The world of sports is a statistics fan’s heaven. Especially in baseball, but in most of the other sports as well, there are so many ways to quantify player performance that it’s a wonder some of the stats nuts have time to watch what’s actually happening on the field of play.
But in their love of numbers, the stats guys are making up bizarre combinations – sort of like a mad chef who decides he’s going to combine haggis, vanilla extract, tripe, cherries, and head cheese and make something remotely edible.
Ain’t gonna happen.
Consider these examples.
The Philadelphia Eagles had a player who was thought to have a bright future, then was looked upon as a failure, and then was considered someone who may turn out to be good after all. So why did people think he might be good in the first place? Not by watching him, but
In his first year in the NFL, he showed promise by becoming the first Eagle ever to have three interceptions and two quarterback sacks in his rookie season.
Let The Curmudgeon assure you, non-sports fans, this combination of accomplishments means absolutely nothing.
The New York Times ran a very positive piece about a forty-year-old baseball player who returned to the major leagues after a year away – a year away because no one wanted him. The player had had had a very fine career, and looking at his statistics could lead one to think he had been a great player in his time. A very good player, yes, but a great one? Not even remotely.
But then, the stats guys found a bizarre pearl and decided to ride it for all it was worth:
On Friday, he stole his 400th base, which, combined with his 912 extra-base hits, puts him in the exclusive 900-400 club with Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Craig Biggio and Paul Molitor.
And then this gem:
If he can manage 12 more home runs, he will join an even more elite club: players with 300 home runs and 400 stolen bases. Membership currently comprises players with the last name Bonds: Barry and his father, Bobby.
Jimmy Rollins was one of the best players ever to play for the Philadelphia Phillies. He was an unconventional player in the sense that he is small and fast, which creates a distinct set of expectations among fans, yet also is very strong, which creates a different set of expectations. He was both loved and loathed, and those who wrote about him were always looking for a convenient pigeon-hole in which to place him. One such spot:
Only four players – Rollins, Frank Schulte, Willie Mays and Curtis Granderson – have hit at least 20 doubles, triples and home runs in the same season while also stealing at least 20 bases.
Which, when you think about it, tells the reader…very little.
Neither does this: Freddy Galvis replaced Rollins as the Phillies shortstop and in his second year as that replacement, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer,
He is just the fourth player in baseball history to hit 20 or more homers, drive in 65 or more runs, and slap 25 or more doubles with an on-base percentage of .275 or lower.
What does that mean? It means he’s good or he’s bad. The numbers aren’t revealing at all.
The Phillies had a new relief pitcher who created quite a first impression, but instead of saying “wow” a sports writer felt it was important to place that start in a (bizarre) statistical context:
No Phillies reliever has ever struck out 12 batters over his first six major-league appearances, according to a Baseball-Reference.com search. Wayne Twitchell (1971), Warren Brusstar (1977) and Ryan Madson (2004) fanned 11, all in more innings than Giles.
It’s a given that the pitchers in baseball’s all-star game are the cream of the crop; after all, they’re chosen by the game’s managers, not the fans. But how good are they? Someone at the Associated Press decided he needed to find some obscure statistical measure to illustrate their excellence – and he did:
The last time both All-Star starters had ERAs under 2.15 was back in 1974, according to STATS. Gaylord Perry (1.47 ERA at the break) took the mound for the AL against Andy Messersmith (2.11) of the NL.
Thank goodness for the AP; with it, how would fans have known these all-stars were, well, stars?
Toward the end of his tenure with the Philadelphia Phillies, pitcher Cole Hamels was performing about as well as he ever had in his career but had very little in the way of positive results to show for it. Any fan of the team could see this – but that didn’t stop the Philadelphia Inquirer from feeling the need to find a bizarre statistical context into which to place the situation:
Cole Hamels is the first Phillies pitcher since 1912 (when the National League began recording earned runs) to win no more than three of his first 15 starts of a season with an ERA under 3.00, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Clayton Kershaw is a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is very young and very, very good: a reasonable argument could be made that today he is the very best pitcher in major league baseball. He went through an especially effective stretch of games at one point, leading baseball’s statistics idiots to search for new ways to describe his performance. They came up with this:
The 26-year-old lefty became the third pitcher in the last 100 years to win eight straight starts in one season while striking out at least seven batters in each.
