Sports Nut

The Sultans of Stats

A Harvard professor pooh-poohs McGwire’s records. Is he right?

Later this month, when some lucky player jacks the 118th long ball in Enron Field history, Astros fans will have seen as many home runs in the first three months of this season as they saw all of last year. The event will no doubt provoke yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of complaint about the newly “insane” offensive numbers put up in the “watered down” world of Major League Baseball. The complaint is entirely fair: Home runs can’t be as meaningful as they once were if Steve Finley is on pace to hit more in a season than Reggie Jackson ever did. But it is also irrelevant. Baseball history, even as the purists who complain about today’s cheapened offensive statistics construct it, is little more than a record of inflated achievement. Insane numbers don’t threaten the integrity of baseball’s historical accomplishments. They constitute it.

A textbook example of the complaint appears in Paul C. Weiler’s recent book Leveling the Playing Field. After noting that “[t]he biggest reason for the resurgence of interest in baseball in the late 1990s was the phenomenal number of home runs being hit,” Weiler reminds us that the number wasn’t so “phenomenal” as it seemed to the masses. “Everyone knows,” he explains,

how close Sosa came to McGwire in 1998 (with 66 homers) and how close both came again in 1999 (with 65 and 63, respectively). What few fans realize, though, is that neither McGwire nor Sosa came close to breaking Babe Ruth’s true home run record. Suppose we were to do the same kind of adjustment for home run inflation that we regularly do for economic inflation, for example, to calculate the real rise of the Dow Jones Index from the 1920s to the 1990s. In order for a McGwire or a Sosa (or Ken Griffey Jr.) to break Ruth’s real home run record from the 1920s, he now has to hit more than 150, not just 60, home runs over the season.

There is a remarkable mixture of elitism and populism in this sequence—elitism in Weiler’s commitment to chastising the fans producing baseball’s “recent resurgence” for misunderstanding the meaning of the “phenomenal number of home runs” they enjoy; populism in using the same argument to celebrate the “real” and “true” achievements of an icon from a previous period of “resurgence of interest in baseball”: “It should now be clear why Babe Ruth was our greatest athlete in any sport in the past century.” But the elitism and the populism in this claim are less far apart than they might seem. Harvard professor Weiler doesn’t hold his own judgments to the same standard he imposes on the masses. He’s a fan of Ruth in exactly the same way that they are fans of Sosa and McGwire. For Ruth’s true home run record, at least according to the “economic inflation” model Weiler provides, wasn’t 60 but 54. In 1920, Ruth hit 54 of the 369 home runs in the American League, roughly 15 percent. When he hit 60 in 1927, the league hit 439; his portion had dropped to roughly 14 percent. Indeed, measured in terms of his distance from the competition, Ruth’s real record was 29, the number he hit in 1919 when his closest competitor managed only 10 (his closest competitors hit 19 in 1920 and 47 in 1927). However you slice it, Ruth’s 60 is no more real a home run mark than McGwire’s 70.

By the standard Weiler invokes, almost none of baseball’s landmark achievements are real. Statistics shape our understanding of baseball history more than they shape our understanding of the histories of other sports, but the statistics on which baseball historians generally rely look more like iconic numbers than like meaningful data. Take what is almost always adduced as the greatest single year any pitcher has had in the modern era: Bob Gibson’s 1968 season with a record of 22-9 (including 13 shutouts in 34 starts) and an ERA of 1.12. It’s the 1.12 ERA that gets people’s attention, and rightly so; only one other pitcher in the postwar era, and I mean post-WWI era, has even broken 1.50—Walter Johnson with a 1.49 in 1919. But Gibson’s performance came during a period of pitching inflation even greater than today’s hitting inflation. In 1968, the overall National League ERA was only 2.99. In terms of the averages established by his peers, Gibson had a great year, one of the six greatest ever. In the 1990s, Greg Maddux had two consecutive years in which he outperformed the National League by an even greater margin. He just didn’t have a 1.12 ERA. That pitching numbers were “watered down” in 1968 doesn’t compromise the legacy of Gibson’s achievement. It instead made his achievement and its legacy possible.

And so when you hear that today’s players are overrated, just remind yourself that being overrated is the best way to be highly rated in baseball history. Over time we forget about the circumstances that account for the statistical extremes we celebrate. We hear about the insane offensive performances of this season, but what about the insane offensive performances that this era’s stars are trying to eclipse? Hack Wilson’s single-season record of 190 RBIs is a good example. In 1930 the National League enjoyed one of the greatest offensive years in baseball history: The average batting average for non-pitchers was .312. The year saw three of the 10 highest RBI totals in baseball history, four of the top 13, and six of the top 32. Do we hold that against Wilson? No. We hold it against people like Rocky Colavito, who might well be in the Hall of Fame instead of Wilson if he had been fortunate enough to play in an era when 105 RBIs couldn’t win an MVP.

Despite the rantings of Weiler and his ilk, baseball’s meaningless home runs aren’t hit during seasons in which home runs are a regular, even excessive, occurrence. They’re hit during seasons in which they are all too rare. They don’t happen when McGwire hits 70, or Ruth 60; they happen when Ruth hits 29 or McCovey 36. That a home run mark is statistically meaningful is no guarantee that it will ultimately be thought to possess historical importance, and that one is statistically insignificant is no strike against its assuming canonical status. The fans (and the fan in Weiler) already understand this point better than the pundits (and the professor in Weiler). And that’s why they’re flocking to ballparks like Enron Field, where what might be cheap today will be classic tomorrow.