Questions: Do statistics take the wonder out of our sports? Do statistics drain the humanity out of them? Do statistics pull our eyes away from the fields and diamonds and courts and toward the ledger book? Do statistics make us less appreciative of the most important things in life, qualities that we intuitively understand are important but are not easy to quantify such as leadership and guts and the ability to handle pressure and the willingness to be a good teammate? Do statistics make us turn away from the myth and joy and mystery that make sports fun in the first place?
Most of all: Do statistics ruin good stories?
You may have caught the recent iDiscourse between my friends Chris Jones and Jonah Keri. They discussed the timing of Barry Zito’s collapse as a pitcher. Jones argued that Zito’s collapse after he signed the big contract with San Francisco was largely caused by the big contract itself and the pressures that came with it. Keri argued that the numbers clearly show that Zito was well on his way to collapse before the contract came along and that what followed was pretty much just the natural course of events. Jones counter-argued that he has never slept with a virgin. Keri returned with the charge that Anchor Steam is a great beer. Jones double-countered that there are signs of divinity in the song “Montana” by Youth Lagoon.
You know, I failed philosophy back in school so I got lost somewhere in there.
More than anything, though, I think they argued about what so many have argued lately — the human record versus the human heart. Chris, I know, is not a devout non-believer in the power of numbers. And Keri, I know, does not live in his mother’s basement. Still, lines were drawn, pistols chosen, and it seems to me they were not really arguing about Zito — after all they are probably both at least somewhat right about him. Zito pretty clearly was on his descent before the absurd deal was written up; it is obvious in his numbers the last three years in Oakland. Baseball observers pretty unanimously knew it was a New Coke deal the day it was signed. And still, it is at least as obvious that Zito was messed up by the expectations that come with seven-year, $126 million deals* — as people around him will tell you, the guy has become a basket case; he has lost his confidence as well as his fastball.
*This is the worst number in baseball, by the way: 126 million. If you are a general manager or hope to become one someday, avoid this number. Run from it. In baseball history, three men have received seven year, $126 million deals.
1. Barry Zito: 2007-2013
2. Vernon Wells: 2008-2014
3. Jayson Werth: 2011-2017
ZIto’s contract is a disaster. That’s obvious. He is 43-61 with a 4.52 ERA over the length of the contract, which is bad enough. Worse he was left off the postseason roster when the Giants won the World Series, and he’s now such a wreck that rumors emerge daily of ways that the Giants can simply get rid of him — shoot him into space, leave him on a porch, or, craziest of all, trade him straight up for Carlos Zambrano, one of those rare trades that would hurt both teams.
Wells contract is so bad that it was considered a modern miracle — something in the part-the-Red-Sea variety of miracle — when the Blue Jays were able to deal him to the Angels. Wells, unlike Zito, has had a couple of good years under this contract; those were the even years. And Jose Bautista gives him a lot of credit for his own turnaround, which has been worth a whole lot to Toronto. But in the odd years, he was among the worst everyday players in baseball. This odd year is the worst yet — he’s hitting .215/.249/.395, though those numbers are up over the last couple of weeks
The Jayson Werth deal might have been the most puzzling of all. The $126 million deal was obviously cursed already. He was turning 32 years old. The Nationals did not seem close enough to contention for this move to help them all that much even if Werth did maintain his 2010 form. He has not so far — he’s hitting .230/.328/.389 at this writing — and because of his age and various other factors there seems little likelihood of him being an $18 million player any year over the next six. But, I guess you never know.
Either way, you might want to offer $125 million or $127 million or something like that in the future.
Getting back to the point: I don’t want to make the Jones-Keri argument too stark. But I think there is a stark argument about statistics, especially in baseball, that is especially interesting to me as a writer. The prosecuting side of the argument goes like this: Statistics, advanced metrics specifically, make the game less fun. They turn a quintessentially human activity, played by men of flesh and blood, into a cascade of numbers like in The Matrix. They mock the unmeasurable contributions of gutsy men who get their jerseys dirty and lead by example and have a knack of making the big play just when the team needs it most. They muddy up the story lines that have spoken to baseball fans for a century — the hitter who comes through in the clutch, the pitcher who will somehow win, the fielder who doesn’t make mistakes and, like DiMaggio, always throws to the right base. Well, you’ve heard it all before.
