With apologies to Michael Lewis, what if everything you thought you knew about baseball was wrong? As our collective understanding of advanced statistical analysis in baseball grows exponentially with each passing day, we are now among a generation of baseball fans that has done more critical thinking about and retained more esoteric knowledge of the game than our parents could ever have dreamed of. Anyone who has seen MLB Network’s show on the evolution of statistics would think that between Henry Chadwick’s invention of the box score and Branch Rickey’s hiring of Alan Roth as a statistician, baseball fans in the 20th century consumed baseball metrics in only the most rudimentary of ways — via the dreaded batting average, home runs and RBI triumvirate.
However, what if I told you that one of the most advanced analytical discoveries — one that sabermetricians hold near and dear to their hearts — was actually discovered before Babe Ruth ever played a game?
My dad gave me Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” when I was 13 years old. Up until that point, I had every statistic on the back of every baseball card memorized. I would spend hours organizing and reorganizing my seemingly infinite collection of cards — always checking the numbers before placing a card into a new position. Michael Lewis ruined this childhood passion. Knowing that Bernie Williams hit .338 in 1998, narrowly beating out Mo Vaughan (.337) for the batting title just didn’t seem that important anymore. Long story short, I had to know everything about baseball I didn’t already know. My progression began with on-base percentage, grew to OPS, and I eventually stumbled upon the likes of FIP and wOBA. As a teenager, I simply believed these metrics were all invented by Bill James, who I imagined being like Vito Corleone with Tom Tango as Tom Hagen and Voros McCraken as Michael Corleone.
Returning to the present day, I‘m currently in the midst of writing my college thesis (yes, it’s on baseball), and I recently came across a piece of research that sounded my “wow, everything I thought I knew about baseball is wrong” alarm to claxon-like levels. In the 1915 edition of Baseball Magazine (distributed from 1908-1957), there’s an article written by F.C. Lane that would make even Tom Tango take notice (assuming he isn’t already aware of its existence): “Why the System of Batting Averages Should Be Changed: Statistics Lie at the Foundation of Baseball Popularity — Batting Records Are the Favorite — And Yet Batting Records Are Unnecessarily Inaccurate.”
Lane opens his discussion with a question: “Suppose you asked a close personal friend how much change he had in his pocket and he replied, ‘Twelve coins,’ would you think you had learned much about the precise state of his exchequer?” He goes on to compare two mens’ respective financial situations: Man A, with “twelve coins” consisting of a combination of quarters, nickels, and dimes; and Man B, with twelve silver dollars. Saying both men have equal financial means is equivalent to the system of tracking batting averages, he explains. “One batter, we may say, made twelve singles, three or four of them of the scratchiest possible variety. The other also made twelve hits, but all of them were good ringing drives, clean cut and decisive, three of them were doubles, one a triple, and one a home run…Is there no way to separate the dimes from the nickels and give each its proper value?” Sound familiar?
“If these averages mislead or give mistaken ideas of batting ability they forfeit their only excuse in being?”
This issue was not solely unique to Lane’s inquisitiveness. John Heydler, secretary and future president of the National League, added, “that the system of giving as much credit to singles as to home runs is inaccurate to that extent. But it has never seemed practicable to use any other system. How, for instance, are you going to give the comparative values of home runs and singles?”
Lane wasn’t satisfied with Heydler’s admission that even though the system was broken, it couldn’t be fixed. To prove Heydler wrong, the question Lane would attempt to answer was simple: “What constitutes the value of a hit?” “A hit,” Lane says, “is valuable in so far as it results in a score. The entire aim of a baseball team at bat is to score runs. Hits, stolen bases, taking advantage of errors — in short, all the departments of play — are but details in the process of scoring runs.”
Lane continues to outline what appears to be a very early version of weighted on-base average (wOBA). Before he concludes his argument, he makes another discovery that took the rest of us about 80 years to figure out. Lane compares Jake Daubert — who hit for a high batting average — and Gavvy Cravath, who Lane claims is a much better player, even with his sub-.300 batting average.
To make this comparison, Lane looks at the league average figures for singles, doubles, triples and home runs (77.44%, 14.80%, 5.51%, and 2.24%, respectively) and compares those numbers to each player’s numbers. Daubert’s hit breakdown was as follows: 79.47% singles, 13.90% doubles, 5.29% triples and 1.33% home runs. “In other words,” explains Lane, “Jake made more singles and fewer extra base hits than the general average right down the line. Jake had a lot of coins in his pockets, but many of them were nickels and dimes.” Cravath, on the other hand, had the following breakdown: 59.38% singles, 20.80% doubles, 4.69% triples and 16.12% home runs. Lane breaks down the numbers further, assigning the proper (his idea of the correct) values to each hit, thus creating a weighted batting average. Comparing a player’s weighted figures to the league averages seems quite a bit similar to what we know as wRC+ today, wouldn’t you say?
Clearly the baseball universe did not end up adopting these types of analyses back then. Even today, most fans are just beginning to realize just how one-dimensional batting average is. MLB Network’s aforementioned special on statistics called OPS the gateway drug, and noted that fans are beginning to realize that OBP and SLG are better metrics than AVG. While the more advanced figures like wOBA and wRC+ are still relatively unknown to the baseball masses, even they seem to be slowly seeping into the wider baseball zeitgeist.
“Let it be hoped that 1916, the dawn of a new day in baseball affairs, will witness as well the dawn of a new day in the outworn method of keeping batting averages. The time has passed when the public will any longer swallow the palpable falsehood that a home run is no better than a scratch single. It knows better, instinctively feels better, and should be told the truth by a presentation of the season’s statistics founded upon a sane, workmanlike basis.”
If only Lane could’ve seen just how far his theories have come.