Friday, August 8, 2008

Numbers Tell You Everything, Except For What They Leave Out; 756*

Rob Neyer brought up the 756* thing again. No game Thursday, so, why not?

Some people go around all the time thinking that numbers can't capture meaning. 'Cold' and 'calculating' are associatively and alliteratively linked, and cliched images of emotionless logical number crunching robots are so common as to be... cliches. Religions decry the scientific worldview that wishes to 'reduce' meaning and quality to 'mere' quantity. People complain about not wanting to be a statistic (before participating in a focus group.) Some people laud qualities that defy quantitation- sometimes called 'intangibles'- as if this defiance were a mark of greatness, rather than non-existence.

So for these folks, what's the big deal about 756*? Numbers never determined meaning before, why should they in this case? These people are free to see meaning, greatness, and intangibility wherever they want, without the constraints of numbers. They shouldn't need an asterisk to tell them about the meaning of a record. 762 happened, so what? They can always tell tale tales about whoever they once saw play the game.

But of course some may be more scientific in their temperament. They may suppose that greatness, for instance, is a function of the numbers, and so is entirely determined by them.

For these folks, there's two ways to go. Either greatness is a function of old fashioned tally count-em stats which aren't context (i.e. ballpark, era, league difficulty) sensitive, like homers and wins, or greatness is a function of new fangled more sophisticated metrics that do compare players to their league or across eras (VORP, win shares, OPS+).

For folks who go the second way of the second way, home runs don't figure especially prominently anyway; not all home runs are created equal, after all, for a home run by itself doesn't tell you if it was hit in whiffleball, the no-splitter-no-slider-no-ethnicity 1920's, or in 1968.

It remains, then, that 756* should only be a problem for those who want the relative greatness of all those players who played at different times to be entirely determined by numbers that fail to present meaningful standards of comparison of players at different times. In short, 756* should only be a problem if you want greatness determined by the wrong numbers.

So the solution, then, is not asterisks, or divided categories- most homeruns for a player who only played against white people, most homeruns for someone with backne- but realizing why context-insensitive numbers have never been valuable for comparing different players at different times anyway, and so seeing why many records are superficial to begin with.

The only problem with the steroids, then, for this way of looking at things, is that only some people used them. But on the assumption that steroid use was widespread in this era, such that there's a relatively level playing field, even if a rampaging roider broke a count 'em record, they might not stand out in their own era, and it'll take that much more for the OPS+ to go up a tick.

Though perhaps a truism, by itself, a record is just another instance of one person getting more somethings than another person. Which records matter, and why, vary greatly, and for many different reasons. Some symbolize something beyond the sport- 715 could mean that it only took black players one generation to break an old white man's record, but that's sociological, not strictly about baseball, and most records don't have such meanings. And as far as baseball goes, few individual record breaking moments are as memorable or meaningful as moments of a team's victory or defeat; Dave Roberts vs. Barry Bonds, steroids or not? Please.

The idea that records symbolize some sort of purity, the good old days of baseball is- and always has been- a myth. Steroids happened, racism happened, crappy gloves and dirty dead balls that only went 250 feet happened; no number remains unscuffed by its times. Sure, there's a sentimental attraction in remembering what you read on baseball cards, but these numbers as indicators of reality or predictors of the future are inaccurate, and they probably never determined meaning anyway. If so, they fail as science, and they fail as religion.

Numbers are everywhere. If we like baseball numbers, I think it's the baseball, not the numbers, that really matters. The numbers are just there to help. They're not everything. Except for two numbers. 2004 and 2007. I like those.


Soxlosophy said...

an addendum:

I wish i had remembered the line from the parliament funkadelic song 'ride on' (off chocolate city) that nicely encapsulates the first kind of person that holds meaning over numbers:

"it ain't what you know, it's what you feel."

the next few lines are equally interesting.

"don't worry about being right, just be for real.
we're gonna do it to the max, when we do it.
we're gonna do it, do it good, when we do it."

Jere said...

Did you know John Valentin had a P-Funk rating of 63.9?

And you know what I've always wondered? Why home runs are listed as a total number whereas hits are thought of in terms of the ratio of hits to at bats. You can have the most hits and still lose the batting title, and you can have the best HR/AB ratio and lose the HR race. Imagine if a dude led the league in RBI/AB ratio, in HR/AB ratio, and total # of hits? Yet didn't win ONE leg of the Triple Crown? If I were that person, I'd just go ahead and tell my grandkids I won the Triple Crown.

Soxlosophy said...

that's funny, jere. i didn't know that about valentin, though i always suspected he was funkier than jose offerman. and a good call on the new and improved triple crown.

over and over again, it's quite startling to me to realize how much arbitrarity there is in which stats are valued.

especially with home runs: given the different dimensions of ballparks, (among other things), it's just so obvious that the single home run total doesn't tell you a lot. if in some stadiums 2nd base was 60 feet from 1st base, and in others it was 110 feet, and the guy in the first stadium had more stolen bases than the guy in the second, i can't imagine why anyone would infer that the first guy was the better base stealer than the second guy, or that anyone would care all that much about the stolen base record. but that's exactly what we do with the home run record.

and i think more grandkids should be told stories that start with 'had it not been for the arbitrary value system imposed on certain select classes of numbers...'

that'd learn them good.