Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: For support, not illumination.
Three years ago, in the early stages of this blog, I wrote a post suggesting the best eligible player not in the Hall of Fame. It was three years ago, granted, so I knew less about sabermetrics, less about baseball history, and less about eligible players not in Cooperstown. (I still don’t know everything and I never will, which is one thing I like about baseball history. Through more than 150 years of organized play, there are seemingly endless expanses to explore.) Instead, I based my piece on what I knew best at the time, traditional stats. This led me down a rabbit hole which I can laugh about three years on.
I started by visiting the list of highest career batting averages at Baseball-Reference.com. Why batting average? Before I knew of OPS+, wRC+, or wOBA, to name a few sabermetrics that measure a player’s overall offensive contributions, I considered batting average the best measure of a hitter. And without knowing of total value metrics like Wins Above Replacement, JAWS, or Hall Rating, I figured the best candidate not in Cooperstown would be a great hitter. Don’t ask me how my mind works sometimes.
Starting at the top of the batting average list, I scrolled past all-time leader Ty Cobb whose .367 clip helped get him in Cooperstown long ago, past next runner-up Rogers Hornsby, also long since enshrined, and past Shoeless Joe Jackson, who isn’t eligible. For some reason, I either missed or disregarded the fourth man on the list, Lefty O’Doul, though that’s probably for the best. Lefty’s a great hitter, no doubt, and he belongs in Cooperstown, but he hit .349 in a short career, in a Golden Age for hitters. His 143 OPS+ is worse than 15 eligible players not enshrined. His splits are also nuts: .426 in 733 at-bats at the Baker Bowl; .327 in 2,531 AB’s elsewhere.
After Lefty, I scrolled past a number of players already enshrined, as well as three 19th century hitters: Dave Orr, Pete Browning and Jake Stenzel. In discussions of all-time greats, I tend to reflexively disregard anyone who played before the Modern Era. I don’t know if this is wrong. This in turn led me to the owner of the 22nd highest batting average in baseball history, Riggs Stephenson. At the time I clicked on his name, I’d never heard of Stephenson who hit .336 over a career that spanned 1921-1934, though the sponsor’s message on his Baseball-Reference page proclaimed him: “The greatest baseball player who is NOT in the Hall of Fame!” That was good enough for me. If I ever do a post called “Times I was wrong here,” what I cobbled together on Stephenson will rank highly. He’s not the best player not in Cooperstown. Looking at other stats as well Stephenson’s impact on the game and place in baseball history, I doubt he ranks among the top 100 candidates.
I was reminded of all this by Scully’s quote, which someone recently posted to Twitter. I think there’s some truth in what Scully said (which, as Joe Posnanski noted, wasn’t an original quote), though in the grand tradition of quotes, it’s since been misappropriated by people looking to advance a cause. To my understanding, the quote is sometimes trotted out as an argument against sabermetrics. To an extent, I see the skeptics’ point. In four years of blogging about baseball, I’ve seen discussions where people have used an advanced stat to bludgeon home an argument. Heck, I’ve done it. It’s pretty simple to reference a player’s OPS+ and WAR, throw in a few factoids about him from Wikipedia, his SABR biography, or Google, and call it a day on a post. But it’s also easy to engage in this type of debate using traditional stats in place of sabermetrics.
I’ve been the proverbial drunk on the lamp post with both traditional and advanced stats. In both cases, I’ve been wrong. There’s not a stat in baseball, new or old, that’s best used dogmatically and in the absence of other information. By that same token, I think it’s also wrong to disregard stats entirely. They don’t tell the whole story of what goes on in baseball, but they certainly are evidence of whatever’s going on. They provide context as well. And they can serve as a gateway to learning about forgotten players. It’s why I’m grateful for the rise of sites like Baseball-Reference, seemingly designed to introduce me to players like Riggs Stephenson and so many others I may never have heard of were they not a click away. Ideally, checking out their stats can be just the beginning for learning their stories.