Multiplying statistics add up to an overload

May 26, 1991|By Bob Ryan | Bob Ryan,Boston Globe

Once upon a time, I thought I was a pretty savvy baseball fan. After all, didn't I devour the Sunday averages?

That was one of the highlights of my week (Hey, wasn't it Thoreau -- OK, maybe it was Emerson -- who described people living lives of "quiet desperation"? Not that I've generally been described as "quiet"). Pour a little Sunday morning coffee and dive into those averages, which I always read from the bottom up. This was essential to the process.

Anyway, armed with those numbers, I was an expert, comfortable in any baseball discussions because I knew the numbers. Lord, those were simple times, when you actually had to wait seven days to find out if anyone in San Diego had dipped below the Mendoza Line.

As far as baseball sophistication goes, that was the Pleistocene zTC Era. Just knowing that some guy was up to .273-8-54 on July 8 stamped you as an astonishing information source.

Now, of course, I'd be a candidate for remedial Diamondology if I didn't also know his RISP and LIPS stats, not to mention his tendencies when ahead, or behind, in the count. It's getting harder and harder, also, to recall a time when there were just two categories of pitchers. You had your starters and you had your non-starters, and no one ever heard of inherited runners.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the New Baseball Math, other than that there's too much of it. The anal-retentive among us may be thriving these days, but I feel swamped. I'd still like to be thought of as knowledgeable, but I feel as if a mountainous pile of baseball information has fallen on me, and I can't get up.

The flow is relentless, 365 days a year. In the Good Old Days, I welcomed the arrival in the mail of the "Baseball Register," which contains the career record of every major league player and manager. It was an appropriate appetizer for the season, and if I happened to think of it, I would keep the Register handy while watching games on television, just to pass the time between innings and pitching changes (which, in my youth, were relatively infrequent). I would get a mild charge out of learning that Matt Nokes had 19 passed balls in 44 games while catching for Great Falls in 1981.

Then came Bill James and his "Baseball Abstract." Now I was confronted with Runs Created, Offensive Winning Percentage, Range Factor and Isolated Power. I yielded to no man in my admiration for his insight, and it was fascinating to learn who were the truly overrated (Steve Garvey) and underrated (Jose Cruz) players of the times. But I must confess that if he didn't also happen to have a prose style every bit the equal of his mathematics skill, I could not have digested Mr. James and his numbers.

After him came the deluge that still continues. Little did you and I know that for well over a decade, the boys at Elias Sports Bureau had been storing baseball minutiae in their computers, dispensing the information only to the proper authorities.

A few years ago, they decided to market their knowledge. Every game and every box score had been broken down methodically.

These chaps actually had the answer to questions heretofore viewed as perennially hypothetical. Who hit with men on (Runners In Scoring Position -- RISP), who hit with men on base at the end of close games (Late Inning Pressure Situation -- LIPS), and what batters could hit high-ball pitchers, but not low-ballers? Who were, in fact, high-ballers and low-ballers, based on the nature of their outs? It's all available, and each spring it is all placed in the "Elias Baseball Analyst," along with tons of intricate team data.

So, just getting ready for the season is now a chore, because not only must you plow through whatever James writes (he has shelved the "Abstract" in favor of a more prose-oriented tract) and the "Analyst" (expanded this year beyond belief), but you must also negotiate a slew of scouting reports, some of which will tell you what players do on every conceivable count, where they like the ball and where they hit it when they happen to connect. So I read it, which isn't the same as remembering it. Wade Boggs is one thing, but what do I care about Bill Pecota?

So now I'm already reeling, and the season has barely started. It used to be simple enough: you picked up the paper and read the box scores. That was before USA Today came along. Now there were more detailed box scores and pitching charts, plus daily notes on 26 teams. Got to read those in order to keep up. And let's not forget about the daily updated leaders in all the major batting and pitching categories.

At this point, I'm barely hanging on, and now comes the knockout punch -- The National. More stories. More notes. And, worse yet, bigger box scores. Not enough to give you 4-1-2-2. These people start with that, then give you what the guy's done for the past 10 games and then give you his complete statistical update. So much for the Sunday averages. They even tell you what the weather was, and what percentage of capacity the crowd was. If anyone really cared, it seems to me he could look it up.

I can't stand it. I'm older. I like to think I'm smarter. I'd like to be more knowledgeable than I used to be, but no matter how hard I try, I can't keep up with the flow of information. Whereas once I positioned myself as an expert, now I'm just a guy on the street, totally ignorant of what Ernest Riles has done in his last 10 games, or how many "holds" Paul Assenmacher is up to now.

But I still remember the dimensions of Connie Mack Stadium. Doesn't that count for something?

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