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March 30, 2005

2005--Setting the Stage

Oh, the Numbers You'll See...

by James Click

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Numbers are good for lots of things. Games, forecasts, curing insomnia, elaborately conceived and poorly researched crime dramas … Well, I didn't say everything. Numbers are also good for stories; 2005 will be no different. Can't get an interview with your team's most popular player? Run a numbers column. Want to make a statement about the inflation of today's offensive numbers, their corrosive effect on the fabric of the game and America's youth? Hey, numbers are good for that, too.

When it comes to numbers as stories, there are two families. Certain numbers need no explanation when it comes to baseball fans: 56, 511, 73, 755, 191, 5714, 4256... Those are established by individual players over a season or career of greatness, but to people outside of baseball, they mean something completely different. 511 is the number for nationwide travel information. 5714 was 1953-1954 on the Jewish calendar, bringing to mind the end of McCarthyism, economic success, and sock hops. In baseball, they are marks of greatness, exclusive each to a single player.

Then there are the round numbers that inspire awe: .400, 3000, 500. These are more arbitrary, since they depend almost completely on our obsession with numbers that fit conveniently into our base-10 number system. If we all had 11 fingers, only four players would find themselves north of the "500" mark instead of the current 20. Does this change cheapen the achievements of the current group? Certainly not - the thresholds establish a level of accomplishment in relative concert with the rarity of their achievement - but keep in mind the basis for their public perception is the manner of their presentation.

Thus it shall be again this year. Certain players approach numbers in the first family, others approach milestones in the second. Some will blanket the airwaves in such density as to make rational people long for the halcyon days of "America's Funniest Home Videos, Guest Hosted by Dave Coulier". Others will fly further under the radar than greenies during a year of "grab your soapbox and find your assigned screaming spot" steroid stories. Regardless, 2005 will be a year of record-breaking achievement, the knowledge of which satisfies the game's meticulous accountants and your faithful scribes here at Baseball Prospectus.

And now, we're proud to bring you "Baseball Prospectus' Numbers: We don't spell it with a 3. (Nor Yale with a 6, for that matter.)":

  • 715,756: Last year, the over-under on season attendance in Montreal. This year, two numbers: 715 and 756. There's nothing left to be said about Barry Bonds: he's the greatest baseball player ever, a statement that should give all of us an idea about the chances of seeing someone like him again. We should look forward to telling our grandchildren about seeing him turn around on a foolish fastball within five feet of home plate. Instead, Bonds will spend most if not all of the season on the DL instead of looking to become on the second player to put serious distance between himself and the number 700. Three times in history this has happened. It's about as rare as it gets.

  • 166: Games needed by Miguel Tejada to break Maury Wills' single-season record for games played. Tejada has played every game for the last four seasons, but in 1962, Wills' Dodgers capped off the season with a three game playoff with their rival San Francisco Giants, all of which counted as regular season games. If the Orioles can work their way into an eight-way tie for the Wild Card, Tejada might just be able to tie the record at 165.

  • 78: Hits needed by Rafael Palmeiro for the magic round number 3,000. In the tail end of his career, his batting average has fallen every year since his career high .324 in 1999. Assuming he hits .250 on the season and plays about 150 games as Baltimore's DH, he should hit the big number right around the Orioles' 89th game: July 14th at Seattle, the day after the All-Star break.

  • 53: Score, in Scrabble, for "Javier Vazquez", the highest score of all time for a baseball player's first and last names, as discovered by BP's Nate Silver. Vazquez passed such luminaries as Freddie Velazquez (51), Jim Czajkowski (51, although James Czajkowski also scores 53), and nine players tied at 50. Ed Ott and Al Tate tied for the lowest score with 6. Positive trends have been found between Player Scrabble Score (PSS) and career longevity; it will be added to enhance PECOTA in 2006.

  • 26: Home runs Sammy Sosa needs for 600. While he only needs 13 to pass Mark McGwire and Frank Robinson for fifth all time, round numbers are easier to digest, so the big "600" is likely to come up more often. Almost no one thinks Bud Selig will make the trip to see Sosa's milestone in person, but then again, no one thought Roberto Hernandez would accidentally break Cal Ripken Jr.'s nose at the 1996 All-Star Game photo shoot, either.

