Thursday, July 8, 2004
A numbers revolution
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
So you think the timeline of baseball's obsession with statistics begins in the 1980s, with computers and Bill James? Think again.
Baseball and its numbers fix have existed for more than 150 years -- from the primordial ooze from which statistics developed in the 1860s, to the earliest sabermetricians from 1910-1930, to post-war military scientists writing scholarly articles on them. Assembling a full history of this fascination would take an entire book. As it turns out I did just write that book: "The Numbers Game," which came out a few weeks ago and, thanks to the generous folks at ESPN.com, is being featured on the site right now.
The following, for those who want a tease of the amazingly potent history baseball has with statistics, is a timeline of some of that history's most important moments:
1837 -- Constitution of the Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia, which played an early ancestor of baseball called "town ball," mandates that a scorebook be kept to record runs scored by all players.
1845 -- First box score appears in New York Morning News. Batters' columns include only runs and outs.
1858 -- Box scores continue expansion by including nine more columns per player, including foul outs and times catching a ball on one bounce (which at the time counted as an out).
1867 -- To reward batters who hit their way on base but do not score, New York writer Henry Chadwick begins awarding such batters a "base hit" in those situations. Other Chadwick innovations around this time include "total bases" and "unearned runs."
1872 -- With "hits per game" and "total bases per game" the favored method to rate batters, a fan from Washington, H.A. Dobson, writes to Chadwick and maintains this unfairly favors leadoff hitters, who bat more often each game. He proposes a new system: hits per times at bat. This proved so popular, so fast, it became known simply as "batting average."
1872 -- A Mr. Reed, scorer for the Philadelphia Athletics, rates fielders not by errors, but by plays successfully made per game. Metric never catches on until Bill James resurrects it more than 100 years later as "range factor."
1879 -- National League keeps "reached first base" as official statistic. Discards it after one year and tries "bases touched." Scraps that quickly, too.
1883 -- And you thought today's stats were weird? American Association awards pitching championship to Tim Keefe of the New York Metropolitans because of his league-low .0362 earned-run-per-at-bat ratio.
1887 -- In spooky harkening of today's on-base revolution, NL and American Association decide that batting average should count walks as full-fledged hits. After St. Louis' Tip O'Neill bats .492, the one-year experiment ends.
1893 -- Pitching rules change, sending moving hurlers back approximately 5-6 feet to their present 60 feet, 6 inches away. Taking advantage of pitchers' uneasiness with the new distance, Boston's Hugh Duffy bats .438.
1905 -- Sensing a growing interest in relief pitching, annual Reach guide counts "times taken out," the opposite of today's "complete games."
1907 -- New York Press sports editor Ernie Lanigan begins his own logs of "runs batted in"; statistic doesn't become official until 1920. (RBI had actually been kept as early as 1879 by a Buffalo newspaper.)
1910 -- St. Louis Browns infield plays deep to allow popular Nap Lajoie of Cleveland to go 8-for-9 in doubleheader on last day of the season, in hopes he'll beat out Ty Cobb for the prestigious batting average championship. (No one knew who was actually leading at the time, because the official statistics were not released during the season, only after.) After weeks of controversy and machinations, Cobb still wins the title, .385 to .384. Maybe. (See 1981.)
1912 -- Watching fewer starting pitchers complete games, National League president John Heydler scraps "earned runs per game" and replaces it with a new measure, earned runs per nine innings pitched. You know it as "earned run average."
1912 -- "Who's Who in Baseball" debuts, with first-ever seasonal register of active players' batting and fielding averages.
1914 -- Baseball's first attempt at a comprehensive record book, "Balldom," is published by Pittsburgh stat freak George Moreland. Includes vital list, "Eight Games in Which First Basemen Made No Putouts."
1916 -- Baseball Magazine's F.C. Lane, perhaps baseball's first true sabermetrician, begins all-out assault on worthlessness of batting average. Assigns higher weights to doubles, triples and home runs, while also proposing new respect for walks, which he calls "the orphan child of the dope sheets."
1918 -- Stat-crazed brothers Al Munro and Walter Elias, who had started a business selling baseball statistics to newspapers and New York billiard parlors, are hired by the National League to keep the loop's official numbers. Outfit evolves into what we know today as the Elias Sports Bureau.
1919-1921 -- Babe Ruth shatters Ned Williamson's record of 27 home runs with 29, then 54, then 59. Fans start focusing on individuals' statistics, rather than the scores of the games, more than ever before. Beyond Ruth's example of the promise of power, Ray Chapman's fatal beaning causes leagues to use cleaner balls, helping offensive statistics skyrocket.
