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October 7, 2004

Lies, Damned Lies

So You Think You Know Baseball?

by Nate Silver

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When I was a kid, I used to relish the day that the November issue of Baseball Digest came in the mail. That was the issue that contained a complete table of statistics for every major league player. I don't recall whether categories like OBP and slugging average were included in the mix, but at least it contained things like walks and doubles and pitcher strikeouts and other things that weren't readily available in the Lansing State Journal and that made the lil' stathead inside me happy. I'd pore over the stats for whole afternoons at a time, memorizing the numbers for players I only knew from baseball cards, typing the more impressive seasons into Earl Weaver Baseball and matching my heroes against the all-time greats.

(Earl Weaver Baseball might be the best video game of all time. I still remember the day that Stan Musial hit his fifth homer of the game in the custom-made "HomerDome" to lead the '45-'60 NL All-Stars to an upset victory over the juggernaut '30-'45 AL squad. Whenever Shawn Green or somebody smacks four in a game, I'll pause and think to myself, "nobody will ever top Musial.")

There isn't the same joy anymore when looking at the end-of-year numbers, if only because updates are available in more-or-less real time at BP, ESPN.com, and hordes of other places. I've watched the players all year, look at the numbers all the time, and once the season is over, my attention is more or less squarely focused on the playoffs. Nevertheless, I'll give the numbers at least a long once-over once the season is done, trying to dump my preconceived notions and seeing what grabs my attention.

Here's what caught my attention this year:

  • Is it just me, or are there a lot more really awesome relief performances than there used to be? Sure, we used to have a vintage Mark Eichhorn season here and there, but folks like Brad Lidge, Francisco Rodriguez, Eric Gagne, Mariano Rivera…these guys are just killing opposing hitters at a time when offensive levels remain close to their all-time high. Though I detest the closercentric bullpen as much as the next guy, there is something to be said about the beauty of 80 reallyfreakinunhittable innings over the course of the year.

    Here, for example, were the best relief performances of 1985:

    
    Pitcher               IP      ERA     VORP
    Dan Quisenberry    129.0     2.86     38.6
    Bob James          110.0     2.54     36.8
    Stew Cliburn        99.0     2.27     36.1
    Donnie Moore       103.0     2.45     35.5
    Greg Harris        113.0     2.79     34.7
    Bob Shirley        109.0     2.81     33.7
    Tim Burke          120.3     2.39     30.1
    Dave Righetti      107.0     3.03     30.0
    Steve Ontiveros     74.7     2.05     29.0
    Brian Fisher        98.3     2.83     28.6
    
    Compare that to the top performances from this season:
    
    Pitcher               IP      ERA     VORP
    Tom Gordon          89.2     2.21     39.6
    Brad Lidge          94.2     1.90     39.0
    Mariano Rivera      78.2     1.94     37.9
    Francisco Rodriguez 84.0     1.82     37.6
    B.J. Ryan           87.0     2.17     36.7
    Joe Nathan          72.1     1.62     36.5
    Keith Foulke        83.0     2.17     35.9
    Armando Benitez     69.2     1.29     33.1
    Akinori Otsuka      77.1     1.75     33.0
    Scot Shields       105.2     3.33     31.5
    
    It is now routine to see several relievers with sub-2.00 ERAs, this at a time when the league-wide ERA is nearly a full point higher than it was 20 years ago. he difference in VORP isn't quite as impressive, because relievers aren't pitching as many innings today as were the firemen of yesteryear, but it seems clear enough what we're seeing: pitchers are now being groomed for and pushed into a relief role early in their careers, whereas before most relievers were failed starters or guys like Eichhorn with funky deliveries or repertories. There is a lot of room for debate about whether somebody like Gagne would be more valuable with a different usage pattern, but there is little doubt that baseball has created a few monsters.

  • Bartolo Colon is the first pitcher to win 18 or more games with an ERA of 5.00 or higher since Bobo Newsom went 20-16 with a 5.08 ERA for the 1938 St. Louis Browns.

