseball
Putting the counterexample of fielding to one side and continuing the line of reasoning that baseball is more about the what than the how, it follows that milestones have a particularly important role to play. In soccer, the home fans can rise as one to offer a congratulatory deafening to the local hero after a 40-yard lob, so they do not need to get overly excited when the player hits a tap-in at the back post to move to 100 career goals. And then there is cricket, where milestones do gain more attention than in soccer, but where there is still capacity to acknowledge a batterâ€™s quality by simply offering manic applause after a beautifully timed boundary. In contrast, a star hitter in baseball is a star because of the rate of good outcomes rather than the quality with which those good outcomes are achieved. But while the stars will achieve good outcomes more often than the non-stars, and therefore be applauded more often, this set-up does not offer scope for the occasional ovation that these stand-out players are due â€“ unless milestones are also applauded.
For this reason, acknowledging milestones should be an intrinsic part of baseball, wherever it is played. To be able to do this, though, it is necessary to track statistics over playersâ€™ careers, and that has not been done for long enough and consistently enough in Britain to leave us with historical precedents for marker posts of greatness. While I hope that measures have now been taken to ensure that top-tier statistics are properly recorded in every future season (throughÂ Project Cobb and the Great Britain Baseball Scorers Association), there will be a lag lasting some years where there are almost no cases of players having statistics recorded over the whole duration of a substantial career. All that can be done in the meantime is to find the back of an envelope and calculate some realistic milestones to expect.
British baseball: what are achievable milestones?
We will first look at what could be considered marker posts for offensive greatness over a career, examining four statistical categories: base hits, home runs, runs batted in, and stolen bases. The workings below are based on 7-inning contests with seasons of 25 games, a length hovered around during the past decade. A non-trivial proportion of these games will be truncated by one or two innings owing to the 10-run mercy rule, while approximately one-quarter of any playerâ€™s games will involve lost batting opportunities in the final inning by virtue of the playerâ€™s team being at home and in the lead. Therefore, even taking extra-inning contests into account, it is difficult to see a 25-game season offering a player more than 150 innings of hitting opportunities. Over the past 9 seasons in the British top tier, pitchers have thrown to an average of 4.95 batters in each inning, meaning that those 150 innings translate into approximately 80 plate appearances for a player. Finally, considering all plate appearances amassed by the top-ten hitters since 1995 (based on career on-base average plus slugging average), 80 plate appearances is equivalent to roughly 65 at-bats.
Using the assumptions above (and further speculations introduced below, also grounded on empirical data from British top-tier baseball), the four offensive categories will now be examined, with Player A in each case representing a solid career and Player B a truly astonishing one.
- Base hits: Player A hits for a .350 batting average over a 14-year career in which the equivalent of 11 seasonsâ€™ playing time is accumulated (subtracting time for injuries and non-availability). Multiplying 11, 65, and .350 gives 250 career hits. Player B hits for a .405 batting average during a career that starts at the age of 16 and ends at the age of 39, with the equivalent of 19 seasonsâ€™ playing time amassed. These numbers equate to 500 career hits. Therefore, 250 hits could be considered as signifying a solid career and 500 hits an astounding one, with increments of 50 hits in between the two figures being recognized as stepping stones towards greatness.
- Home runs: Player A hits a home run in 4.2% of all at-bats accumulated over 11 full seasonsâ€™ total playing time, which equates to 30 total home runs. Player B hits a home run in 5.7% of at-bats during a career lasting the equivalent of 19 full seasons, leading to 70 home runs. Thus, increments of 10 home runs from 30 upwards could be recognized as milestones, with 50 a major milestone on the way to true greatness in the category.
- Runs batted in: Across 11 seasonsâ€™ worth of accumulated playing time, Player A drives in 1 run for every 4.4 plate appearances, leading to 200 runs batted in. Player B, over 19 full seasons of plate appearances, drives in 1 run for every 3.8 plate appearances, which equates to 400 career runs batted in. This gives a gradient of milestones from 200 for solid to 400 for truly astonishing, with increments of 50 seeming sensible.
- Stolen bases: Player A swipes a base for every 8.8 plate appearances over 11 seasonsâ€™ worth of playing time, giving the player 100 career stolen bases. Player B steals a base for every 7.6 plate appearances over the equivalent of 19 full seasons, which works out as 200 stolen bases in total. So we have a gradient of milestones from 100 to 200, with every 25 stolen bases in between being noteworthy.
While hitters in a 1-day-a-week league will get only a small fraction of the playing time than hitters will get in a league where games are played almost every day, there will not be such a difference in playing time between starting pitchers in the two types of league. This is for the simple reason that for the time a pitcherâ€™s arm is recovering, it does not matter if the team is playing or not. Nevertheless, looking over recent seasons, the league format (which is largely, or even excusively, composed of double-headers) has rarely afforded a pitcher in Britain more than a dozen starts in a season. Using this assumption and others applied below, we can try to calculate reasonable ranges of milestones for innings pitched, wins, and strike-outs.
