Stat Diving

added 3/18/2010 by Pat Hajovsky

As anyone who has read my posts on the Yuku forum knows, while I sometimes quote stats, I generally don't define issues around them. In other words, while I'm not a SABRmetrician, I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

Diving into statistics produces all types of great conclusions and, it must be said, endless hours of wasted time when one could be gainfully employed or something like that. I highly recommend heading over to one afternoon and simply letting your mind wander about.

For example, let's take a look at young Hunter Pence. I've made no bones about my feelings that Pence has maxed out his abilities as a Major League ballplayer. But one thing I heard consistently over the past year and in the offseason was his "league-leading 16 outfield assists." Impressive!

Or not. Baseball-Reference (or, as I shall call it in this column, the "Epic Tome") shows that all 16 assists came with runners trying to advance an extra base beyond the one immediately in front of them. And, of the 16 fly ball opportunities Pence fielded with a runner on third and less than two outs (known among fans as a "sacrifice fly situation"), 11 scored, five held up and no outs were recorded.

So, do you want to know why you cannot remember the last time Pence threw out a runner trying to score on a sacrifice fly? Thanks to the Epic Tome, we have an answer to that question - because it's never happened! And do you know why you don't remember Pence gunning a runner down at third? Hmm, let’s see here. I got it - same answer.

(Disclaimer - OK, OK, the runner did get cut down seven times at home last season when Pence hit the cut off man. Two things on that: he had to hit the cut-off man, and see above Holiday Inn Express note. I can't let facts get in the way of a good hate, can I?)

But the best part about stat diving is not really getting a direct answer to a question you may have had. The best part is that one answered question inevitably leads to clicking on dozens of other items. So, notice that one of the similar batters to Mr. Pence up to age 26 is none other than Larry Doby, the first African-American AL player. Beyond the "Wait! How did that happen?" moment, let's click on over there.

This is why I love the Epic Tome. Every time you look up, you see something you either never knew, knew but forgot you knew or something interesting you never even thought about. I've always thought of Doby playing for the Indians. I now see that he played two full years for the White Sox, including a 102-RBI season in 1956, and part of 1959. Also, while he played in the World Series with the Indians in 1948 and 1954, he did not play in the Series with the ChiSox in 1959. Why? Hmmm, file that one away for later.

Checking out that 1959 ChiSox roster, I see original Astro Nellie Fox, known locally as Joe Morgan's mentor (as a player, not a "broadcaster"). Nellie's first year with Houston was 1964 - the last year of the Colt .45s. Looking at that roster, you can see the Colts had three teenagers, seven players at age 20 and three more at age 21. Why is that relevant to this paragraph? Fox started his career as a 19-year-old with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1949. Just knowing that fact immediately puts possible clubhouse and dugout conversations in your mind, as well as the wisdom behind picking up Fox in the first place.

Another thing about stat diving is that numbers tell a story. You can't help but look at that 1964 roster, see Larry Dierker signing at the ripe old age of 17 (starting a game on his 18th birthday) and not think about how frightening that must have been for him. Seventeen years old! Heck, there's a magazine called "Seventeen". You know why? Because it's for children. So just the simple act of looking at that number in that spot on the page puts an entire narrative in your mind and perhaps explains something about the man even to this day.

Well, while I'm looking at that page, let's click on the ol' Wrangler and see what comes up on his page. Nice career. 20-win season in 1969 (the first year the Astros really played competitive baseball).

But hold on here. Maybe I was just a kid in the 1970's, but I remember Dierker being well beyond his prime when he pitched his no-hitter in 1976. And he was, in terms of talent, but I see here certainly not beyond his prime in terms of age. Larry Dierker pitched his last game as a 30-year-old in 1977.

And this is where numbers again tell the story, only this time it was the end of Dierker's career. I pulled out my copy of Dierker's "This Ain't Brain Surgery" to see what I had missed. Sure enough, on page 225, there was the story about how Dierker's shoulder troubles from 1976 produced a trade to St. Louis and an early end to Dierker's career in 1977.

One wonders how Dierker would have fared with today's medicine and treatments, especially coming at the young age of 30. Instead of being second all-time (about to be third behind Joe Niekro and Roy Oswalt) on the Astros' wins list, he could have put that record out there, maybe even beyond 200 wins if today's medicine was at his disposal. So while Dierker doesn't really get lumped into the category of the tragic Astros stories of the 1970's, the numbers - and the facts behind those numbers - show he belongs there with Don Wilson and J.R. Richard (plus Cesar Cedeno's shooting, ah, "mishap" in the Dominican Republic, the trade of Joe Morgan to the Reds, Roger Metzger's fingers getting cut off, the hiring of Leo Durocher, etc. etc. etc.).

So here's the conclusion. Stat diving ends up producing the best thing of all about being a baseball fan (short of watching game drama) - the compelling stories behind the game itself. Analyzing the numbers you saw get put up by players you rooted for and against creates a personal connection between what you see and what you love. Most people can never identify with the exact physical achievement of being a Major League baseball player, but we can identify with what we see and then try to make what we see part of what interests us. In short, numbers anthropomorphize greatness.

And it's a great way to spend an afternoon.

P.S. - Larry Doby didn't play in the 1959 World Series because he broke his ankle late in the season. He never played Major League baseball again, although he did play in Japan and he later became the second African-American big league manager (after Frank Robinson). On the issue of seconds, him and Buzz Aldrin must have really hit it off!

Patrick Hajovsky is a Houston attorney, a lifelong Astros fan and a frequent poster on the Yuku forum.