Sunday, April 1, 2012

Winners Are Written By History

We haven't had a chance to talk about advanced stats very much lately, what with so many people being racist and trying to kill each other. But right now I'm reading "Wicked Curve: The Life and Troubled Times of Grover Cleveland Alexander" by John C. Skipper, and it's making me think about advanced stats on every page- precisely because it avoids them so much.

Now, I love advanced statistics. I think objective data is always superior to subjective narratives, no matter how good the narratives make us feel. And if our current understanding of the numbers is limited, well, that's okay; the quest for more complete knowledge is kind of necessarily never-ending, and the quest for more information is kind of necessarily noble. And hey, there's something oddly liberating about being to look up a player yourself, check out the numbers, and get a good sense of what he does, rather than relying on what some grizzled old scout or blow-dried pundit tells you.

Of course, a lot of people in the broad swath of sports culture disagree with me, and this book illustrates why. The fact of the matter is, a lot of people did not have advanced stats when they learned the game, and most of the history of the game is written to reflect that. Thus, the legends of the game- the Ruths, WIlliamses, DiMaggios- are not understood in those terms, even if the terms are more accurate.

For example: "Wicked Curve" spends a lot of time counting up Alexander's Wins. And that's kind of important, as his claim to fame is that he held the record for Wins in the NL (and is third all time overall). But, as we now know, Wins are a useless stat, predicated as much on the offense's performance as the pitchers, and defined as much by the timing of runs as the total.

Alexander certainly had other claims to fame. A 1.121 career WHIP. Over 2,000 strikeouts. A famous performance in the 1926 World Series to lead The Beloved St. Louis Cardinals to their first World Series title. And while all of these are things are more accurate, objective measurements of Alexander's actual performance, they're kind of glossed over in the book (with the exception of the obviously dramatic World Series heroics).

Understand, I don't exactly blame Skipper; his focus was as much on Alexander's troubled personal life, so a discussion of advanced statistics- which would have had to include some explanations- would have been quite the digression. But still, if we're really interested in predicting performance, understanding how wins are generated, or assigning value to players, it doesn't help anyone that legendary players from previous eras are measured by stats that do none of that.

The solution, I think, is to start getting some baseball history books that put legendary players in the context of advanced statistics. There's going to be some limitations on this- there was no PitchFX in Alexander's day, so we're never really going to know if his control was as impressive as Skipper says- but a lot of the building blocks of modern stats were recorded, so if someone has just the right mental illness, they can figure it out. Some books may be doing that; I don't know of any, but I'm always willing to learn (hint hint, dear readers). Along the way, we may find out that some of our legends weren't as great as we thought (although, going by Baseball Reference's career leader boards, maybe not). But that would be a small price to pay for better understanding of the game.

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