I thought we were past this. I thought after all the analysis we’ve been spewing over the past five years that the mainstream media has finally gotten “it.” I guess we’re not done yet.
I recently was flipping through the pages of my Sporting News Magazine when I came across an article in which they asked a bunch of baseball people to rate who the best players in the game are (Albert Pujols came out on top). While I might disagree with some of the order of their choices, that isn’t germane to my concern here. My concern is that people in the mainstream media, and remember these are the people that vote for the Hall of Fame folks, just don’t understand how the game, and the measurement used to speak to the game, work.
What do I mean. Simply put nothing means anything without context. Think I’m crazy? Here is a series of numbers. Can you tell me what they mean with no supporting context?
13, 60, 73, 511 and 911
My shoe size.
The single season home run record set by Babe Ruth in 1927.
The new single season home run record set by Barry Bonds in 2001.
The career victory total of Cy Young.
The famous model number for Porsche’s.
The point is without some sort of context, the numbers mean nothing at all.
So when I read the Sporting News breakdowns I wasn’t shocked, though I was dismayed, to realize that people that are supposed to be “in the know” still, well, don’t know.
Here is an example. The article talks about how Josh Hamilton hit 32 home runs and had 130 RBI in his first full season in Texas while Juan Gonzalez had only 27 HR and 102 RBI. That would lead you to think that Hamilton is a much better player wouldn’t it?. However, let’s use some context. Hamilton was 27 years old last season while Gonzo was just 21 in his first full season. Oh, and in case you were wondering, by the time Gonzalez was 27 he had four seasons of 40 home runs and 100-RBI.
Another example? There is a note that Victor Martinez has more RBI at the age of 30 than fellow catcher Carlton Fisk. The context that is left out here is that Fisk had 468 RBI through his 30 year old season, but that he then went on to record 866 RBI over the remainder of his career that lasted until he was 45 years of age. Do you honestly think that V-Mart has another 1,700+ games in him as did Fisk? Martinez better keep whacking that ball around the yard at a prodigious pace if wants to surpass the 1,300+ RBI that Fisk had in his career, and let me tell you something – it ain’t gonna happen (Martinez would have to average 85 RBI for the next 10 years to catch him).
And here might be the topper. The article actually says, and I quote, that Carlos Zambrano’s winning percentage of .615 “…is the same as Sandy Koufax when he was 28.” Seriously? Besides the fact that wins and loses are a putrid way to measure the success or failure of a hurler, there is also the context that by every conceivable measure known to mankind shows that Koufax was a vastly superior pitcher to Zambrano making any comparison between the two fallacious. Here are some examples.
In his 29 and 30 year old season’s Koufax went 53-17, to push his winning percentage up to .655 in his career. In addition, he also posted a 1.88 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.55 K/9 and a 4.72 K/BB ratio in those two seasons, numbers Zambrano has never even sniffed in his career. Oh yeah, Koufax also tossed 659 innings in those two seasons, or more than the 619 that Zambrano has tossed in his last three seasons!
But even this isn’t fair because it isn’t putting Koufax’s performance in the context of the era in which he pitched. I mean really, how do you compare a guy who tossed 330-innings in a season to a guy who throws 200? How do you compare a guy who posted an ERA of 2.76 in his career, to a guy who owns a 3.50 mark like Zambrano? Context my friends. By comparing each pitcher to their contemporaries we find that Koufax produced an ERA that was 31% better than the league average when he pitched, whereas Zambrano, pitching in a more “offensive era” has been 27% better than the league average. What this shows is that their performance, when compared to era in which they pitched, were actually similar despite the fact that Zambrano’s raw ERA is three-quarters of a run higher. The answer to all of this comparison business is context.
So next time you read one of these historical articles comparing players, make sure you do something that most of the writers never do – put whatever you are studying under the microscope, sprinkle in some context, and come up with an “answer” that is likely more accurate than that of the man or woman who is being paid to write the piece.
By Ray Flowers