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Lies, Damn Lies, and Baseball Statistics

A comedian in the ‘60s named Slappy White did a bit about his wife catching him in bed with another woman. In the punch line, he says to her, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes.” 

Bill James defined sabermetrics as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” Unfortunately, the term is now frequently used to mean “nouveau statistics.” Nouveau statistics consist of formulas based on conventional statistics, or occasionally, raw data that hasn’t historically been available. I believe that purveyors of these formulas are often saying, “What are you going to believe? The numbers or your lying eyes.” 

I have been working on a series of projects to explore whether the truth lies in the numbers (pun intended) or our lying eyes. They fit under the umbrella, “Lies, damn lies, and baseball statistics.” 

From a general philosophical viewpoint, Derek Jeter is the poster player for this discussion. Various formulas show that he has slipped from being a very good shortstop into a barely adequate shortstop. The New York media and fans who follow the team daily believe that he has slipped from being great to merely very good. His fielding percentage over the past three seasons is the same as the league average, so the issue is: does he contribute to more or less than an average share of outs? I saw him play several times during the regular and postseason on television, and he looked terrific. I have no educated opinion, so I can only speculate about the truth. Here’s my guess. Jeter suffered several significant injuries in recent years. He missed a lot time last year, but has mostly played when he’s been hurt. I suspect that his range has been severely curtailed by physical limitations at times. When he’s been completely healthy, he’s probably been as good as he looks. If that’s the case, the numbers that show he’s mediocre may reveal his overall performance, but don’t reveal the truth. No formula is a substitute for analysis.

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