- Innings pitched: In a 14-year career, Player A accumulates the equivalent of eight seasonsâ€™ worth of start opportunities and averages 5.20 innings a start, giving 500 innings pitched. In a 23-year career, Player B collects the equivalent of 14 full seasons of start opportunities, averaging 5.95 innings per start for 1000 career innings. Increments in milestones of 100 innings pitched can therefore be seen as stepping stones from a solid 500 to a truly astonishing 1000.
- Wins: Player A, inÂ eight seasonsâ€™ worth of starts, picks up a win 52% of the time, leading to 50 total career wins. Player B, in the equivalent of 14 full seasons, wins 71% of starts for 120 career victories. Therefore, starting with 50 wins for a solid career, increments of 10 represent milestones going towards 100 or even beyond for genuine greatness.
- Strike-outs: Player A, over 500 career innings, fans 6.3 batters in every 9 innings, leading to 350 career strike-outs. Over Player Bâ€™s 1000 career innings, 10.8 batter whiffs per 9 innings, which equates to 1200 career strike-outs. This gives a wide range of possible milestones, with 500 and 1000 being the most striking figures within the spectrum.
How long will we need to wait?
There are several retired players and a couple of players active in 2009 who have already achieved at least one of the milestones mentioned above.
- The all-time leader in top-tier hits, based on known statistics, is Alan Bloomfield, even though numbers from the early years of his career are missing. It is possible that recovering those missing numbers could push him from his retirement total of 376 above the milestone of 500 highlighted above.
- Bloomfield also has the most known top-tier home runs, with 36, and it is tempting to wonder whether the true total reaches 50 or even goes beyond that. The highest total for a player active in 2009 is Roddi Liebenbergâ€™s 31 (hit at an incredible rate of over 9.3 per 100 at-bats), but his career is unlikely to extend far enough to allow him to reach the next milestone.
- The career leader in runs batted in is the retired Brad Thompson, with 298 in regular competition and a further 27 in the Scottish Amicable League of the late 1980s. If perfect stats existed for Thompsonâ€™s career, that figure of 298 would almost certainly rise above 300, but there are probably insufficient gaps to speculate that his true total could touch 400.
- Bloomfield is the only player with more than 100 known stolen bases in top-tier baseball, with his total being 129. Filling in blanks in the statistical record would probably push this past 150, but not as far as 200.
- The retired Alan Smith is the only player with an innings pitched total or a wins total in the milestone spectra outlined above. Based on a statistical record with relatively few blanks, his known figures sum to 755.2 innings pitched (with an additional 17.0 in the Scottish Amicable League) and 77 wins (with an extra win in the Scottish Amicable League).
- Finally, the all-time strike-out leader â€“ based on known statistics â€“ is Cody Cain (pictured right), who finished the 2009 season on 495. Cody will hopefully return in 2010 to pass the 500 mark (and also to drive in the 5 runs he needs to reach 200 runs batted in), but what remains of Codyâ€™s career is unlikely to afford him the opportunity to reach any further milestones in this category.
With the two active players mentioned above both in the closing years of their playing time, we need to turn to players who are at an earlier stage of their baseball careers to speculate on future significant milestone accomplishments.
- Ryan Trask: By making his debut in top-tier baseball at the age of 14, Trask (pictured right) has managed to accumulate over 700 plate appearances while still having 10â€“15 years of potential playing time ahead of him. Currently on 205 career hits, he is on course to break the 250 mark towards the end of the 2011 season and â€“ assuming that the fall-off in talent and playing time at the end of his career mirrors the rise in talent and playing time at the start â€“ we could see him collect his 500th sometime in his late 30s. If he does, he will almost certainly be the first player to reach that mark based on known statistics. Around the time Trask collects his 250th hit, he should also be connecting for his 30th home run. There should then be plenty of time left in his career to reach 50 (something we might see him accomplish in his early 30s) and then push on for further milestones. Finally, the next few years should also bring Trask his 100th stolen base and his 200th run batted in.
- Matt Maitland: While not making his top-tier debut as early as Trask did, Maitland (pictured right) still started accumulating playing time on the mound while he was a teenager. If he pitched for the next 10 years, he would need to average a fraction over 30 innings a season â€“ a realistic accomplishment â€“ to reach the 500 mark. His career rate of strike-outs of basically a batter an inning means that the 500 mark is also achievable for him in this category.
If milestones are an intrinsic part of baseball, then it follows that it benefits the game when they are reached. But there is more to it than just deciding on appropriate milestones and recording the statistics to ensure that they are recognized. Specifically, the league must be enjoyable enough for players to want to compete in it year after year, knowing that they must pay to play and sacrifice valuable summer Sundays.
Photos by Project Cobb Photography