Statistics in Baseball: A History Lesson

Statistics are the most important part of baseball, the one permanent indestructible heritage of each season.  - F.C. Lane

When the Nationals take the field against the New York Mets this afternoon, the 10th season of Washington Nationals baseball begins in our nation's capital.   As an avid baseball fan and regular attendee, I knew I had to write a baseball related post for opening day...In no sport is statistical analysis more ubiquitous than baseball.   This idea got me thinking about the evolution of statistics in baseball--and particularly the trend towards sabermetrics.  

Sabermetrics, as defined by Bill James (widely recognized as a pioneer of the sabermetric movement) is the "search for objective knowledge about baseball."   In my investigation of the earliest sabermetricians, I was led to this article by Jack Moore (@jh_moore) on The Secret History of Sabermetrics.   The article does a great job of describing the evolution of sophisticated statistical analyses into baseball.   But, much to my surprise, the phenomenon of thinking about statistics in a sophisticated way actually dates far back.  

For baseball or statistics buff, this Baseball Magazine article from 1916 by F.C. Lane on "Why the System of Batting Averages Should Be Changed?" is remarkably insightful.   Lane was skeptical of conventional metrics, particularly batting averages.   In this highly entertaining piece, Lane sets up his point with a simple yet powerful example--imagine asking a friend how much change he has in his pocket and he answers "12 coins."   Lane asks what have you really learned about the amount of money your friend has?   He goes on to use this simple analogy to explain his problem with batting averages:

"How do batting averages follow this absurd system? Very simply. Batting records as at present conducted give merely the number of safe hits a player makes in comparison to the number of times he had a chance to make a safe hit. For instance, if he were at bat five hundred times during a season and made one hundred and fifty hits, he would be credited with a batting average of an even .300. That is to say, he would have hit safely three out of ten times. This is all right enough, according to first glance, but on second glance it is easy to see it is merely the story of the twelve coins over again. Now the man we had in mind had a dollar and twenty eight cents in his pocket, but some other man who lives beyond the Mississippi river where cart wheel currency is in order might have had twelve silver dollars in his pocket and still have had twelve coins, to say nothing of the fellow who might have had twelve double eagles. The batter who makes twelve hits out of fifty times at bat is given just as much credit as any other who makes twelve hits out of fifty times at bat. But are twelve hits always of the same denomination any more than quarters and dimes and nickels? One batter, we may say, made twelve singles, three or four of them of the scratchiest possible variety. The other also made twelve hits, but all of them were good ringing drives, clean cut and decisive, three of them were doubles, one a triple, and one a home run. Is the work of the two batters on a parallel? The figures say so. In other words, it is the case of the coins without paying any attention to denomination."

Fascinating to see efforts to explain baseball statistics using every day examples even back in 1916.   Enough statistics...play ball.  And GO NATS!