Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"Records Are Made..."

A ray of sunshine has recently appeared, brightening the dismal season that is Dodger baseball, 2013.  His name is Yasiel Puig, a 22 year-old Cuban defector, brought up from the Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate Chattanooga Lookouts, where after a monster Spring Training in which Puig batted .517, he was sent down for further seasoning.

Wow!  I felt almost like a sportswriter doing that.  Of course, I rewrote it four times, and sports writers just type it and ship it.  But, you know, they’re professionals and I’m not.  I bet they’d have trouble writing episodes of Taxi.  Although, looking back, I had trouble writing episodes of Taxi myself. 


This is an objectively small point about statistics, though I think it’s important, which, to me at least, makes it a big point.  I only said it was a small point in case you thought I was making a huge deal about nothing, which you may ultimately still believe, but I don’t.  Though I readily acknowledge that there are a myriad of issues that are considerably more important.  Like, for example, getting out of this paragraph before I die. 

Needing a shot in the arm – meaning somebody who can hit – the Dodgers elevated Yasiel Puig from the minors.  This decision was immediately rewarded by Puig’s phenomenal subsequent performance.

In his first five games ever in the Major Leagues, Yasiel Puig hit four home runs.  Also in those first five games, Puig accumulated ten RBI’s (Runs Batted In.)  If you don’t know baseball, that’s a lot of RBI’s.  It’s a lot of RBI’s even if you do know baseball.  Whatever you know, it’s a lot of RBI’s. 

As a point of comparison, Barry Bonds – albeit “juiced up” – holds the single-season all-time home run record with 82.  If he kept up his current pace for a full season, Yasiel Puig would have – according to my calculator, and rounding up – a hundred and thirty home runs. 

That exemplifies my point right there before I even thought I was making it.  My point was apparently in a hurry, and it started making itself before I got there. 

That point is this:

In any sport you can mention, the fans of that sport are, often encyclopedically, enthralled by that sport’s statistics.  They steep themselves in statistical comparisons, using those numbers to debate who was the greatest  (Place Name of Your Preferred Sport Here) practitioner of that sport of all time.

Fans seem to never get enough of these statistical comparisons.  So the sports announcers keep dredging up new ones.  This could also be a way for the announcers to fill time between the action, especially in baseball where, for the greater part of the game, nothing at all is happening.  (If you don’t count players spitting out sunflower seed shells and readjusting their groinal protectoration.)

Invariably – a word I use frequently in blog posts, but, interestingly, almost never in real life – these comparative statistics – my point in a nutshell – are of no value whatsoever.

One example of “Statistical Protectionism”, out of thousands.

I recall during the last Olympics, there was a kerfuffle about the type of bathing attire some of the competitors were wearing, because they were of a construction or fabric material allowing the participants inside them to swim faster.

Besides the competitive advantage they provided, there was also a concern that this advanced super-swimwear would play havoc with the event’s historical records, inevitably diminishing the achievements of the athletes of the past, required to swim in floppy bloomers and water-absorbent swim trunks.  (Prurient Proposal:  To provide competitive equality – and for no other reason, I mean it – let them all swim naked.  All I’ll leave it at that.)

In any sport I can imagine, though announcers and fans engage enthusiastically in the practice, it makes absolutely no sense in to compare statistical performances between eras.  Why?  Different equipment.  Advanced fitness techniques.  Increased Nutritional awareness.  Improvements in physical therapy and injury treatment.  Better equipment.  Upgraded playing, travel and accommodational conditions.  “Mental Training” professionals.  Astronomically greater financial incentives. 

What I’m saying here is, though modern athletes continue to break the records of their predecessors – Hooray!  Hooray! – their surpassing excellence is in no way due exclusively to the superior abilities of the participants themselves. 

To borrow an appropriate metaphor, it’s an uneven playing field. 

(A Notable Exception:  Joe Dimaggio’s 1941 56 consecutive-game hitting streak, which has never been equaled or even come close to.  That guy was just a freak!)

The other issue related to statistics, especially for rookies, is that “Newbie’s” statistics are notoriously non-predictive.

I checked the statistics. 

The Elias Sports Bureau, which provides historical research and statistical services in the field of professional sports, informs me that Yasiel Puig’s prodigious record of four home runs in his first five games in the Majors was equaled by one other player – Mike Jacobs (2005.)  Jacobs then went on to an undistinguished eight-year career, playing intermittently, and generally unimpressively, for five different teams. 

Puig’s ten RBI’s in his first five games tied him in the record books with two other players – Jack Merson (1951), who thereafter played only one full season in the Majors, and Danny Espinosa (2010).  Espinosa has an anemic lifetime batting average of .230  (Puig’s is currently .464.)

The message here is:


And think twice about those statistics.

Next football season?  When they tell you something like, “The Forty-Niners have defeated the Vikings for twenty-four years in a row”?  Think about how many of those Forty-Niners and Vikings are still playing on those teams.  Upon further consideration, you might well conclude,

That statistic doesn’t seem very important.”

Though experience suggests, if you’re a Forty-Niner’s fan, you’ll think,

“It’s a lock!”  

And if you’re a Vikings fan, you’ll think,

“We are really, really due.”

1 comment:

Frank said...

Hope nobody tells Yasiel Puig he tied Danny Espinosa's impressive record.