Tipping Pitches: Fatherhood: Hall of Fame for a Third Grader


Friday, January 8, 2010

Fatherhood: Hall of Fame for a Third Grader

email to friend edit
It all started with a project for a third grader...

Our son Michael is a smart kid, and we're doing all we can to keep him challenged. He loves baseball (as does his teacher), so it was suggested that I provide him a project to work on in his spare time that centered around his favorite past time.

Little did I know that the project would present me with a seemingly unsolvable problem.

The Baseball Hall of Fame
In spirit of the recent vote for the 2010 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, I intended to present Michael with a little challenge. Which players deserve to be enshrined?

I had it all figured out in my mind. I would take a list of all of the players in the Hall of Fame. I'd add to it an equal number of players who were not. I'd list all of their career stats.

Then, I'd take away the names.

It was a project for a third grader, but I knew that more context was needed. He wouldn't be able to compare the stats of players in the Steroid Era to those in the Dead Ball Era. He'd need to understand that the stats of those who also played in the Negro Leagues were incomplete. He'd need to understand that things weren't always as they seemed.

So I decided to compare all stats of a player to those of the average player in his era. If a player was active from 1970 through 1988, I'd show the player's career stats next to the average stats, accumulated, from all of those years.

Luckily I'm a whiz with Excel. I loved the project. It was a great problem and one I wanted to solve. And one that was becoming more and more complex with each new solution aimed at making it simpler.

Which stats would I use? Which stats were most important? How would they be compared? How would I determine the average player?

These are difficult questions to answer. They're questions that Hall voters can't agree on themselves.

To start, I simply used every stat available. I found the average qualitative stats (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage) for each year since 1876. That's right. Each year.

This part was actually very easy. Qualitative stats are cake, believe it or not. Although the general public is caught up on quantitative stats (most home runs, runs batted in, hits, etc.), those stats are much trickier to analyze.

The average batting average of a given season is easy to figure out. Just take the total hits accumulated divided by the total at bats.

But average home runs is tricky. Do you account for every player in the league when figuring out the average home runs? If you do, you need to realize that there were far more players in some seasons, offensive players were used differently in different eras, and some stats would be watered down.

While they may not mean much on the surface, I found team per game stats to be most helpful. The game has always been nine innings (though way back, there were no extra innings). There have always been nine hitters on each team, with or without the designated hitter. Though the number of games would change, that wouldn't apply here.

Some of the things I found were quite amazing.  Here are a few highlights.

1) Home runs, not that surprisingly, have not always been that prevalent. Back in 1917, .1 home runs were hit per team every game. That's a decimal point in front of the "1." That number was up to .4 by 1922, .6 in 1930, .8 in 1950, 1.1 in the "Juiced Ball" year of 1987, and spiked at 1.2 in 2000.

2) The stolen bases myth. Maybe it's because I grew up mainly in the 1980s, but I always thought that the game had always been characterized by more stolen bases until recently. That's not really the case. There was an average of 3.0 stolen bases per game in 1887, but that number quickly dropped to 1.7 in 1892, 1.1 in 1898, and was never above 1.0 after 1917. Stolen bases were down to 0.3 per game in 1953, wavered between 0.7 and 0.9 in the 1980s and 1990s, and has been between 0.5 and 0.6 since. No longer a team like the 80s Cardinals, but overall not really much change there.

3) Strikeouts are way up. It's safe to say it's not because the pitching is so good these days. Players are simply swinging for the fences now (see number 1). Back in 1911, each team struck out on average 1.9 times per game. That number passed 4.0 in the 1950s, quickly exceeded 5.0, and touched 6.0 in 1967. In 2009, teams were striking out nearly seven (6.9) times per game. Quite the change, and needs to be considered when evaluating pitchers. Is number of strikeouts these days really an impressive stat?

4) Number of runs scored hasn't changed all that much. Back in 1894, each team scored an average of 7.4 runs per game. By 1908, that number was down to 3.4. Outside of a dip to 3.4 again in 1968 (that famed Year of the Pitcher), runs scored per team per game has remained rather consistent. The high since 1940 is 5.1 in 1999, and most years have been somewhere between 4.0 and 5.0.

5) The sacrifice bunt was never all that popular. This shocked me, just like the stolen base statistic. I remember watching a game in 1982 where announcers debated the fact that Robin Yount didn't bunt Molitor over in the first inning of a game. I thought this was a sign that the sacrifice was far more prevalent then. Not that much. In 1926, each team bunted 1.3 times per game, but after 1930 we'd never see a year in which teams averaged a bunt per game again. The number has been below 0.5 since 1982, bottoming out at 0.3.

6) Very large spikes in batting average. This one is all over the place. In 1894, the average batting average was .309. Just 14 years later, it was .239. By 1930, the average hitter was batting .296, dropping to .253 by 1942. In that famed year of 1968, the average hitter was batting .237, and that number would rise to as high as .271 in 1999. How could one ever compare hitters from different eras? And how could we ever use number of hits (ie, 3,000) as any type of a bench mark?

There's plenty more, but I'll stop boring you now. Essentially, comparing players to their peers is a must. Hitting .250 in 1968 is far different than hitting .250 in 1930 or 1999. People get stuck on looking at stats, but those stats need to be very closely scrutinized. It's not just a matter of looking at the general era a player was active. Things changed dramatically in some cases on a year-by-year basis.

The Third Grade Project: In Limbo
So what am I going to do with this project? Not sure, but I haven't yet gotten past the hitters. Needless to say, there will be no right or wrong answers. There are players in the Hall of Fame who probably don't deserve it, and there are players who aren't who probably do. But the criteria for determining that is awfully hazy.

I'll finish the third grade portion of this project soon, but the grown-up edition is going to take some serious time. I've already started comparing player stats to players from their eras and getting some interesting results. Some very unexpected. Some presumed all-time greats who may not be as great as we thought when compared to their peers. And some who we felt were undeserving but were in fact dominant during a tough hitting era.

More to come.


Post a Comment