Stats can do a number on truth sometimes


April 29, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

Has anyone done a thesis yet on the importance of the decimal point to baseball? Hmmm, it's either an oversight . . . or getting ready to run off the press as we contemplate.

That little decimal dot, you see, is the focal point of everything that dominates the game today -- statistics. There's one for every aspect of the game -- and a few for things that don't deserve to be aspects.

Is there such a word as overstaticized? If there is, it undoubtedly was created by baseball's number sleuths.

Maybe the rotisserie craze has something to do with it, or maybe it's just the media's never-ending search for the previously unknown angle. Whatever the reason, the crush of numbers has become so overwhelming it has created a love/hate relationship for a game that has thrived on statistics for more than a century.

Did somebody say enough is too much?

Without delving too deep into the subject (it would take a thesis -- at least), fast forward to a trivial example.

Only 21 games into the season, one of the eye-catching statistics is the one that shows Rafael Palmeiro hitting .447 (17-for-38) with four home runs in day games. That means, going into last night's game, he was hitting .286 (12-for-42) with three home runs at night.

You might think that's a significant difference -- until you look at what they like to call the "big picture." The Orioles played nine of their first 19 games, during which Palmeiro obviously was swinging the bat with a great deal of consistency, during the day. And the pitchers throwing the ball during six of those nine games were wearing Texas, Detroit or Oakland uniforms. Do you think that was a contributing factor -- or that those pitchers would have had better luck at night?

How many times are we peppered with information that tells us so-and-so hits such-and-such against right-handed or left-handed pitchers? What kind of right-handed or left-handed pitchers -- good ones or bad? Starters or relievers? (Please, don't ask: day or night?)

The most important, and overlooked, thing about statistics is that they can only reflect what has happened in the past. Therefore they present a degree of probability based on past performances not only of the hitters and pitchers, but also the teams involved.

Do you judge Brady Anderson on his career numbers -- or what he has done over the past two seasons? If it takes three years to develop a trend in head-to-head matchups, which is a general consensus, then any meaningful statistics would be restricted to the three most recent years.

Statistics are a wonderful tool when used to research tendencies. But they don't reflect the conditions (slumps, inexperience, cheap hits) in effect during the cumulative period.

Which is why the theory that "what you've seen most recently is what you're likely to get" is still the best barometer. Unfortunately, in this "overstaticized" era, it too often is the one that meets the most resistance.

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