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MARCH 25, 2004
Forget About Stats This Opening Day
By Steve Lombardi, NetShrine.com

Baseball statistics can tell you many things.  For example, over the past decade (1994 to 2003), Gary Sheffield and Frank Thomas both have been very effective at the plate.  For more, see the following chart:

1994 – 2003:

RC/G

PA

OWP

OPS v. Lge Avg

Frank Thomas

9.12

5840

0.736

0.217

Gary Sheffield

9.07

5616

0.743

0.213

Baseball statistics can also tell you that for the last ten years, the careers of Ismael Valdes and Andy Ashby have both been “useful but less than great” in terms of pitching production. See this chart:

1994 – 2003:

IP

BR/9 IP

SO/BB

SO/9 IP

Ismael Valdes

1606.2

11.75

2.39

6.04

Andy Ashby

1606.2

11.77

2.35

5.85

The above tables offer many variables for digestion.  However, baseball statistical analysis does not always need to be complex and have several ingredients.  For example, pertaining to defensive ability, the result can be as simple as “In his career through 2003, Jorge Posada has averaged a passed ball once every 10.14 games.”

Nonetheless, when it comes to appreciating baseball performance, statistics alone do not allow for the full spectrum of what should be examined and considered with respect to the play of the individual.  During many a lazy summer afternoon in the late 1970's, I heard Vince Scully utter during a telecast of the "Game of the Week" that "Statistics are a lot like a bikini. They show you a lot. But, they don't show you everything."  Vince was right.  Statistics can tell us whether a player is successful or not.  Statistics cannot facilitate a full comprehension of the process involved in generating the results in the field.

Statistics cannot describe for you what it is like as a batter, in your mind and in your heart, to stand in a batter’s box with your knees seemingly starting to fail, knowing that you have no chance whatsoever of making solid contact against the pitcher of that moment.  Statistics cannot demonstrate for you what it is like to stand on a pitcher’s mound, to literally feel your metal spikes touch the hard pitching rubber while at the same time “feeling” the eyes of everyone watching the game focused on you, alone – as your pulse races with nervous excitement and your emotional state borders on a full blown panic attack.  Statistics cannot simulate for you what it is like to play shortstop, with two outs and the winning run on third, and to have a rocket-powered ground ball hit in your direction take a last second “bad hop” causing the trajectory of the ball to become impossible to gauge with certainty and triggering a rippling sense of fear throughout your nervous system. 

They call baseball “hardball” because the ball is hard – but they might as well call it “hardball” because the game is hard to play.  Skill and talent help towards dealing with the degree of difficulty that comes with playing the game.  But, before one can allow for that skill and talent to rise to the occasion, the player must deal with the emotional and mental factors that may bring cause to block them.  The initial process of a player coming to terms with these factors cannot be captured directly in a line of numbers.  Simply put:  Statistics do not convey the experience of playing the game of baseball.

The vogue debate these days is to argue whether a team should look at statistical evidence of performance, physical skills and tools, or some combination therein, when acquiring player personnel.  However, there is often little mention of considering a player’s emotional strength, will, moxie, mental toughness, resolve, psyche - or whatever you want to call “it” - while said player is under the spotlight on showcase (just “playing ball”). 

The scrawling on this scorecard reads that teams are remiss for not “covering this base” as well as looking at statistics and skills/tools.  See Rick Ankiel, Ed Whitson, and Mike Ivie, among others, for more.  But, more so, it is baseball fans that should be more in tune with this intrinsic and requisite yet somewhat immeasurable quality that is a huge part of baseball performance.  Just being able to execute the some of the rudimental facets of game play at the major league baseball level, despite the statistics derived from any game performance, is indeed a significant achievement and worthy of admiration. 

Woody Allen once said that “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Playing off that approach, perhaps then “Eighty percent of the enjoyment derived from baseball should be just watching the players play”?  Or, in other words, the pictures on the front of the baseball bubblegum can be just as entertaining and enlightening, if not more, than the numbers on the back of the card – and the "images from the game" should be appreciated more than they are today in many circles. 

When you watch your favorite team play this Opening Day, albeit in person or on television, try “just watching the players play” (and let go of all the statistics and subsequent derived analysis associated to the players and the game).  Keep focus on the fact that those playing the game are human beings with minds and feelings – and remember that there are incalculable mental and emotional components within the set of requirements to perform on a baseball field that affect every player (on just about every pitch).  Foster some wonder for the inestimable elements of the game of baseball. 

A baseball game is more than just the creation of a balance sheet.  A baseball game is also a visual demonstration of human reactions to stimuli.  Yes, the reactions can be measured and statistics can be derived for those calculations. However, if you only concern yourself with the “end numbers” you are going to miss the actual “performance.”  You will miss the forest spending so much time looking at the trees.

There is a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act II, Scene II) that reads: "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."  This works on the baseball diamond as well.  If you want to catch the conscience of baseball, watch the players “play” – and do not be only concerned with statistics.


Steve Lombardi is the Creator & Curator of NetShrine.com.  Scrawling On The Scorecard appears regularly during the baseball season and sporadically during the off-season.  Steve can be contacted at sots@netshrine.com

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