  • 752: Walks needed by Frank Thomas to catch Bonds' career total. Thomas has 1450, meaning he needs to increase his career total by 51.9% to reach the record. Not even Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson trail Nolan Ryan's strikeout record of 5714 by a gap that wide, needing 1397 and 1553 whiffs, respectively.

  • 32: Welts needed by Craig Biggio to pass Hughie Jennings on the all-time HBP list. Biggio managed 34 beanings in 1997, so if he's really on his game, he might just make it this year.

  • 2: Players in 1997 with at least 619 AB (Biggio's total) who had fewer walks than Biggio's 34 HBP. Mark Grudzielanek and Garret Anderson managed 23 and 30 walks, respectively. In 2004, Shea Hillenbrand, and Jack Wilson trailed Craig Wilson's NL-leading total of 30.

  • 67: Age at which Julio Franco, the active leader, would pass Pete Rose in career singles, assuming he hit 62 per year - his average for the past three seasons. If that's a little too improbable for your tastes, consider that if Franco hits a home run at any point this season, he will be the oldest player ever to do so. Jack Quinn was eight days shy of his 46th birthday when he hit a home run on June 27, 1930, an age Franco passed on August 15th last year.

  • 421: Consecutive winning decisions needed by Terry Mulholland to pass Al Spalding on the career winning percentage list, the highest total of any active pitcher with at least 50 decisions. Tom Glavine is second with 404, Greg Maddux is sixth with 373, and Roger Clemens is 15th with 311. Johan Santana needs the fewest with 28.

  • .0057: Difference between Todd Helton and Barry Bonds in career slugging percentage. Helton has slugged .630 and .620 the last two seasons, so he's managed to stave off Bonds' assault (.749 and .812) for the time being, but if Helton begins the year 0-for-37, he'll slip just behind Bonds. Then again, if he gets on base his first 95 PAs in a row, he'll pass Bonds on the active career OBP list. Don't bet on either.

  • 488: Strikeouts needed by Sammy Sosa to pass Reggie Jackson as the most prolific whiffer of all time. Sosa has averaged 140 strikeouts a season for the last three years. At that pace, he would pass Jackson sometime in 2008.

  • 4.1: Percent chance of Ichiro Suzuki tying Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak, based on his 2004 statistics. Ichiro averaged 4.37 AB/G which gives him an 86.9% chance of getting a hit in a game (1-(1-.372)^4.37). Based on that percentage, Ichiro has a 0.039% chance of hitting in 56-games in a row. Assuming he plays 161 games again, that's essentially 105 consecutive attempts at the record. 0.039%^105 is 4.1%. However, this doesn't take into account the fact that with every hitless game, Ichiro drastically reduces the number of chances he has for a 56-game streak, so his odds are significantly lower.

  • 0.3: Percent chance of Ichiro Suzuki tying Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak, based on his 2004 statistics. No, this is not a misprint. An alternative calculation, using the fact that Ichiro hit successfully in 134 out of 161 games (83.2% instead of the 86.9% above), reduces his chances by over 91%.

  • 1: a) Stolen bases needed by either Scott Podsednik or Carl Crawford last year for their combined league-leading totals to match Rickey Henderson's record of 130 steals in a season in 1982. The last time the two league leaders combined to surpass Rickey's record: 1997, Brian Hunter (74) and Tony Womack (60). With Podsednik now in the AL, Juan Pierre will have to add dramatically to his 2004 total of 45 to give the league leaders a chance to catch Rickey. Rickey doesn't think anybody but Rickey could do it. Rickey said so.

  • 1: b) Difference in career sacrifice hits between Tom Glavine (186) and Omar Vizquel (185), the two active leaders. The Giants and Mets meet for the first time June 3-5. Will Glavine intentionally walk Vizquel with a man on first? Will Vizquel tackle Edgardo Alfonzo to give Glavine a hit instead of a sacrifice? Will Vizquel shake off the "swing away" sign, electing to sacrifice with no one on base?! You'll have to tune in to see.

  • 4: Days until Opening Day…

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