Monday, May 15, 2017

Baseball by the Numbers

America’s National Pastime
This is a continuation of a blog post on baseball, first starting with Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994), posted last month. Here I discuss one of the main themes of baseball: the battle between pitcher and batter and how every pitch can change the final narrative.

Expos Past: Taking a trip down memory lane: The Montreal Expos played their final game against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium on October 3, 2004; the Mets won 8-1. Coincidentally, the Expos played their inaugural game against the Mets at Shea Stadium on October 8, 1969; the Expos won 11-10.  (This was the year of the Miracle Mets.) After 36 years (1969–2004) of  being part of Major League Baseball (MLB), the Expos no longer existed and Montreal no longer had a professional baseball team. The team moved to Washington, D.C., and were renamed the Washington Nationals for the 2005 season. As for why Montreal lost its team, one has to look no further than to the sad story of bad ownership the last few years, chiefly in the person of Jeffrey Loria, who continues his opportunistic ways of doing business.  For him, it's also about numbers, but not those that build dynasties. A winning team requires not only good players, good managers and coaches but also good ownership.
Photo Credit©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum

“Keep your eye clear and hit ’em where they ain’t.”
 as told to Brooklyn Eagle sports editor Abe Yager in 1903. 

It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
Yogi Berra
a Yogi-ism uttered during the 1973 National League pennant race 
between the New York Mets and the Cincinnati Reds, 
later codified in The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said (1998).

As much as baseball is a team sport, it is an individual sport. This is epitomized in the physical battle, the cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and batter. The pitcher throws a ball as hard as he can, close to 100 mph, in a certain way, with certain spin; and the batter has less than a half a second (precisely four-tenths of a second) to see all this and respond to it by taking a swing where he thinks the ball will be. 

There is good reason why some physicists would like to investigate the game of baseball, since it lends itself to such an approach, one in which the science of physics uses numbers (i.e., ball rotation or spin, ball velocity, wind drag, relative humidity, baseball-bat collision, etc.) to explain the game quantitatively. It is after all a game of numbers, or as it has been said, “a game of inches.” This speaks of a numerical approach, where everything that can be is measured and quantified. 

While it has its appeal, especially for those who like numbers, not everything in the game can be quantified. Human characteristics like perseverance, drive and something as intangible as clutch hitting. There is some luck involved too.

If the batter does not guess correctly, he either misses or hits it ineffectively to a player of the opposing team. But if he does hit it sufficiently away from all members of the opposing team (a home run being the surest way to do so, since it is over the fence and out of reach), and does this three out of ten times (a .300 batting average) over the course of the 162-game season, he is considered an excellent hitter. Their numbers, however, are apparently declining.

This would explain why any baseball player who hits .400 is truly exceptional and is viewed as mythical. The last such case Ted Williams of the Boson Red Sox in 1941, finishing the season with a flourish, going 6 for 8 in a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics, and ending with a .406 batting average.

Only 20 players have achieved this feat in the history of Major League Baseball (MLB), which began in 1876. Of this esteemed group, only three players—Ed Delahanty (1894, 1895, 1899), Ty Cobb (1911, 1912, 1922) and Rogers Hornsby (1922, 1924, 1936)—have accomplished this more than once, in this case, they all did so three times.

Baseball Gear: The basic requirements for a game of baseball are a ball, a bat and a glove or a mitt; it is played on a field called a baseball diamond, which can be found almost anywhere there is a public park. There are a couple hundred in Toronto where I reside. I include this novel because it is a book about baseball, published at a time when the game was greatly appreciated and admired by the American public; this was naturally called Baseball’s Golden Era (roughly 1920 to 1960, the same as Hollywood’s Golden Era)
The Natural, by Bernard Malamud [1914–1986], was published by Harcourt Brace and Company in 1952, the author’s first book. This mass-market paperback was published by Pocket Books in 1974. The novel was made into a movie in 1984 starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. 
It matters less on whom Hobbs is based (likely a composite of many sports heroes, including Babe Ruth, Bob Feller and Ted Williams) than on the reason for the book and its success: “[B]aseball players were the ‘heroes’ of my American childhood. I wrote The Natural as a tale of a mythological hero because, between childhood and the beginning of a writing career, I’d been to college. I became interested in myth and tried to use it, among other things, to symbolize and explicate an ethical dilemma of American life,” Malamud says in Conversations with Bernard Malamud (Ed. Lawrence M. Lasher, 1991).
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Greater Use of Stats

It seems unlikely that any player today can achieve what was achieved long ago; the game has changed since baseball’s golden era. Pitchers are better, which includes hard-throwing relief pitchers, called specialists, throwing at batters who are swinging for the fences. It is also evident that other stats matter in today’s game. Some would argue that the greater use of statistical analysis (i.e., sabermetricsin the game [see here and here] has made baseball not only better, but more competitive and more scientific. 

This is called “the Moneyball Effect,” after the Micheal Lewis book (Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game, 2003) and movie (Moneyball, 2011; starring Brad Pitt). This thinking has led to the idea that viewers  also like stats. When you watch a game on TV, the announcer will invariably give a bunch of stats, including how this batter has done against this pitcher. This is also shown on the screen. One of the most annoying pieces of technology, however, is something called PitchTrax (a ball-tracking technology), which is distracting; it also second-guesses the umpire. 

Some more anecdotes about the players would be far more interesting than a continuous discussion of stats. The game, chiefly because of its pace, lends itself to a narrative, to telling stories. This is the role of the color commentator, who is often a former player or coach. While the stats have long been a part of the game, they have typically acted as a supplement to the stories of colorful players (like Yogi Berra) who made the game entertaining, if not mythical. This is why a novel like The Natural (1952) was so successful during baseball’s heyday. 

Stats have their value, no doubt, but less so for viewers. They are used by managers to make decisions on whom to play, which pitchers to use against certain batters and where to position players on the field for particular hitters. Even so, there is only so much viewers and fans want to know (before tedium and boredom set in), and too much information takes away from enjoying the game, which is the main reason that people decide to tune in. 

So, yes, science (and its cousin, technology) has become more useful in baseball and in the decisions that pitching coaches and managers make. Still, baseball is very much a human game with human players acting in a human way, which defies predictability over the long 162-game season. In the duel between pitcher and batter, there is always the next time, and there are sufficiently many next times where the batter or the pitcher can redeem himself. 

This is the basis of baseball; every pitch can change the narrative of who wins and who loses. Each team throws an average of 146 pitches per game, and such being the case, the game is not over till the final battle between the pitcher and batter. Not to belabor the point, but it’s not over till the final out. 

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