Norman Chad: Stats trash piled too high to haul away
I was watching a regular-season baseball game on TV the other night – granted, it was a stupid thing to do and I’m already paying the price – when the following piece of data streamed across my screen:
“Todd Helton is only the seventh player in MLB history to possess a .325 career batting average, .400 on-base percentage and .575 slugging percentage.”
You could’ve knocked my socks off with that one, except I was already barefoot and drinking PBR out of a can.
The Helton factoid is what I would call statistical debris.
In the old days, a garbage truck would come by twice a week to haul that stuff away, but, nowadays, this sporting trash is piled up so high so often, it’s too costly to dispose of on a regular basis. And, so, it is heaped into our living rooms and we must learn to live with it, like an evil mother-in-law who’s moved in indefinitely.
For years, ESPN has led the statistical avalanche. But it has plenty of company now. The Wall Street Journal covers the world of business and the world at large pretty adeptly; however, when it comes to the world of sports, the Journal has turned into USA Today, with bigger words. The Journal reduces all of sport to numbers, graphs and pie charts – it’s a statistical junkyard, with spare parts nobody needs.
The Journal even offers daily predictions. For instance, “Los Angeles Lakers 103.2, Houston Rockets 90.9” or “Philadelphia Phillies 5.2, New York Mets 4.8.” “Scores are based on the average of 10,000 game simulations,” we are told, “and rounded to 1 decimal point.” I am somewhat thankful, for both my own emotional well-being as well as the emotional well-being of my unborn children, that the scores are not rounded to the hundredths or thousandths.
The Journal ran a story earlier this year detailing how a couple of University of Pennsylvania professors studied 6,500 NCAA basketball games from 2005 to 2008 and concluded that teams have a 51.3 percent chance of winning when they are behind by a single point at halftime. In other words, when you’re ahead, chances are you will lose; apparently, you are more motivated when you are behind.
Geez, using that theory, the Washington Nationals should be undefeated, no?
Baseball remains the biggest sports-by-numbers perpetrator. ESPN litters the baseball screen with updated, situational numbers on every pitch – with a magnifying glass, you can figure out how a hitter does better when the count is 2-0 rather than 0-2. Speaking of which, I read the other day that the Dodgers have increased their “pitches per plate appearance” from 3.63 in 2007 to 3.81 in 2008 to 3.96 in 2009, which puts them second in the majors.
Here’s an actual sentence from a recent USA Today story: “Earned runs are constructed from a confluence of events.” Frankly, I thought I had stumbled onto a crime story and was about to digest a police toxicology report. But it was an article on ERA and what affects it. It included the following words on Atlanta Braves pitcher Jair Jurrjens:
“…a low 5.2 strikeout rate and 1.6 K/BB ratio are worrisome. His .260 BA-BIP and 84% strand rate are both primed for regression. Jurrjens’ 5.03 xERA is nearly three runs higher than his actual ERA, an ominous indicator.”
Heck, I’m scared.
OK, folks, here’s a stat for you:
Nobody gets out alive. Nobody. So enjoy it while you can, and I’ll see ya 6.0 feet under.
Ask The Slouch
Q. Did Tom Watson’s stirring British Open weekend inspire you to get off your middle-aged butt and go hit a 3-iron? (Jon Daniels; Indianapolis)
A. You know, I heard ABC’s Rick Reilly say that golf is a game for a lifetime. No, golf is a game for lazy weekends when you’re retired and want to get out of the house and it’s not raining or cold and your back and knees aren’t aching. Poker is a game for a lifetime – you can play it any time, anywhere, any weather, and you don’t need to buy a lot of equipment or put on a hideous golf shirt and pants.
Q. Now that Major League Baseball has moved toward accepting instant replay review, how many more missed tag-outs will we have to see before professional wrestling gets off the schneid? (Bryan Fields; Fairview Park, Ohio)
A. Pay the man, Shirley.
You, too, can enter the $1.25 Ask The Slouch Cash Giveaway. Just e-mail email@example.com and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!