NEW YORK — Every now and again, you will hear somebody make fun of baseball numbers geeks by inventing some silly made-up statistic of their own. For instance, they might say: “Hey, did you know that Player X is hitting .403 with runners in scoring position on Wednesdays when the starting pitcher is left-handed, a Sagittarius and has broken up with his girlfriend within 1,093 hours of taking the mound.”
LOL! See, the joke is that baseball stat-heads measure obscure and pointless things. The Simpsons pulled off this little joke in their recent baseball show, but the truth is that the joke has become ubiquitous. You can hear it on radio, on television, in newspapers, on Broadway, in ballparks across America. Everyone who wants to poke fun at baseball stats people come up some version of the joke.
“I’m not interested in the guys batting average against lefties on national holidays when the person eliminated on American Idol has a name that starts with B.”
“Oh, what is he hitting in domes during day games when the NASDAQ is down?”
“Yeah, they’re in their mother’s basement figuring the pitchers wDIDDY on turf when he batter scored better than a 1000 on his SAT.”
And so on. The jokes can be blandly funny, I suppose, though I think they miss the point. There ARE some annoying numbers geeks out there who chase after utterly meaningless statistics. Those geeks, though, might not be the ones we generally point at.
What I mean is that the people who spend a lot of time breaking down baseball numbers, well, their methods may be baffling to those of us without much feel for math but in general they are working to find things that could be really interesting. There are people out there who work hard to come up with mathematical formulas to determine the run values of different actions (how much more a single is worth than a walk, for instance). There are people out there who work the numbers to separate the pitchers contribution in run prevention from the defense’s contribution. Some try to break down the statistics to see if certain players have the unique talent to hit better in the clutch than they do in regular situations. Some try to pick through the records to see if pitchers — individually and collectively — can pitch to the score. Some just work through the numbers to find counterintuitive facts — for instance, the team that leaves more runners on base tends to win more often than lose. You might not think that.
Sometimes, these mathematical efforts go over my head. And sometimes they go WAY over my head. But the point is that much of baseball number crunching is for a purpose — to answer a question, to prove a point, to discover a whole new way to look at baseball — and that can be fascinating if you come at it with an open mind.
Then there are really and truly pointless baseball numbers, statistics that tell you almost nothing, records that are made to be insulted. What would be a good example of a bad baseball statistic?
Well … if you type in Toronto pitcher “Jo-Jo Reyes” and “winless streak” into your Google News Feed, you will find one. You will actually find hundreds and hundreds of hits representing one. Yes, this “streak” — and you will notice I put the finger quotations around the word –has earned its corner of the news. People in the mainstream are actually talking about Jo-Jo Reyes’ winless streak. And to be blunt about it this record is dumber than most of the fictional jokes people invent just to make fun of baseball.
To be clear: After Wednesday’s start against the Yankees, Jo-Jo Reyes has now made 28 consecutive starts without earning a win, which apparently ties him with Matt Keough for some sort of dubious distinction. But what distinction? That’s a bit trickier. Is his record 0-28? No, it is is not. It’s actually 0-13. Is his team’s record 0-28 in his starts? No, it’s not — it’s a much-less interesting 7-21. Does this streak go back to last year? Well, no, because Jo-Jo Reyes didn’t make a big league start last year. He only made five big league starts back in 2009. So this “streak,” and there are those finger quotes again, goes back to 2008, when he was a kid playing for Atlanta. He did not win any of his last 13 big league starts that year. He did not win any of his five big league starts in 2009. And, of course, he has not won any of his big league 10 starts this season.
That’s not a streak. That’s bad timing. That’s a not especially intriguing coincidence. A streak is something that happens continuously. A pitcher who goes up and down, makes a spot start here and there, goes to the minors for most of one year and the whole of the next, no, that’s not a streak.
But the quirky timing of the streak is not even the biggest problem with this bit of nonsense. The biggest problem is that it’s all made up. This whole thing is built around the archaic win statistic. If the Blue Jays had lost 28 straight games Reyes had started, yes, that would be interesting. If Reyes had left 28 straight games with his team trailing, I could see THAT being interesting. But neither thing is even remotely true. Heck, in Reyes’ LAST START he threw seven shutout innings and the Blue Jays pen blew the game. The start before that, the Jays actually won the game but because of the goofiness of the statistic, Reyes did not get the credit. Those are his last two starts, for crying out loud.
So, what, he hasn’t gotten one of those outdated “pitcher wins” things? Big deal. I’ve got a long, long streak going where I have not used the word “mollycoddle*.” I don’t think presses will be stopped.
*Damn. Streak broken.
I rip on the win as a statistic pretty often here, but if I’m being honest, I would miss the win if it was suddenly gone. I think it adds to the appeal of baseball to be able to say a pitcher is 17-2 or 4-15 or whatever. Wins are an easy shortcut and a common language between casual and intense baseball fans. And in concert with other statistics, wins can give you a decent feel for what kind of year the pitcher is having — whether it’s a good year, a bad year, a lucky year, a hard-luck year, whatever.
But this “winless streak” annoys me because it attempts to give an authority to the statistic that is so obviously not there.
After Wednesday’s non-win — Reyes made sure on this one by giving up back-to-back doubles to start the game and five runs in three innings — reporters surrounded the man of the hour. The whole scene was bizarre. Hey, here’s one of those kooky joke stats: What pitcher has made the most consecutive starts without pitching at least five innings and exiting with his team in the lead in a game that the team ends up winning?
And people make fun of BABIP. Sheesh.