ESPN.com wanted to explain that a certain Tampa baseball player is versatile, and to do so it dug deep deep deep into the depths of baseball’s never-ending reservoir of obscure statistics and came up with
Zobrist is the first major league player since at least 1914 to play in 200 career games at second, shortstop and right field.
In a season during which few first-year baseball players truly distinguished themselves, sports writers found themselves searching for ways to distinguish very ordinary performances. One such writer, for ESPN, came up with this to describe the National League’s rookie of the year:
Jacob deGrom became the fifth NL rookie to post an ERA under 2.75 and at least one strikeout per inning pitched.
The Philadelphia Eagles employ a wide receiver – one of the guys to whom quarterbacks throw the ball – of considerable talent. One sports writer, lacking the ability to find a way to just come out and say that, found this instead:
A shame the Eagles couldn’t get Jordan Matthews 23 more yards, so he could have become the fifth rookie since 1960 with three consecutive 100-yard games.
When the football season ended, two sports writers sat down to evaluate the players on the Philadelphia Eagles from a simple perspective: should the team keep them or dump them? (Note to sports writers: a lot of fans would like to do a similar review of sports writers.) Sometimes, these writers use statistics to make their case – like in this example:
I’m higher on Matthews than Mosh. A lot higher. He’s one of only 18 wideouts in NFL history with 59 catches for 767 yards and seven TDs as a rookie.
Again, The Curmudgeon notes that none of these figures is considered a benchmark for quality performance. As a football fan he understands that they’re all good, but benchmarks? No.
The Philadelphia Eagles signed (and then quickly lost) a player who, while still good, was well past his prime. To prove his remaining value, a sports writer came up with this gem:
But there has been no dropoff yet in Gore’s game. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry this past year, and his 4.2 average since he turned 30 is 13th-highest in NFL history by a running back after his 30th birthday.
You read that right: 13th highest.
Then, just to be sure readers got the message, the writer added,
Although Gore is one of the NFL’s oldest active running backs, he’s one of only five backs in NFL history to record four 1,100-yard seasons after his 28th birthday.
And no, this is not the former vice president launching a new career.
But the writer still wasn’t finished.
Only Gore and Barry Sanders have averaged 4.1 yards or better in each of their first 10 NFL seasons (with a minimum of 100 carries).
And this, too:
Only four backs — Sanders, Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Gore — have recorded nine career seasons with 200 or more carries and a 4.1 average.
A 4.1 average, as if there’s anything special about that number.
Russell Westbrook is a very good basketball player, but espn.com tied itself up in knots when it tried to explain how good:
Westbrook became only the fourth player in the past 30 years to record six triple-doubles in a season with at least 25 points (LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson).
The Philadelphia Eagles have a player whose first year as a professional football player was very successful – but not so successful that a sports writer didn’t feel the need to twist his panties into a bunch trying to quantify that success. All he could come up with was
He’s one of only 13 wide outs in NFL history to record 65 receptions, 800 yards and eight TDs as a rookie.
The Philadelphia Eagles have a surplus of people who play the same position, so a sports writer attempted to make a case for keeping one of those players in particular:
Kendricks is one of three NFL linebackers with at least 8.0 sacks, three interceptions and five forced fumbles over the past two seasons.
The Curmudgeon doubts that even an avid football fan gets much of a frame of reference from these numbers.
The Philadelphia Phillies had a young pitcher make his major league debut and he performed well, but a Comcast.net sports writer felt an irresistible need to place the young man’s performance in a historical context:
He’s only the ninth Phillies starting pitcher in 96 games this season to allow no more than six baserunners and one run over at least six innings.
ESPN.com was attempting to illustrate how some football teams fire their coaches quickly but others are more patient and cited old Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, writing that
… Landry coached Dallas for 29 years, not winning the first of his two Super Bowl titles until his 12th season. Dallas exercised patience, Landry rewarded it.
Well, it was a good thing Dallas had patience about that Super Bowl championship, considering that Landry started coaching the team in 1960 but the first Super Bowl wasn’t played until 1967.
A member of the Philadelphia Phillies played a very good game. How good? Someone assigned a Phillies employee to find a way to make it seem more special than it actually was and this is how ComcastSportsNetPhilly described his findings:
Phillies media relations man Chris Ware crunched the numbers and concluded that Herrera is the first Phillie since advanced record-keeping started in 1900 to have four runs, a homer and two stolen bases in the same game.
