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Monday, July 11, 2011

Jonah Keri and Meaningless Statistics

Today on Grantland, Jonah Keri commits the sin of unintentional irony. In a column that argues for refocusing our priorities when it comes to baseball statistics. It's far from a new idea (they're already putting out a movie version of Moneyball, fer chrissakes) and Keri, while a perceptive writer, really doesn't bring anything new to the table in this column. But that's not why I'm bothering to write about here.

It seems to me that if you're going to talk about only using numbers in ways that actually mean something, you should probably make sure you yourself don't either misrepresent or mislead using numbers, but check out this passage detailing the supposed bad deeds done by focusing on outmoded counting stats:

"The era in which a player played, the park he played in, and the competition he faced all matter when evaluating his legacy. Position and defense also matter: A shortstop or a third baseman shouldn't be expected to hit nearly as many homers as a left fielder, because he's providing a lot more defensive value by fielding his position. Ron Santo was an all-time great. Jim Rice was a very good hitter who had a few big years, benefited immensely from his home park, and hit into more double plays than all but five players in baseball history."

I'm with Keri when it comes to things like taking a player's defensive contributions into account, especially as defensive stats are perfected over time, but what is this about double plays?

Jim Rice hit into more double plays than all but five players in baseball history. In other words, he's sixth on that list. Not a badge of honor perhaps, but is it really a strong argument against his Hall of Fame candidacy?

Before you answer, take a look at the Top 5:

1. Cal Ripken 350
2. Hank Aaron 328
3. Carl Yastrzemski 323
4. Dave Winfield 319
5. Eddie Murray 316
6. Jim Rice 315

Yep, that's right, everyone who has hit into more double plays than Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame. So how exactly is this a black mark against Rice? It seems to me that double plays occur under limited circumstances. Most transparently there has to be a runner on base, usually first. If you hit the ball pretty hard, which all of these guys, Rice included, did regularly, and if you aren't blazing fast, which most sluggers aren't, then double plays are just an unfortunate side effect; a chance occurence that really shouldn't be held against a player. The fact is, the reason that almost all of the players atop this list are greats is that it takes time to accumulate that many GIDPs. Obviously if you were hitting .230 without power and grounded into double plays constantly, you wouldn't be in the lineup very long. In an ironic twist, it seems like this stat is a fairly good indicator of offensive success. Chekc out the top 50, it's full of Hall of Famers and near-greats:


Enough intelligent people have made the argument that Jim Rice doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame that I at least have to respect the position. But there have to be better arguments than the one that he hit into too many double plays. And using that argument in a column preoccupied with sensible use of statistics, without telling your readers about the other five guys, strikes me as unfair and unintelligent. Jonah Keri is a lot better than that.

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