Baseball is entwined with American history, but it can also be the source of propaganda.
Baseball has a storied and deliberate history of being connected to American politics, from its roots in the Civil War to presidents throwing Opening Day first pitches to the widespread belief during World War II that baseball made America more peaceful than Europe. Though it is correct that these connections have in some ways produced an American baseball synonymous with American politics, these efforts have perpetuated the dangerous belief that the mere existence of American democracy safeguards people from suffering and persecution.
These issues were on full display in a 1951 Lew Fonseca short film titled The Democracy of Baseball. The film was packaged as a celebration of the game on behalf of the National League’s 75th anniversary and the American League’s 50th. The 17-minute film was shown to baseball writers, boy scouts, and young baseball players, among many others, as a means of educating them on the sport’s history. However, the heavy-handed American democratic and militaristic ties to the sport on display in the film present a superficial account of the game that, in service of specific political goals, omits the real, full nature of baseball’s American-ness.
Bill James popularized sabermetrics. Hell, he coined the term. Several of his measures, like runs created, are still in popular use today, and his work has formed the basis for many sabermetric advances. But James created other measures that combine whimsy with measurement.
One is the power/speed number. It attempts to identify players who excel at both. It’s a simple formula: 2 x (HR x SB) / (SB +HR). That’s not #gorymath; it’s not even #goryalgebra, even if you add that it represents the harmonic mean of home runs and stolen bases.
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The supposedly neutral record of baseball statistics has been anything but.
Race and the color line have played a central role in baseball history. One of the most well-known stories of the game’s past is Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line in 1947. Every year, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, leading observers to recall that prior to 1947, baseball was segregated. That sin touched every aspect of the game. Namely, the history of baseball statistics is enmeshed in the history of race in baseball.
Baseball statistics receive an enormous amount of attention. Likewise, the history of baseball gets its fair share of treatment in the form of popular histories, academic works, and SABR biographies. The history of baseball statistics, however, garners far less consideration. Indeed, it’s seldom acknowledged that statistics even have a history outside of themselves. Not only that, but when the history of baseball statistics is afforded scrutiny, the results suggest the markings of a still emerging site of study. The story tends to travel from Alexander Cartwright in the 19th century to Bill James near the turn of the millennium. While those figures are important, there is more to the history of baseball statistics than a series of individual actors.
The objects of study in this article are two of the most significant publications regarding baseball statistics: the Official Encyclopedia of Baseball (BE), first published in 1951, and the 1969 Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia (MEB). Specifically, it examines them with regard to the nature of encyclopedias and in the specific context in which they emerged. They were products of a moment in baseball history when the color line was a fresh memory and full integration was just getting underway. Because of that, the manner in which they addressed black baseball was specific and revealing.
Did Bill James revolutionize baseball? Did we? Did Michael Lewis?
According to the usual narrative, sabermetrics was invented by Bill James in the late '70s. Or possibly by Baseball Prospectus in the mid-'90s. Or maybe by Michael Lewis in 2002. Or whenever teams started to hire bloggers. For the longest time, those teams toiled under a veil of ignorance until, thankfully, Al Gore invented the internet and then they were able to see the light.
Solving baseball mysteries with the aid of an unlikely source.
Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers, and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.
Tom Shieber is Senior Curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, where he has worked since 1998. Shieber founded SABR's Pictorial History Committee in 1994, serving as chair of the committee until 2000, and served on the Board of Directors of SABR from 1997 to 2000. He blogs about baseball history and research at Baseball Researcher.
Why knowing what went before will help the sabermetric movement in the future.
This was my third year attending the annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research—in this case, the 43rd such event. It is one of the social highlights of the year for a community that essentially suffered a diaspora at birth—it’s never been easier for baseball researchers to communicate, but every so often it’s vital to actually bring them together under one roof, and SABR is a vital way of doing that.
There are panel discussions, keynotes, presentations, posters, and committee meetings. There are also discussions in hallways and on escalators and in line at cheesesteak vendors and in bars… well, okay, mostly in bars. And those ad hoc interactions are at least as important as the formal events, if not more so. I’ve tried to recap the formalevents, at least the ones I found of suitable interest. But it doesn’t really do enough to capture the sense of what the thing is. So let’s talk a bit. I don’t mean so much talk about SABR, although I’ll do that plenty. I mean let’s talk like we’re at the bar, with room to meander and ruminate and think about larger things. Now, obviously, I’m going to be doing most of the talking here to start, but a few of my victims from the hotel bar on Saturday night can tell you that’s pretty typical of being at SABR too.
How does the first calendar year of Matt Harvey's career stack up to those of other fast starters?
On Friday night, Matt Harvey held the Nationals to one unearned run over eight innings, walking one and striking out seven to lower his ERA to 2.11. That outing closed the book on his first calendar year in the majors; the previous July 26th, Harvey had debuted against the Diamondbacks, holding them scoreless for 5 1/3 and fanning 11. There’s no particular reason to draw a line after a pitcher’s first calendar year—it’s not a completely arbitrary endpoint, but it’s close—but compartmentalizing helps us humans make sense of things. So with Matt Harvey mania in full swing, the one-year mark seems like as good a time as any to see how Harvey stacks up historically, and what that might mean.
This is a list of the best first calendar years for pitchers since 1950, sorted by PWARP. That’s just the pitching component of WARP, so Harvey doesn’t get credit for the extra half win or so he earned by going 6-for-18 at the plate last season. (He’s 5-for-48 this year.) Debut year age is seasonal age, or age as of July 1 of each player's rookie season. Fair RA is a measure of pitching quality scaled to run average, not ERA, and considers sequencing, base-out state, batted-ball distribution, and team defense. Fair RA+ is Fair RA relative to the league; 100 is league average, so the higher the number, the better. Each pitcher’s career PWARP is included on the right.
Why historical changes in pitching mechanics haven't always led to improvement.
The pitching delivery has evolved throughout the history of Major League Baseball. There are elements of old-school pitching mechanics that are now artifacts of a bygone era, and though one would expect the modern iteration of pitching instruction to have greatly progressed over time, there are some ways in which the pitchers of today have regressed compared to their predecessors. A few of these topics have been covered in previous editions of Raising Aces, such as the modern-day emphasis on angles and deception that has resulted in over-the-top arm slots and closed stride patterns.
The windup is a fundamental component of the pitching delivery, one so basic that its utility in the game is never questioned, yet it serves as a classic example of the ever-changing practices of the pitching-industrial complex. Pitcher windups have morphed over the past 70 years, and what was once a series of movements has been simplified to the current model, which basically involves a side-step and pivot, essentially putting the pitcher in the stretch position at the time that he initiates the lift phase of his motion.