  • Miguel Tejada finished with 150 RBIs--he's a shortstop, folks--and the baseball world went ho-hum. Tejada had considerably more RBI opportunities than any other player, and as you'd expect, he made the best of them, posting a .338/.382/.591 with runners on base versus .282/.340/.466 with the sacks empty.

    What's interesting is that, in spite of Tejada's "clutch" performance, the Orioles did not score any more runs than you'd expect from their raw totals. To a certain extent, when a player gets a disproportionate number of RBI opportunities, it may be the sign of an inefficiently-constructed lineup, in this case, wasting a ton of PA's in the first couple of spots in the lineup on Brian Roberts and David Newhan while Javy Lopez languished in the #6 hole. (To be fair, Newhan put together a decent campaign).

  • Carl Crawford hit more triples (19) than two entire teams in his league, Oakland (15) and Baltimore (18). Other times this has happened since 1901:
    
    League     Player (3B)            Team (3B)        Margin
    1998 AL    Jose Offerman (13)     Orioles (11)       +2
    1996 NL    Lance Johnson (21)     Cubs (19)          +2
    1994 AL    Lance Johnson (14)     A's (13)           +1
    1986 AL    Brett Butler (14)      Orioles (13)       +1
    
    Crawford's margin of victory is the largest ever. It also tells you a hell of a lot about the difference between the A's and the Devil Rays.

  • Steve Finley, in what can only be considered a testament to his hard work and outstanding conditioning, hit a career-high number of home runs (36) at age 39. Here is a list of all players who set or tied their career-high number of homers at age 39:
    
    Player               Year       HR
    Steve Finley         2004       36
    Jim O'Rorque         1890        9
    Fred Jacklitsch      1915        2
    Harry Wright         1974        2
    Red Faber            1928        1
    Randy Johnson        2003        1
    
    That's it. Johnson and Faber, of course, are pitchers. Rico Carty, who hit 31 homers in 1978 to best his personal mark of 25, comes reasonably close if you expand the boundary to allow 38-year-olds in the mix.

  • A random assortment of underappreciated seasons, "underappreciated meaning" I hadn't noticed these guys were doing so well:

  • Barry Bonds can hardly be called underappreciated--on second thought, maybe he can--but no glance at the season totals is complete without a reflection on him.

    Here is a list of single-season record holders in various statistical catgories and the margin with which they beat their next closest competitor. We will exclude cases in which the player has bested his own record--for example, Bonds now holds the top two spots on the single-season OBP leaderboard--and focus instead on the distance with which the player bested his closest mortal opponent.

    
    Category     Best                   Next Best             Margin
    BB           Bonds '04      232     Ruth '23       170     36.5%
    3B           Wilson '12      36     2 Players       31     16.1%
    SB           Henderson '82  130     Brock '74      118     10.2%
    OBP          Bonds '04     .609     Williams '41  .553     10.1%
    ERA          Leonard '14   0.96     Brown, '06    1.04     7.7%
    R            Ruth '21       177     Gehrig '36     167     6.0%
    2B           Webb '31        67     2 Playes        64     4.7%
    HR           Bonds '01       73     McGwire '98     70     4.3%
    RBI          Wilson '30     191     Gehrig '31     184     3.8%
    SV           Thigpen '90     57     2 Players       55     3.6%
    SLG          Bonds '01     .863     Ruth '20      .847     3.1%
    OPS          Bonds '04     1421     Ruth '20      1379     3.0%
    W            Chesbro '04     41     Walsh '08       40     2.5%
    H            Suzuki '04     262     Sisler '20     257     1.9%
    BA           Lajoie '01    .426     Hornsby '24   .424     0.5%
    K            Ryan '73       383     Koufax '65     382     0.3%
    
    There is a good argument that the 232 times that Barry Bonds walked this season is the most impressive single-year statistic in baseball history. It is certainly the largest outlier.

  • No team in the history of baseball has given Tony Womack 553 at-bats and won 105 games.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

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