But here, I don’t want to argue AGAINST those points. I think that’s one of the things that bothers me about such arguments — you have traditionalists raging against the numbers, and the numbers people raging against tradition. I want to tell you one reason why I love baseball numbers. I love them because I believe advanced numbers can help us tell better stories.
Listen to this: In 1997, Mariano Rivera became a closer. He is almost certainly the greatest closer since the concept was invented — I don’t think anyone is particularly close. His story has been written again and again and again. His calm. His faith. His cutter. His postseason performance. His calm again. Back to his cutter. Maybe I should mention his faith. Rivera himself doesn’t add much to the narrative; he is in interviews both agreeable and unrevealing … his most famous quote is probably the one he said during a kids show: “I get the ball, I throw the ball, and I take a shower.”
Most athletes are like this. They either cannot or will not let us inside. David Foster Wallace wrote the best words about this in a marvelous review he wrote about Tracy Austin’s biography:
“It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able to truly see, articulate and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it — and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”
I might take it even another step further. Maybe athletes are not entirely blind or dumb to what’s happening inside — they just know that it’s not very interesting. I remember once quarterback Jeff Blake completed a long pass in overtime to set up a game-winning field goal and break an eight-game losing streak, and a TV guy rushed over to him as soon as the game ended and shouted something like: “Great pass. Big win. Wow!” And then he put the microphone in front of Blake, who seemed thoroughly unsure how to respond to the passionate non-question. The PLAY was exciting to watch. The RESULT of the play was thrilling for a team and a city that needed a win. But the moment itself was undoubtedly a collage of mind-numbing practice and technical details and the body reacting as it was trained to react.
So it goes. I suspect that what Mariano Rivera FEELS in the moment is pretty limiting. It has been written, and even written well, but not often well. And I’m not sure how true those stories can be anyway. How much do you think Mariano Rivera can express what is going through his mind? I’m a writer and I don’t think I can express what was going through my mind when, say, I wrote the last paragraph.
But how Rivera makes US feel — as Yankees fans, as opposing fans, as former players, as current players, as managers — yes, now, that can be something great. We can express those emotions, I think, because watching Rivera pitch takes us closer to the surface, brings us into that heightened sense of awareness. That’s what’s fun about it.
And one way to tell how Rivera makes us feel is by the numbers. For instance, here’s one: Since 1997, the New York Yankees have won 97.2% of the games they led going into the ninth inning. The record, if you want it to the moment, is 1,256-36. Obviously, Rivera did not finish all those games. But he finished 859 games over those years. He is largely responsible for that amazing record. Over the years, the Yankees have led going into the ninth inning 85 or so times a year. With Rivera closing, they have lost those leads once or twice a year.
Now, if you just look at that number as a number, it might not tell a story. But think about it this way: Every time a New York baseball team loses a ninth-inning lead, America’s largest city convulses. The back pages spread the news in bold letters. The columnists and talk radio hosts talk doomsday. Everything is magnified 20x in New York, as we saw with Hurricane Irene. We also saw it in the recent exchange between manager Joe Girardi and pitcher A.J. Burnett. Girardi pulled a thoroughly battered Burnett, and Burnett unleashed a profane rant that was watched and discussed on television. The postgame interview with Girardi was vaudeville comedy as he did a Jerry Lewis quality double-take when asked about Burnett’s little tirade. Pitchers have cussed out managers who pulled them since the beginning of time, and A.J. Burnett has been something approaching unpitchable for two seasons now, but in New York this exchange was basically turned into the meeting at Yalta. That sort of thing happens to every team in sports, but it’s louder in New York.
