The Wrong Side of History – Flatlanders and the Statistics Movement

About 525 years ago, the Earth was flat, the planets and the sun revolved around the Earth, and leaders were chosen at birth and crowned by a religious figure. Over the next 265 years, a whole new set of rules reshaped how we saw the Earth and the universe, not to mention our place on and in them. Knowledge was no longer dispensed by someone with a religious agenda, but rather, it was investigated. If you wanted to know how many teeth a horse had, you went and looked inside the mouth of the horse and counted them. This may seem silly to us now, but that was such a radical new way of thinking, it upset communities, churches, and nations. The fundamental way of looking at the world through discovery paved the way for our modern age.

Other things waned in this new enlightened age: slavery, monarchies, imperialism, segregation, hand-written letters, and even newspapers. New technologies, software, smart phones, computers, and social media now transform how we communicate across the world, and also how we analyze the world and things in it.

In the mid 1970’s, I was a teenage kid who loved to collect baseball cards. This eventually led to getting magazines like Baseball Digest and The Sporting News. In the backs of these magazines were advertisements for a game called “Strat-O-Matic.” The game itself, first made in 1961, was filled with informative stats that began my own revolution of how I looked at the game. No longer were HR’s, RBI, and batting average the only measures for hitters, just as ERA and wins were not the only ways to judge pitchers.

Picture 16

Despite that, I don’t use a lot of sabermetrics in my writing. I like on-base percentage and I will use FIP, WAR, or BABIP once in a while, sure. However, in the minor leagues — which I spend most of my time reporting on — those stats are only half of the profile to be analyzed along with the development of a prospect. For example, can a batter hit inside pitching or can a kid pitch inside. Conversely, stats take on higher levels of analysis and importance at the major-league level. They can be used to describe why a player might be in a slump, what he is doing well, how (un)lucky he is, and, most importantly, the true value of a player to his team.

What I don’t get is how anyone can be so dismissive of statistics when it is clear the influence they have on talent evaluation. What infuriates me is when former players and some current broadcaster dismiss them outright and reject their impact on the game. Players, who are now in their early 50’s (the same age as myself), want to hearken back or have the game return to a time when they played in the 1970’s, 80’s, or 90’s. Back then, they allege, there were no changes and everything was sunshine, puppy dogs, and rainbows. That’s not quite how things were. Truth be told, the game has always been changing whether they want to admit it or not.

Let’s take a look at baseball’s evolution over the last 150 years.

1860’s – 1880’s

  • Pitchers threw underhand
  • If the fielder caught the ball on one bounce you were out
  • If you were a baserunner and the ball was thrown and hit you, you were out
  • Cap Anson led the parade to keep African-Americans out of the game
  • Albert Spalding lied about how the game began to sell sporting equipment


  • You can pitch overhand now.
  • “Old Hoss” Radbourne was actually a thing
  • Still no African-Americans in the major leagues


  • Many new stadiums included a 500 foot CF wall, among them The Polo Grounds in New York and Chicago’s West Grounds
  • Still no African-Americans were in the major leagues


  • The ball was now being made with a cork center instead of being wound
  • Stadiums were rebuilt to draw fans to the home run
  • Newspapers and radio competed for followers of teams
  • Rube Foster started the Negro National League
    • Still no African-Americans were in the major leagues


  • Night games started during The Great Depression so fans who worked could go.
  • Ted Williams often proclaimed that Satchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs was the best pitcher he ever faced
  • Only 2 teams were west of the Mississippi River and they were both in St. Louis
  • Still no African-Americans were in the major leagues


  • Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and the game was never the same


  • The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco
  • The Philadelphia Athletics moved to Kansas City.
  • Westward movement of MLB followed that of the nation in the Eisenhower era.


  • The mound was lowered because Bob Gibson was too good (or the legend goes)
  • Astro-Turf made its debut; hundreds of knee injuries and 40 years later, it is gone from the game
  • The Rule 4 draft began
  • Expansion west continued with new teams in Houston, San Diego, Oakland, Montreal, and Seattle (for 1 year at least).
  • Cookie-cutter stadiums built across the Midwest (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, etc)


  • The Society of Baseball Research (SABR*) began
  • Rampant amphetamine use was rumored in the book “Ball Four,” published in 1970
  • The Reserve Clause ended; no longer did a club hold the contract of a player in perpetuity
  • Free Agency began in 1977
  • The Designated Hitter was designated to the AL to raise attendance
  • MLB returned to Seattle and started in Toronto.
  • A catcher’s mask throat piece was added after Steve Yeager almost died from a bat shard in his esophagus
  • The first “Bill James Abstract, 80 pages redefined statistics and the evaluation of players, published in 1977 
  • Elbow reconstruction was performed on Tommy John, saving his career and many more

1980’s and 1990’s

  • Steroids entered the game in the mid-to-late 80’s and remained for almost 20 years before testing began
  • New stadiums that echoed an earlier time began being built
  • New radio and TV revenue streams began pouring in
  • More franchise expansion
  • Fantasy baseball exploded and the Internet took hold
  • Waves of Latin players came from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela and more countries in the Caribbean
  • New hockey-style helmet catcher’s masks appear


  • Baseball left Montreal and went back to DC
  • “Moneyball” looked at the Oakland A’s prep for the 2001 draft using advanced statistics to compete on a small budget
  • The Mitchell Report detailed steroid use in baseball
  • Steroid testing begins
  • Bill James hired by the Red Sox

When I look at all these changes, what I see is a sport in constant flux. It never stops changing. At one point in its history, the seams on the baseball were lowered to decrease movement and increase hitting. But it’s more than just the ball; the gloves have changed, the bats have changed, and even the players are changing. The only thing that hasn’t changed is that this is not just a game; baseball is a big business in which there is money to be made for both the player and the owner.

You know what else hasn’t changed? Statistics. No one was calculating Babe Ruth’s wOBA or Ted Williams’ wRC+ and there weren’t Twitter accounts tracking the exit velocity of Hank Aaron’s home runs, but that doesn’t mean those metrics are any less valid. All statistics do is to shed more light on the intricacies of the game.

I don’t get the emphasis on distrust. How would you feel if your doctor was suspicious of all the newfangled equipment that’s been developed in the last few decades? Yeah, probably best not to use the tools available to us through advances in technology and experience. As a fan, I like being able to see the game in all of its intricate detail, none of which detracts from its aesthetic beauty. If I was a player, I would be bringing in all my great stats to the negotiating table.

If you don’t like stats, fine, don’t like them. But don’t tell me they haven’t influenced or changed the game in the last 20 years because they have. I am sure there will be new statistics in the next 20 years that will further change how we look at baseball. The game itself will also change, just as it has over the last 150 years.

The questions is this: Which side of history will you be on? The one that looks at the game in a flat way based on old mores and ideals that no longer exist in society, or the one that embraces the changes and realizes that the sport is ever-evolving and will continue to change and adapt to the times? It’s really not a hard choice if you think about what has transpired.

Advanced stats are here to stay. Don’t stick your head in the sand. Don’t stick your fingers in your ears. Don’t ignore the impact of statistics on the game. Don’t be a flat-lander.

*Tigers broadcasting legend and Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell said, “SABR is the Phi Beta Kappa of baseball, providing scholarship which the sport has long needed. [It is] an excellent way for all of us to add to our enjoyment of the greatest game.”

I like that last part: “to add to our enjoyment of the game.”

Back to top button