Monday, January 11, 2010

Arbitrary Benchmarks

I've always been bothered by the made-up statistical benchmarks that sports announcers (mainly baseball) create to glorify certain players. Some are more inane than others, but they are always agenda driven. Rather than explain it myself, read Eric Trager's take from The Huffington Post:

In the aftermath of Andre Dawson's somewhat surprising induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, baseball writers are struggling to demonstrate the Hawk's greatness. In this vein, a photo caption on Sports Illustrated's website noted: "Andre Dawson, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds are the only players with 400 homeruns and 300 steals in their career."

This reflects baseball writers' standard strategy for bestowing legendary status upon decent players: search for a few arbitrary statistical thresholds that the player and a few other all-time greats surpassed -- and then insist on the relevance of these thresholds in placing the player among elite company that he wouldn't otherwise deserve.

A few observations:

1. This is the first time I've ever heard "300 steals" considered as an important statistical plateau. But if it is now an important plateau, then the quickly dismissed HOF candidacies of Luis Polonia (321) and Gary Pettis (354) should be reconsidered.

2. Dawson had significantly fewer homeruns (438) than either Mays (660) and Bonds (762). He also had the fewest steals of the three: he's only 24 behind Mays, but 200 behind Bonds. So this whole 400/300 statistic is even more misleading than it initially seemed.

3. In the 20th century, only two players have pitched at least 700 innings while also collecting over 900 hits: Babe Ruth and Johnny Cooney (Who?).

How has the Veteran's Committee overlooked Cooney for so long -- especially when every other member of the exclusive 700/900 club has been inducted?

Basic statistics are easy enough to understand. They are also easy enough to manipulate. Don't let people off the hook because they throw out numbers. Make sure the stats they use are even remotely meaningful.


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