And so, the point is that Rivera, being Rivera, has saved the New York Yankees a lot of headaches and a lot of angry back page headlines the morning after.
Here’s the beautiful thing about interesting statistics. They lead to other statistics … and other stories. For instance: What does a 97.2% success rate with ninth-inning leads even mean? It is, over Rivera’s time, the best percentage in baseball. So that tells you one thing. But then, with a little more digging, I find that between 1951 and 1964 — the last time the Yankees thoroughly dominated baseball — the Yankees won 97.3% of the games they led going into the ninth inning. They did that without a closer. The save was not invented yet, but figuring out the saves retroactively the Yankees actually had FIFTY FIVE different pitchers over those 13 years with at least one save, from Luis Arroyo to Ryne Duren, from the young Al Downing to the ancient Sal Maglie, from (Whitey) Ford to (Virgil) Trucks.
And still, those Yankees won those ninth inning games at a slightly higher percentage than the later Yankees would with the greatest closer who ever lived. How many stories are there to be told about baseball and the closer and our power to believe that progress must make things better?
* * *
So, speaking of statistics and stories: Brilliant Reader John had this idea. Why not go back and look at the highest WPA games for hitters over the last 50 years.
WPA — Win Probability Added — is one of the most interesting statistics out there, and to be honest I do not see why it has not become more popular among mainstream baseball fans. Maybe it needs a better presentation, a better name, a public relations person because WPA, it seems to me, speaks so clearly to what so many baseball fans love about baseball: The winning plays.
The idea is this: WPA assigns a winning percentage to every single play. Let’s say that the Indians are playing at the Royals. When the game starts each team has exactly a 50 percent chance of winning. That’s pretty easy to get. Well, from that point on, each event has some impact on that winning chance. For instance, if Cleveland’s Duane Kuiper leads off with a single, the Indians winning chances goes up ever so slightly. If he makes an out, the Indians winning chances goes down ever so slightly. Those fluctuations are WPA.
The Kuiper examples are tiny fluctuations. A single in the first inning would only improve the Indians chances of winning by the tiniest percentage. But there can be enormous fluctuations too. For instance, let’s say there are two outs in the the bottom of the ninth, and the Indians lead by three runs … they will almost certainly win. But then the Royals load the bases, and Frank White hits a grand slam to win the game. Well, now you have an enormous fluctuation — from an almost certain loss to a certain win. The final WPA would be credited to Frank White (and a negative WPA to the pitcher who allowed the home run, probably Sid Monge).
It’s a fun statistic … it’s not necessarily predictive of what will happen later, but it’s a great stat for telling you who has had a huge impact on impact on the game.
Here, thanks to the marvelous Baseball Reference, are the 10 biggest WPA games over the last 50. These, by their nature, are 10 of the most thrilling games, and performances, of the last half century. I knew almost nothing about them, and there is no way I could have known about them without the magic of WPA and Baseball Reference:
10. Dwight Evans (June 23, 1990): This was a June game between the Red Sox and Orioles, and Baltimore led 2-1 in the eighth when Dewey homered to tie the game. Baltimore took the lead in the top of the 10th, and Evans hit a two-run walk off homer in the bottom of the 10th to win it. Not bad.
9. Hank Aaron (Sept. 10, 1971): You will notice that these games have a similar ring to them. This was Atlanta vs. San Francisco, and the Giants led 3-1 in the eighth. Aaron drove him one run with a double, and scored the tying run. In the 10th, the Giants led again by a run, and Aaron doubled and scored the game tying run. In the 11th, with the Braves down by a run, Aaron hit a walk-off three-run homer.
8. Jim Hickman (May 28, 1970): Hickman’s Cubs trailed Pittsburgh by two in the seventh when he hit a two run homer to tie the game. In the ninth, with the Cubs trailing again, he hit another home run, this one a three-run walk-off home run.
