What would baseball be like without stats? I don’t mean advanced stats – I mean ALL stats. All of them. No batting average. No RBI. No HR. No WAR. Nada. What if we watched baseball the same way that we do now, but no one kept track of results, at least outside of their own minds? What if broadcasts didn’t flash stat lines on the bottom of the screen, announcers didn’t mention them in their commentary, and they didn’t appear in newspapers?
I wonder how well we would be able to judge the value of a player in that case. It might be a little easier with pitchers, since their performance comes in bunches. We can tell when a pitcher is doing badly pretty easily, because we can see the batters getting hits and coming around to score all within a few minutes. But it would still be difficult to compare pitchers over an entire season, wouldn’t it? Sure, we can tell when a pitcher has a bad game, but what if one pitcher had 10 bad games in a season and another had 8 bad games in a season? Would we be able to remember that? Would we be able to remember how bad those games were? Probably not.
It’s even harder for hitters. They only come up every nine plate appearances, not to mention the break for the other team to bat. And they have 600+ plate appearances in a season. If we didn’t keep track of stats, we would have to remember all of these plate appearances. Well, maybe not all of them, but at least a vast majority if we wanted to be confident about how a player performed.
As an analogy, imagine watching someone roll an uneven die (as in, each number does not come up at the same rate) 600 times and then guessing how many times a 1 or 2 came up. But you only see about 4 or 5 rolls a day, and they come every half hour or so. How well do you think you would be able to estimate the percentage that a 1 or 2 came up? Could you get within 2%? 5%?
Say you estimated that a 1 or a 2 came up 32% of the time. In actuality, they came up 28% of the time. You would probably be proud at getting close, especially since you know it’s not an even die. 32% sure doesn’t seem too far away from 28%. Well, you just said that a .280 hitter was a .320 hitter. When given Neil Walker, you said Ryan Braun. And that’s when you were within 4% of being correct. What if you were off by 8%? That’s certainly possible, given the length of time in which you were given to remember these rolls. Then you would basically be mistaking the league leader in batting average for Mark Teixeira. You would have absolutely no authority to make a claim about the rolls or players.
The above example was the equivalent of only paying attention to one batter and only caring about hits. When you add in the rest of the players and the multitude of possible outcomes, how could you possibly remember enough to judge one player better than another without stats? Sure, you could probably tell the difference between the pitcher and Miguel Cabrera, but could you tell the difference between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera? Maybe you’d be able to tell that Cabrera hit more home runs and you could definitely conclude that Trout stole more bases. You’d likely be able to tell that Trout was a better fielder, but it would be virtually impossible to tell who was a better hitter. After all, if you were off by, say, 2% on both players’ batting average in opposite directions, suddenly there’s a 40 point difference! You’d be saying that Cabrera hit .350 versus Trout’s .306, or Trout hitting .346 to Cabrera’s .310. If either one of those scenarios were true, the MVP race would probably be unanimous.
This is not my way of saying that stats are all that matters. This is my way of saying that stats are, at the very least, absolutely necessary if we want to measure value. The season is just too long to use only your eyes and memory. There’s no way you could possibly distinguish between a .330 hitter and a .320 hitter, or someone with 45 home runs and someone with 40 home runs, or someone with a 3.20 ERA and someone with a 2.80 ERA. Yet all those distinctions are important. If we want to measure value, we have to use stats. And we all do use stats every day during the season. We see a player’s batting average and home run total, at the very least, every game. That influences what we think of a player. I’m not saying that watching Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout wouldn’t be impressive to watch without stats, but that we would have no way of knowing just how impressive they are.