Reducing Baseball to Numbers Is an Insult to The Game Itself

Mordecai BrownerAnalyst IApril 23, 2009

13 Jul 1999:  A general view of Fenway Park during the 1999 All-Star game in Boston, Massachusetts. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello/ALLSPORT

It's no secret that baseball fans are obsessed with numbers. It seems 3000, 500, and 300 are benchmarks for automatic fame, while the numbers 61, 70, and 73 have caused an outpouring of controversy, news, and debates over punctuation additions.

The difference between .299 and .300 is much greater than the tenth of a percentage point it actually is, practically speaking.  In his autobiography, Mickey Mantle actually lamented batting .298 for his career.  Good lord, the man has the 19th best all-time on base percentage; he's by far the highest switch hitter in OBP and he's fourth amongst retired switch-hitters in batting average.  Yet, the power we've given that stupid numeric plateau gave him regret over missing what comes down to 16 total hits over an 18-year career.

While data and statistics are often useful things, we, as baseball fans, have become numbers-drunk, and it's badly affecting the way some of us see the game.

When looking at a career like Rafael Palmeiro's, we wind up talking about what 500 home runs means, and if it's still an elevated benchmark instead of Palmeiro the actual ballplayer. 

When we defend our Hall-of-Fame choices, we fall behind these ridiculous walls of numbers.  Andre Dawson and Willie Mays are the only two players who meet some arbitrary statistical criteria I'm sure Dawson's backers could rattle off.  Mark Grace, surprisingly, had the most hits in the 1990s.

Not only are baseball fans intoxicated on raw data, but we have to drag the Gregorian calendar in as well.

The last twenty years have seen the proliferation of two horrible catalysts for number-obsession: video games and fantasy baseball.

I enjoyed hitting 500-ft home runs in games like Ken Griffey Jr.'s for SNES as much as anyone, but when manufacturers put a game on steroids, overemphasizing and easing the ability to hit home runs so much that kids start putting Rob Deer (guilty, thank you, RBI Baseball 3) or Matt Stairs at absurd positions in the field, they're helping to reduce the game to simple offensive numbers and neglecting the intangibles and fundamentals.  Granted, later games have added a broader realism to baseball simulation, but they still, by nature of what they are, distort the game.

However, the worst culprit of all is fantasy baseball.  Fielding, throwing, running: this 60 percent of the standard baseball toolset barely matters in the fantasy game.  Worse, situations are non-existent.  A home run in a 10-1 blowout is better than a walk in the bottom of the ninth.  A six-hitter and a leadoff-hitter are always evaluated by the same criteria.  A center fielder, usually, is the same as a right fielder.

This disfigured way of looking at the game produces a range of absurdities. 

For example, using ESPN's scoring system, Hanley Ramirez gave a team a 50 percent increase in points over Jimmy Rollins and a 111 percent increase over Michael Young.  Hanley Ramirez is an outstanding ballplayer, but any rational look at the game tells you that's disproportional, if not crazy. Especially since Rollins and Young have won gold gloves—with 7 and 11 errors, respectively—while Ramirez posted 22 errors last season.

Who would I rather have, Ramirez or Rollins?  In fantasy, the answer is clear.   In real life, however, the answer depends entirely on who else is on the team.

Fantasy systems also overvalue closers.  Don't get me wrong, I think long-term stable closers are undervalued by baseball in general (Gossage should have been in the Hall sooner, and Lee Smith should be in there now), but last year Kevin Gregg—a poor closer on an average baseball team who blew 23 percent of his save opportunities—somehow wound up with a higher fantasy score than Mark Buehrle, Kyle Lohse, Jamie Moyer, Cristian Guzman, Garret Anderson, Ryan Doumit, Placido Polanco, and a host of others.

Maybe it's just fun to play more simple games, or baseball becomes more digestible and easy to talk about when we reduce it to these basic raw data points, but in the end it robs the game of much of its essence and long-term attraction.

I'm a believer in numbers —heck, I'm one of the few people who defend computer rankings come college football bowl season —but even the best sabermatic inventions (like Total Player Rating or Bill James' Win Shares) have serious flaws that prevent them from being definitive.

Maybe baseball is a game where we've given numbers great significance, but it also has, I would argue, more nuances that numbers cannot define than other sports. 

Lineup composition, crafty pick-off moves, heads-up baserunning, Clemente-like throws from right field, a perfect sacrifice bunt, keeping the double play intact:  these things add so much to the game of baseball—and winning the game of baseball—that cannot be quantified.

In the end, the fan must see the forest for the trees, or rather the player and team for the statistics.  Far too often in the modern, get-answers-quick media, entire arguments and ballplayers with 20-year resumes are absurdly decimated to a single stat line.

Pee Wee Reese is in the Hall of Fame and given who else has been admitted, he undoubtedly belongs there, as does Bill Mazeroski.  Palmeiro however, does not.  Failure to understand the categorical difference between the two is what drives GMs to make head slapping trades, fantasy owners to shed tears on their keyboards, and fans to wonder why a team that wins 88 games one year and signs Miguel Cabrera the next winds up in last place, behind even the Royals.

The baseball gods are a fickle bunch, and they become quite testy when their beautiful creation is slashed into a quantitative playground for those drunkenly fixated on the home run leader board and third starter ERAs.  Inevitably, they reward and punish the two numbers that should matter above all else: the one next to W and the one next to L.

Ignore all the intangibles that go into that non-numerical equation at your own baseball peril; just don't try and tell me Steve Finley is a Hall of Famer because he had 2500 hits, 300 home runs, and 300 stolen bases.