In trying to describe a good but not great player on the Philadelphia Eagles, another Comcast SportsNetPhilly writer with too much time on his hands informed his readers that the player
…has 26½ sacks in his three years with the Eagles. That’s the fifth-most sacks ever by a player in his first three seasons with the Eagles and sixth-most by any NFC defender since 2013.
Another Eagle made what some people thought was an impressive debut. It wasn’t good enough for some just to admire: they had to find some obscure way of defining that debut, and the Comcast Sportsnet Philly web site came up with this:
Wentz became only the fourth NFL quarterback since 1960 and only the second in the last 30 years to throw for 250 yards with two or more touchdowns and no interceptions on opening day of his rookie year.
But they were just warming up in heaping praise on the same player:
The last time the Eagles played a game in which two different receivers 24 years old or younger caught touchdown passes from a quarterback who was 24 years old or younger was in 1975. The quarterback was Boryla and the receivers were Charles Young and James McAlister. All three were 24.
Wentz’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor was the longest touchdown pass by an Eagles rookie quarterback on opening day in exactly 78 years. On Sept. 11, 1938, Dick Riffle threw a 39-yard TD pass to Joe Carter in his NFL debut on opening day, a 26-23 loss to the Redskins at Municipal Stadium, which later became JFK. It was the second-longest TD pass by an Eagles rookie in the last 35 years, behind only Nick Foles’ 44-yarder to Jeremy Maclin against the Cowboys in 2012.
A special commendation is in order for those who write about the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team. For the past three years the 76ers intentionally fielded the worst team in professional basketball history in anticipation of reaping certain awards associated with being profoundly bad. Most of the players on the team should really be starting their real careers instead because they’re in no way talented enough to play professional basketball. While their pay isn’t linked to newspapers sold, Philadelphia-area sports writers have been desperate to find even the tiniest sliver of a silver lining in the team’s performance as a way of encouraging their readers to keep up their hope and keep reading and they have latched onto one player, in particular, for those silver linings: his name is Nerlens Noel. The team expended extraordinary resources to acquire him because it expected him to be a truly exceptional player but it takes no particular expertise in basketball to see that Noel is clearly unexceptional and will, at the very most, be just a good player and not worth all the team went through to acquire him.
But the sports writers keep looking for those silver linings, such as this enterprising Philadelphia Inquirer scribe:
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first rookie starting center with at least 10 points, six steals, and five assists in a game since the Phoenix Suns’ Alvan Adams had 25 points, six steals, and five assists against the New Orleans Jazz on Feb. 14, 1976.
Mr. Noel may not be Hall of Fame-bound, but the clerk at the Elias Sports Bureau who came upon this pearl certainly deserves some kind of prize for excellence in the pursuit of meaninglessness.
It’s not enough to say basketball players aren’t playing well; you need to back it up with numbers – like these:
… it’s just the 11th time in the last 30 seasons that a player has managed to turn the ball over 5+ times, and commit 4+ fouls in 12 minutes or less of playing time.
And then there’s this pearl about Noel – something that’s supposed to be good:
There are only four players across the whole NBA this season who play 25 minutes a game are averaging over 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes, and Nerlens is one of them.
And after the season, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter found still more ways to distinguish Noel’s performance with obscure statistics:
The 6-foot-11, 220-pounder also averaged 9.9 points and was the league’s only player ranked in the top 10 in both steals (10th) and blocks (seventh). The first-team all-rookie selection also joined Hall of Famer David Robinson as the only rookies to average at least 1.50 steals and 1.50 blocks. Robinson did it for the San Antonio Spurs in the 1989-90 season.
After his best game as a professional earlier in his career, one sports writer pointed out that
He became the franchise’s first rookie forward or center to finish with at least 17 points and 12 rebounds since Jerry Stackhouse in 1995.
Now that’s one silly sports statistic.
For The Curmudgeon this all calls to mind the very end of one of his favorite sports books. It’s called Ball Four, it still sits about five feet from where The Curmudgeon writes his blog, its tattered paperback spine held together by scotch tape. It’s arguably the first behind-the-scenes, tell-all sports book, and at the end, the writer, baseball player Jim Bouton, placed the following caption above his career statistics:
Tell your statistics to shut up
And with that, The Curmudgeon will now do the same about this subject.