Take Me out to the Metric; the Steroid Parenthesis in Baseball History Is Ending. Last Year There Were 434 Fewer Home Runs Than in 2004-And More Fans

Newsweek, April 10, 2006 | Go to article overview

Take Me out to the Metric; the Steroid Parenthesis in Baseball History Is Ending. Last Year There Were 434 Fewer Home Runs Than in 2004-And More Fans


Byline: George F. Will

Michael Bourn needs to get out more. A database programmer in Nashua, N.H., he created the Web site plunkbiggio.blogspot.com that tells everything-- really, everything-- about the 273 times that Craig Biggio of the Astros has been hit by a pitch, the modern major-league record.

On average, Biggio's plunks have occurred 493 feet above sea level, up 36 feet after two plunkings last year in Denver. The shortest pitcher to hit him? Byung-Hyun Kim (5 feet 9 inches). The average age and weight of the plunking pitchers are 28.5 and 200.22. He has been hit most often by pitchers whose astrological sign is Sagittarius, but more Leos have hit him. He has been hit 15 times while Tiger Woods was on Sports Illustrated's cover. In 1997, the Dow rose an average of 28.63 on trading days after Biggio was hit. And on, and on.

Why does Bourn do this? "It is better than following Ruben Sierra's approach to the sacrifice-fly record." (Sierra is nine short of Eddie Murray's 128. Feel the excitement.) An obsessive-compulsive fascination with numbers is an occupational hazard of baseball fans. Baseball, unlike games of flow such as hockey, soccer and basketball, is a series of episodes that encourage quantification. This week, baseball resumes its prodigious production of numbers in another season of 2,430 games with 21,870 innings and approximately 700,000 pitches during 166,000 at-bats. The rage to quantify--to reduce reality to measurable units--is an impulse in modern societies. In baseball, it produces illuminating metrics. For example:

The objective is to win, which means scoring runs while efficiently getting the other team to make 27 outs. Every three outs, you must start over. Until recently, most people assumed that the key to runs was hits. Hence a misplaced emphasis on batting averages. But counting all hits alike is as foolish as counting different denominations of currency as identical. Nowadays, more emphasis is placed on not making outs. Hence the importance of on-base percentage, which is (hits + walks + hits by pitch)/(at bats + walks + hits by pitch + sacrifice flies). That led to the statistic OPS, which is on-base percentage + slugging percentage (which is total bases/at-bats).

But Bill James, a pioneer of novel metrics (see "The Mind of Bill James" by Scott Gray), says OPS takes the elements of run creation and puts them together incorrectly. "They shouldn't be added together, they should be multiplied. A team with a .400 on-base percentage and a .400 slugging percentage would score more runs than a team with . …

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