Pitchers and catchers have reported to Spring Training sites in Arizona and Florida, and soon we will have baseball to talk about, but the big question is will we be speaking the same language. I have had many conversations with many folks about baseball through the years and not all of them have gone well and not every time were we even speaking the same language. Baseball is a spot of numbers. The events end up displayed in columns and rows of numbers in a box score. The single event of a game repeats itself until a season occurs, and the players that played in those games go on to have careers.
It is these stats that make up most of our conversations about baseball. It is hard to even talk about the sport without bringing up a stat. You go to a game, drink some beers and eat some hot dogs, and have a general good time, but sooner or later someone is going to ask you about what you saw, and that is near impossible to talk about without using stats. Understand stats is then important to our conversation about the game. What does it mean if player X got a hit and would it have meant as much if it were player Y, and what type of hit was it, what was the game situation when the hit occurred All of this is important to our understanding of the game.
Language is important as well. Let’s revisit a couple conversations I had about the game where I ended up not just on a different page from someone else, but in a completely different book. The first was a discussion of Stephen Strasburg and the future of the Nationals. This was back in 2010 and I said that Strasburg gives the Nats that true Ace every team needs. That teams have won championships with one true Ace and a mediocre rotation behind them, and because I was talking to a Yankees fan I brought up the 2009 Yankees team.
The 2009 Yankees allowed an average of 4.65 runs a game. The AL average for the 2009 season was 4.75. The 2009 Yankees were essentially league average at preventing runs, but they had an Ace. They had CC Sabathia. The rest of the Yankees rotation was uninspiring to say the least, but when I pointed this out I was suddenly in a battle for my life. The person I was talking to suddenly got very defensive of the Yankees, and more importantly Andy Pettitte. Their point was that Andy Pettitte was a 200 game winner and had won a bunch of games in the post-season. My point was that while 24-33 year old Andy Pettitte was a very good pitcher 37 year old Andy Pettitte was mediocre.
The person I was talking to was having none of it and started yelling at me, “Who do the Nats have that has won 200 games?” The answer of course was no one. Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann were both at the beginning of their careers and the rest of the pitchers that pitched for the 2010 Nats weren’t key pieces for the future. And through all the arguments about Andy Pettitte and the 2009 Yankees pitching staff my original point, that a team can win a championship with an Ace, a mediocre 2-5, and a great offense, was lost due to a language barrier. We were both talking about baseball, but doing so with different stats and therefore a different language.
The other conversation where I realized the nuances and importance of language when talking baseball was with my brother-in-law and about Edgar Martinez and the Hall of Fame. Here is Edgar Martinez’s career stat line as I saw it, .312/.418/.515 over an 18 year career. Here is Edgar Martinez’s stat line as my brother-in-law saw it, DH, >500 HR, >3,000 hits, no MVPs. What I saw was one of the best hitters to have ever played the game of baseball and someone that revolutionized the position of DH. What my brother-in-law saw was a player that only played half the game and didn’t have any of the magic numbers required to get into the Hall of Fame. This conversation never even got off the ground because we were never even talking to each other. We were speaking different languages even though we were talking about the same subject matter.
The language of baseball is stats and through the years the conversation has moved away from certain stats and towards others. Pitchers’ Wins and RBI are now viewed as overvalued and are rarely part of the conversation. That isn’t to say they don’t have some value. All stats have value. All stats tell us something. Pitchers’ Wins tell us how many times a pitcher pitched at least 5 innings, left the game with a lead, and the bullpen was able to maintain that lead, and RBI tell us how many times a batter game to bat with a runner or runners on base and successfully drove that runner in via a hit, walk, hit by pitch, fielder’s choice, or sac fly. There is a lot of noise in both those stats. The movement towards advanced stats is mostly to clean-up the noise. To help us to view the game and see exactly what it is that each player is contributing.
When it comes to advanced stats the concepts behind the stats are often as if not more important than the stats themselves. In the coming weeks as baseball teams around the nation ready themselves for the regular season we will ready ourselves as well. We will discuss some of the advanced stats and the concepts behind them so that when we do discuss baseball. When we do have the conversation We will be talking to each other instead of arguing at each other in different languages.