Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 25, 2003

Was Yogi Berra the greatest player in baseball history?

The debate over the proper place of statistics in the analysis of baseball is one that rages on perenially, and probably always will. Sometimes the arguments against statistical analysis descend into self-parody - like when the MVP voters gave Andre Dawson the award in a year when his team finished last, based entirely on his 49 HR and 137 RBI, while refusing to look at the overall picture of Dawson's poor on base percentage and dependence on Wrigley Field. Like when the writers stumped for Tony Perez for the Hall of Fame and simultaneously argued that (1) his career RBI total justified his enshrinement and (2) statistics don't matter, so let's not talk about any of the other numbers, and Perez capped it all off by ranting in his acceptance speech about how numbers don't mean anything (personally, I can't help but wonder every time Perez and Joe Morgan criticize statistics whether it's just a veiled shot at stat-obsessed ex-teammate Pete Rose). Like when pro-Bud Selig sportswriters essentially insist that revenues and expenses are irrelevant to whether a business is making or losing money.

But I digress.

In fact, there's a fair argument over the outer limits of any statistical analysis to capture everything that happens on the baseball field, as well as the proper balance between statistical metrics that seek to be precise and all-encompassing and those that actually count something. But I write here to zero in on one, narrower pet peeve of mine: the tendency of critics of statistical analyses to use basketball statistics for support. There are a number of examples of this that crop up in the media; here's one I picked sort of at random, from a January 2002 column in The Weekly Standard bashing Wall Street Journal sportswriter Allan Barra. A similar tack was taken by SI a few months before that, if I remember right, comparing the NBA's MVP race to baseball, but I don't have the link. (Can you tell this is a column that was half-written and unfinished for a year?) Let me be very clear about this: basketball stats are different.

An obvious example: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain scored 30.1 points per game in his career. Bill Russell averaged 15.1 a game, in a shorter career. Chamberlain had more rebounds, total and per game, and a slighly higher assists/game average. He shot for a higher field goal percentage, much higher. Wilt's signature weakness was free throw shooting, but Russell was also a crummy free throw shooter.

You can slice and dice the numbers severa different ways - playoff stats, run the head-to-head matchups - but no matter how far that narrows the gap, you simply can not make a credible statitsical case that Bill Russell was a better player than Chamberlain, or even particularly close. There's just too much -- too much difference in offense, principally. Twelve points per game for all those years is a lot.

And yet, there are plenty of reasonable people, people quite knowledgeable about the game, who argue that Russell was better. And they might be right - even when you account for better teammates, Russell didn't win all those championships and beat Wilt head-to-head all those times for nothing. The argument can go either way.

Anyway, my point here is not to resolve the Chamberlain-Russell debate, but to make a larger point about statistics. There are people who argue that baseball stats don't matter, but they do, even to the most hidebound fans -- because nobody seriously disputes that they set the parameters of the debate. (This, of course, was the point that Bill James keeps making, and made most pointedly in the Dawson MVP debate: we need to understand the stats first and foremost not because that's how we SHOULD view the game but because that's how we DO view the game).

Arguing for Russell over Chamberlain is very much like arguing for Yogi Berra as the greatest player of all time. Yogi was a great player, quite possibly the best catcher in major league history. His numbers are very good, and he was more consistent and durable than anyone to play his position. He played what some would view as the most important position on the field, and his teams won with incredible regularity - 14 pennants, 10 championships.

But nobody seriously thinks that Yogi Berra was better than Babe Ruth or Willie Mays. The gap in the hard numerical records of their accomplishments is too vast to bridge, because we all know that most of the important things that happen on a baseball field get recorded.

That, ultimately, is what critics of statistical analysis of the game have to contend with. And trying to get mileage out of the fact that basketball stats are more limited just shows how ignorant those critics really are, and how much their facts are determined by their biases, rather than the other way around.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 7:01 PM | Baseball 2002-03 • | Basketball | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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