Statistically speaking; My problem with numbers

by Gary Shelton on June 30, 2017 · 2 comments

in general

Friday, 4 a.m.

The image in your mind is that of forest fire raging out of control inside of a baseball stadium, and only one man can put it out.

The image is that the tying run is on third, and the winning run is on second. The image is that there is an 0-2 count on the batter. The image is that the crowd is going crazy, and the infielders are nervous, and the outfielders look as if they are playing with snakes.

Yeah, this is a close-the-door opportunity.

If the reliever can worm his way out of this one, sure, he deserves a save. He'll deserve another one of those little notation that drives a man's

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salary up. It's a stat that, repeated often enough, can put a guy in position for the Cy Young award. Heck, who knows? Maybe the Hall of Fame.

And it's a myth. A falsehood. A lie.

The truth of it is, nothing has changed about the save; it's all about the save opportunity. Closers these days rarely walk into trouble. They usually enter the game at the top of an inning with as much cushion as possible, and there are times they has as much as a three-run lead.

And they don't make save opportunities like this anymore. And on the rare occasions they do, it's often the fault of the same closer who is trying to wiggle his way off the hook.

We were reminded of all of this with the wobbly week of Rays' reliever Alex Colome, who gave up seven earned runs on seven hits, four walks and two hit batters. Yet, he received a win and a save in his three outings which, statisticians would agree, is a large slice of bullfeathers.

It isn't Colome's fault, of course, that the requirements for a save are loose beyond reason. Think about it. A reliever can give up a homer, get a warning-track out, give up another homer, get a diving catch out, give up a triple, a walk and another walk … and still qualify for a save.

That's good?

"If everybody in that (bleeping) bullpen can’t save a three-run lead for one inning, they shouldn’t even be in the big leagues,” former closer Goose Gossage has said.

Gossage said if had to pitch one inning at a time, he might have pitched until he was 65.

Compare the closer at his worst. Say he gives up two runs and gets a save. For a starter who goes nine innings, that's an ERA of 18.00. Is that good?

Oh, it isn't just the save that gets kicked around when the discussion is about stats. There are those who will question the RBI (a product of a players' teammates). There are those who talk about errors (it's only an error if a fielder has the range to get to the ball).

And, of course, there are arguments about how valid a win is for a pitcher.

I'm in the conservative group of that one. I've always argued that it isn't the best stat, but it isn't useless, either. There are times (go-ahead run on third) when a pitcher has to gather himself and make a big pitch in a big moment. True, ERA is a better judge of pitchers. So is Whip and so is batting average against. But we still put pitchers in the Hall of Fame largely because of how many games they win. It isn't all trash.

Still, I understand why the stat drives baseball fans crazy. Take last week's game when Alex Cobb pitched eight innings and gave up two hits. Colome came in, blew the lead, then was the pitcher of record as the Rays came back to win. For that, Colome gets the “win,” a designation that suggests he was the guy most responsible for the victory. He wasn't. He wasn't in the top 12.

This isn't to pick on Colome. He's off-kilter now, but he'll be okay. And, frankly, every other closer in the big leagues are playing with the same rules.

The thing that is disappointing is the proliferation of the statistics themselves. If a player leading his league in a stat isn't necessarily a great player, then what good are the stats? Numbers are supposed to tell us something about the game. They're supposed to support arguments about excellence.

Otherwise, they aren't numbers that reveal anything.

They're just alphabet soup. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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