Take Me Out To the Metric

Michael Bourn needs to get out more. A database programmer in Nashua, N.H., he created the Web site plunkbiggio.blogspot.com that tells everything -- really, everything-- about the 273 times that Craig Biggio of the Astros has been hit by a pitch, the modern major-league record.

On average, Biggio's plunks have occurred 493 feet above sea level, up 36 feet after two plunkings last year in Denver. The shortest pitcher to hit him? Byung-Hyun Kim (5 feet 9 inches). The average age and weight of the plunking pitchers are 28.5 and 200.22. He has been hit most often by pitchers whose astrological sign is Sagittarius, but more Leos have hit him. He has been hit 15 times while Tiger Woods was on Sports Illustrated's cover. In 1997, the Dow rose an average of 28.63 on trading days after Biggio was hit. And on, and on.

Why does Bourn do this? "It is better than following Ruben Sierra's approach to the sacrifice-fly record." (Sierra is nine short of Eddie Murray's 128. Feel the excitement.) An obsessive-compulsive fascination with numbers is an occupational hazard of baseball fans. Baseball, unlike games of flow such as hockey, soccer and basketball, is a series of episodes that encourage quantification. This week, baseball resumes its prodigious production of numbers in another season of 2,430 games with 21,870 innings and approximately 700,000 pitches during 166,000 at-bats. The rage to quantify--to reduce reality to measurable units--is an impulse in modern societies. In baseball, it produces illuminating metrics. For example:

The objective is to win, which means scoring runs while efficiently getting the other team to make 27 outs. Every three outs, you must start over. Until recently, most people assumed that the key to runs was hits. Hence a misplaced emphasis on batting averages. But counting all hits alike is as foolish as counting different denominations of currency as identical. Nowadays, more emphasis is placed on not making outs. Hence the importance of on-base percentage, which is (hits + walks + hits by pitch)/(at bats + walks + hits by pitch + sacrifice flies). That led to the statistic OPS, which is on-base percentage + slugging percentage (which is total bases/at-bats).

But Bill James, a pioneer of novel metrics (see "The Mind of Bill James" by Scott Gray), says OPS takes the elements of run creation and puts them together incorrectly. "They shouldn't be added together, they should be multiplied. A team with a .400 on-base percentage and a .400 slugging percentage would score more runs than a team with .350 and .450, although both add up to .800 OPS." James suggests calculating "runs created": (hits + walks - caught stealing) x (total bases + .7 steals) / (at bats + walks - caught stealing).

Yikes. One reason we were so glad to get out of school was to get away from math homework. For fans more fond of John Kruk's mind than Isaac Newton's, here are some more accessible numbers, pertaining to baseball's health as life resumes this week:

Competitive balance is getting better: Baseball has had six different World Series winners in the past six years. The NFL has not had six different winners of Super Bowls since 1968-73. One moral of this story is that the Yankees, with their $202 million payroll, have learned the declining marginal utility of the last $80 million.

Major-league baseball's long history is divided into just two eras--dead ball and, beginning about 1920, the lively ball. But the latter contained a steroid parenthesis. It is closing because baseball now has the severest steroid penalties in professional sports. Last year there were 434 fewer home runs than in 2004--and the game became more interesting. Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci reports:

"Baseball captivates us so deeply that the anticipation of action is as compelling as action itself. The 20 seconds between pitches with the bases loaded, two outs, down a run in the eighth are Agatha Christie chapters unto themselves. With the powerball version of the game subsiding, fans are getting more of these worth-the-price-of-admission moments. For instance, 47.9 percent of games last season were decided by one or two runs, up 9 percent from the slugfest apex in 2001 and the highest such percentage since 1993."

During the slugfest era it was said, "Chicks dig the long ball." Maybe. But as home runs fly away less frequently, ballpark turnstiles spin faster. Last year baseball set an attendance record that it will break this year. Already, five teams--Angels, Cardinals, Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox--have essentially sold out their seasons. On Feb. 24 the Cubs, who are in the 98th year of their rebuilding effort (they last won the World Series in 1908), put single-game tickets on sale. They set a major-league record, selling more than 597,000 tickets that day, just 38,000 fewer than they sold in the entire 1966 season.

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