Baseball Statistics

The Numbers Used to
Legitimize A Boy's Pastime
by Pythagoras Mason
Copyright © 1998 by Pythagoras Mason

For it's one, two, three strikes you're out...

FROM THE BEGINNING, fans of baseball have been seduced by the numbers used to track and record the game. Historians and anthropologists have suggested that baseball's obsession with numbers was simply an attempt by its fans to make their obsession with the game more acceptable. By keeping the numbers and developing a recorded history, a fundamentally puerile preoccupation could be made more respectable. It might also be suggested that boys who grow up and become men, found a way to hold on to, indeed capture their youth by indulging in the intense accumulation of numbers that served to preserve the past in the present.

Henry Chadwick, who came to the United States from England at the age of 13 in 1837 is considered the "father" of baseball record-keeping. Many of Chadwick's statistical innovations were influenced by the game of cricket. Chadwick devised the box score, a method by which game events are recorded. The first baseball box score was published in October 22, 1845. The earliest statistics were of the counting variety. More complicated averages soon made their appearance and with the advent of computer technology more sophisticated statistics appeared such as weighted-averages. Today, the hot area of work in the baseball field of numbers is the development of situational statistics. Of course, regardless of the complexity of the statistic, the purpose is always the same: analysis of player or team effectiveness.

Despite the fact that baseball, like its cousin cricket, was initially thought of as a fielding sport, the most popular statistic is the batting average. The batting average measures a batter's ability to hit the baseball to a place on the field where a defensive player is unable to field it and make an out. Originally the batting average was calculated by dividing the number of "hits" by the number of "games." In 1876 the "at bat" statistic, first introduced in 1870, replaced "games" in the calculation. Also in 1876 the newly formed National League officially adopted the batting average statistic. The batting average is calculated by dividing the number of "hits" (numerator) by the number of "at bats" (denominator). It is customary to display the batting average in decimal form with three places. Thus, in 1941, Ted Williams had 185 hits in 456 at bats for an outstanding batting average of .406 (185/456). While counting "hits" is simple, counting "at bats" is more complicated. There is a difference between a plate appearance and an at bat. For example, if a batter walks (gets a base-on-balls), that plate appearance is not accumulated as an at bat. Sacrifice hits and being hit by a pitched ball are also not included in the number of at bats.

Most sophisticated baseball number-crunchers do not consider the batting average a very reliable measure of offensive ability. The average does not take into account whether or not the hit was a single, double, triple or home run. Nor does the average indicate the value of the hit in the accomplishment of the game's goal which is to score more runs than the opponent. Consider this: In a baseball game a batter that hits three triples in three at bats but does not produce any runs is not as valuable as a batter who hits one single (in four at bats) that scores two runs.

In 1876 baseball recognized the following offensive statistics: at bats, runs, hits, runs-per-game and batting average. Today, official baseball tracks some 21 offensive statistics. Eleven pitching numbers were recognized in 1876; today 24 pitching categories are officially tracked. On the other hand, there were six fielding statistics in 1876. The only addition to fielding information is the "passed ball" statistic (a counting number) for catchers. The most recent official statistic to be adopted by official baseball is the "On-Base Percentage" which has been tabulated since 1985.

The numbers tell us that baseball players and fans are always contemplating and justifying failure in the game. In what other profession would you be considered well above average if you succeeded only 30% of the time?

You don't have to be seduced by numbers to love the game of baseball. Afterall, it is people who count, not numbers. But it is hard to avoid the numbers. And they do provide insight into this most poetic of sports.

Table of Selected Statistics & Date of Adoption
Statistic Adopted Category Type
Hits 1867 Batting Counting
At Bats 1870 Batting Counting
Batting Average 1876 Batting Average
Innings Pitched 1903 (NL); 1908 (AL) Pitching Counting
Batter Strikeouts 1910 (NL); 1913 (AL) Batting Counting
Earned Run Average 1912 (NL); 1913 (AL) Pitching Average
Team Double Plays 1919 (NL); 1912 (AL) Fielding Counting
Sacrifice Bunts 1913 (NL); 1921 (AL) Batting Counting
Hit By Pitch 1917 (NL); 1920 (AL) Batting Counting
Runs Batted In 1920 Batting Counting
Caught Stealing 1920 Baserunning Counting
Games Finished 1920 (NL); AL (1926) Pitching Counting
Slugging Average 1923 (NL); 1946 (AL) Batting Average
Games Started 1938 (NL); 1926 (AL) Pitching Counting
Batter Intentional Walk 1955 Batting Counting
Saves 1969 Pitching Counting
On Base Average 1980 Batting Average
Game Winning RBI 1980 Batting Counting
On Base Average 1985 Batting Average

The most significant development in the use of statistics over the past 25 years has been with computers. Mathematical computations that formerly took hours to do by hand are completed by the computer in seconds. Masses of statistical information are now being analyzed in ways never before thought possible. In addition, when such statistical information is extensive and uniformly organized , cause-effect relationships can be determined with amazing accuracy."

Source: George T. Wiley. "Computers in Baseball Analysis", Baseball Research Journal, Society for American Baseball Research. 1976

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Published: October 9, 1998
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