7. Carlos May (Sept. 3, 1973): White Sox-Rangers. May walked in the second and came around to score and tie the game 1-1. With the White Sox trailing by three in the seventh, he hit a three-run home run to tie the game. In the ninth, with the White Sox down one, he hit an RBI single to tie it once more. And in the 12th, with the score tied, his double scored that former Marine, Tony Muser, and the White Sox won it. I’m actually a bit surprised, considering everything, that this game wasn’t a bit higher on the list.
6. Willie Mays (May 26, 1962): What an awesome game. Giants-Mets — so we’re talking here about the famed ’62 Mets. In the third, Mays tripled and scored to tie the game 3-3. In the eighth, the Mets led by a run and Mays, undoubtedly perturbed by this revolting development, homered off Jay Hook to tie it again. And in the 10th, the Mets AGAIN led by a run, and Mays came up with the tying run on second and undoubtedly thought “All right, enough of this.” He homered to win it.
5. Mel Hall (June 27, 1984): I do remember this game … I wonder how many of these games you remember. The Indians were terrible, the Twins were mediocre. In the bottom of the eighth, the Twins led by two runs, and Mel Hall doubled in Brett Butler and Pat Tabler to tie the game. It stayed tied until the 10th, when the Twins scored. Hall won it with two outs in the bottom of the 10th with a three-run home run.
4. Bobby Grich (July 15, 1979): Angels-Yankees. The Yankees took a 4-0 lead in the second inning. Grich singled in a run in the third. In the seventh, he hit a two-run double to make the score 4-3. And in the ninth, with two outs, he hit a two-run homer to win the game 5-4. I love games like that, where one guy drives in all the runs.
3. Brian Daubach (August 21, 2000): And … I love that the top three WPA games of the last 50 years were not achieved by all-time great players. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and Daubach’s Red Sox down two runs to the Angels, he homered to tie the game. And in the bottom of the 11th, with the Red Sox down one and two outs, Daubach hit a two-run single to win it.
2. Jim Pagliaroni (Sept. 21, 1965): One more time, the Mets got beat by the Herculean efforts of one man. The Mets led 4-3 in the seventh, when Pagliaroni singled in a run to tie it. And then, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Pagliaroni hit a two-run walk-off homer to win it.
1. Art Shamsky (August 12, 1966): I feel like I should have heard a lot about this game … but honestly, I don’t remember ever hearing anything about it. This was Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati, and it was a wild game before Shamsky even entered. Three all-time greats — Pete Rose, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell — homered in they game. A couple more Hall of Famers (Tony Perez and Bill Mazeroski) played. The Reds led by two, the Pirates led by two, the Pirates led by one, the Reds led by one, back and forth. Someone could have written a book about this game.
Shamsky was put into the game in the eighth inning as part of a double-switch. At the time, the Pirates led by a run. Shamsky came up in the bottom of the eighth and whacked a two-run homer off Al McBean to give the Reds a lead. The Pirates tied it in the top of the ninth, and the game stumbled into extra innings.
In the 10th, Willie Stargell homered to give the Pirates a lead. In the bottom of the inning, yes, Art Shamsky came up again. And he homered to tied it up.
Then in the 11th, Bob Bailey — who had already hit two home runs — hit a two-run double to give the Pirates the lead. It’s fun to note here that one of the runners who scored: Jim Pagliaroni.
And, yep, you probably know what happened in the bottom of the 11th. With two outs and a man on base, Art Shamsky came up to the plate. And, yep, he hit another home run to tie up the game.
There are two great bits from this game. One, the bat that Shamsky used is somewhere in the Hall of Fame. It’s not there because this was the highest WPA game — it’s there because two days later Shamsky was sent in as a pinch-hitter with the Reds down a run. And, he hit a two run homer, meaning he had homered in four straight plate appearances.
The second bit? Well, Art Shamsky had the greatest WPA ever for a single game. His performance is the very peak of what man can do to win a baseball game. He homered to give his team the lead in the eighth, homered to tie it in the 10th, homered to tie it again in the 11th, there is not much more a baseball player can do. And so what happened? Art Shamsky’s Reds lost to the Pirates that day.