New-Fan Week: In Baseball, the Numbers Don’t Stop

Editor’s note: A recent reddit post — this one to be exact — really stuck with me. The author is an Irishman who’s looking to get into baseball and, not knowing where to start, he asked for help. Well, this week at Infield Fly, we aim to help everybody’s who’s just getting into the game. If you’re a new fan, if you’re interested in becoming a fan or if you know somebody who think would love the game and you want to point them our way, hopefully this week will have something for you. We plan to cover the how and the why for new fans.

Today, resident stats guru coolhead2011 goes over the basic stats and numbers needed to understand the game.

Baseball players do not, in fact, carry calculators around in their back pockets. In fact, most players, when interviewed about a streak they are on, or counting stat they’ve accumulated, will claim they don’t pay attention to that sort of thing at all. I assume some of them are lying, because many players are also fans of the game, and when talking about the game, it often comes down to comparing players to one another. The baseball gods have given us a game from which we can draw so many numbers, and the discussions based on those numbers never end.

So, let’s start with the numbers a new fan needs to understand, just to know what’s happening on the field, and then we’ll look deeper into how those numbers have grown into a way to evaluate players.

Part 1: The Structure Numbers

First, one of my favourite quotes:

Ninety feet between the bases is the nearest thing to perfection 
that man has yet achieved. 
	- Red Smith

A little list of numbers follows. These are the backbone baseball. Period. As soon as you change one of these numbers, all comparisons to previous incarnations of baseball are really not fair. Change one of these building blocks, and you change the nature of the game itself.

Innings: 9

Outs per inning: 3

Strikes taken or swung on to make an out: 3

Balls taken to award a walk: 4

Fielders: 9

Bases: 4

Distance from pitching rubber to home plate: 60’6″

Distance between bases: 90′

Width of home plate: 17″

Angle of playing field: 90 degrees

There’s baseball. Change any of those numbers, and you break the game itself. I know some of you are saying there was an 8-pitch walk in the 1800s, but that game is baseball in name only. If you wonder what I’m talking about, imagine how a roster and the defense would change with a tenth man on the field and in the lineup. What about a plate stretched to 20 inches? Strategies would shift radically as the offense and defense scrambled to take advantage of any change to these core numbers.

Part 2: The Counting Numbers

The first counting number that ever mattered in any team game was the win. How many games did your team have vs. how many it lost. Simple. You win a baseball game by scoring runs. Score more than you allow and you win. Simple. Count runs. Teams score runs.

In sports like soccer and hockey, those responsible for the scoring are relatively easy to spot. The last person who touched the ball is responsible for the point. Sometimes other people on the same team gave him the ball before he used it to score a point, they get some credit for helping out. Some players have lots of chances to get those points; they are supposed to play close to the point scoring area. Simple.

In baseball, every player gets the same opportunity to contribute to the scoring, a minimum of 3 times in each game. The official term for these opportunities is ‘plate appearances’. The quest for counting runs (which are the building blocks of wins) is where things start to get, shall we say, murky. The first stat that comes to mind as trying to count a players value, might be the run. When you cross home plate, you get credit for a run. Watching a game or two, it’s obvious that the talent involved in scoring a run is minimal. It can involve not stumbling and falling down while jogging 90 feet. So, unlike team runs, which win games, player runs mean almost nothing.

Someone noticed this fairly early on in baseball history, and so, other accomplishments have been counted for hitters for a very long time. Hits are the other elementary offensive stat. If you hit the ball and end up standing safely on a base, you get one hit. Doesn’t matter which base, one hit is all you get. Also, we count walks. If you don’t manage to hit the ball, but the pitcher throws you unhittable garbage, and you recognize that, we’ll give you a point for that too. That’s a different point than the one for the hit, though.

After the counting stats, we come to the next step in the process. Rate stats. If I have ten hits, and you have ten hits, we have both contributed ‘equally’ to the team’s success. However, if it took me 20 trips to the plate to get my 10, and it took you 40, well, we need some division to show who is more likely to be effective. Hits/At-Bats= Batting average. I bat .500; you bat .250. I am the superior hitter. (Maybe, actually, keep reading to see if we might have missed something.)

In the days before spreadsheets, computers, and archived statistical websites, this was considered an effective way of evaluating a player’s skill and value to a team. It’s since become a little more sophisticated. They started counting hits, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, hit-by-pitch, strikeouts. They even made up situations where they didn’t want to penalize a player for being told to ‘strategically’ make an out. Sacrifice bunts, sacrifice flies. If the right runners are on base, the stathead of old decided that not getting on base should not be penalized.

And all that was just fine and dandy. Games were played, players traded, and championships were won and lost. Except that it was a game being played and managed with blinders on. Nobody wrote about, or even thought about little things such as why some players who took a lot of walks didn’t get as much credit as others who hit a lot of singles. There they were, standing on first base, either way. A .300 hitter could get paid some good money. A .250 hitter who got on base 35% of the time did not get paid so well. Why? As long as you ended up on first, not in the dugout, what was the difference?

Silly questions like that never seemed to get published in magazines or newspapers, but we know at least one man was thinking about them. We know because he published his own book with his own money, asking just those kinds of questions.

His name was Bill James. In 1977, he published the Bill James Baseball Abstract. It was a book that uncovered the tip of an unbelievably massive statistical iceberg. People with open minds and math backgrounds started to ask more questions. These non-traditional stat seekers ended up with their own field of mathematics that we now call sabermetrics. Literally, this is the Mathematics of Baseball.

What makes sabermetric stats different from traditional stats? Well, most of the baseball establishment claims not to understand them, even 30 years later. They are trying to do a few different things, things that counting hits and runs batted in (RBI) are not able to reveal.

My next ‘stats primer’ post will look at the results of that sabermetric revolution. Every fan can benefit from the time and effort that has gone into creating a better description of the game. You don’t even have to take a university math course to understand it.

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5 thoughts on “New-Fan Week: In Baseball, the Numbers Don’t Stop

  1. Pingback: New-fan week: How to enjoy watching baseball | Infield fly

  2. Pingback: New-fan week: Baseball is boring. Baseball is not boring. | Infield fly

  3. Pingback: New-fan week: Prep your baseball mind, appreciate baseball emotion | Infield fly

  4. Pingback: New-fan week: We’re all trying to hit .300 | Infield fly

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