1922 -- In very fishy episode after the season, AL president Ban Johnson overrules an official scoring decision to give Ty Cobb an extra hit and change his average from .399 to .401.
1941 -- Former major leaguer Ethan Allen invents All-Star Baseball, a tabletop game that allows kids to stage major league-type contests with a spinner atop circular discs, whose circumference is sectioned off according to players' real-life statistics. (If Joe DiMaggio was a .361 hitter who hit home runs ever 17 at-bats, his disc would over time mimic this performance.) All-Star Baseball becomes instant sensation, sells thousands of sets.
1947 -- Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey hires Allan Roth as team statistician. Roth proceeds to keep all sorts of new statistics to rate players, including an early form of on-base percentage, batting average with runners in scoring position, performance in different ball-strike counts, and more. (Even Roth was not unique. Rickey had retained a statistician named Travis Hoke while running the Browns in the 1930s.)
1948 -- Harold Richman, an 11-year-old from Long Island, invents a new tabletop statistics game using dice. He later publishes it commercially in 1961 under the name Strat-O-Matic.
1951 -- Hy Turkin, a sportswriter for the New York Daily News, and Cy Thompson, a Broadway musician and statistics fan, publish the "Official Encyclopedia of Baseball," the game's first historical register. Because data was so hard to find at that time, the only statistics included are games played, batting average for hitters and won-lost records for pitchers.
1952 -- Topps adds full statistics lines on the back of their annual baseball cards.
1953-63 -- George Lindsey, a Canadian military officer, spends 10 years blowing off his command and family life to apply sophisticated statistical analysis to baseball's numbers. Publishes two seminal articles in military journal Operations Research that examine the benefits and costs of various strategies (steals, sacrifices, intentional walks, etc.) through his unique base-out matrix.
1960 -- Harvard University professor William Gamson begins a new baseball pool called Baseball Seminar, a forerunner of modern fantasy baseball.
1964 -- Earnshaw Cook, a retired metallurgist and consultant in the development of the atom bomb, publishes the first full-length sabermetric book, "Percentage Baseball."
1969 -- "The Baseball Encyclopedia," baseball's first comprehensive historical register, debuts on Aug. 28. The 2,338-page behemoth includes at least 17 statistics for each player each year -- dating all the way back to 1876. The New York Times raves, "It's the book I would take with me to prison." A massive technological undertaking, it is the first trade book in the United States entirely typeset by computers.
1970 -- Harlan Mills, a software engineer, and his brother Eldon invent a new statistic called "player win average," based on how everything a hitter, pitcher or fielder does affects the probability of his team eventually winning a game. The Mills brothers release their method in an obscure book, "Player Win Averages."
1971 -- Society for American Baseball Research forms in Cooperstown, N.Y.
1977 -- Unknown Kansan Bill James self-publishes his first "Baseball Abstract."
1979 -- Astros president Tal Smith, a statistics buff from childhood, hires Steve Mann as baseball's first modern stat analyst for a major league club.
1980 -- New York writer Dan Okrent devises the rules for The Rotisserie League Baseball Association. Feature on it in Inside Sports magazine in May 1981 kick-starts fantasy craze.
1981 -- STATS Inc. begins operation by developing "Edge 1.000" computer system to help clubs keep their own specialized statistics.
1981 -- The Sporting News reports that SABR member Pete Palmer has discovered that Ty Cobb was awarded two too many hits in 1910, giving him just 4,189 for his career (and meaning he should have lost the AL batting race to Nap Lajoie). With Pete Rose in the midst of his Cobb pursuit, MLB ignores overwhelming proof that a mistake was made.
1981 -- Dan Okrent's profile of Bill James in Sports Illustrated introduces sabermetrics to the masses. Ballantine wins bidding war to nationally publish James' "Baseball Abstract," which soon becomes an annual bestseller.
1982 -- San Francisco NPR radio voice Eric Walker publishes "The Sinister First Baseman," a collection of baseball essays, many of them building a new statistical philosophy based on power and on-base percentage. This catches the eye of young Oakland executive Sandy Alderson, who ultimately hires Walker as a consultant. The A's philosophy is born.
1982 -- USA Today begins publication in September with express purpose of bringing more statistics to sports fans.
1983 -- Oakland's Steve Boros becomes the first manager to openly praise computer data for helping him make strategic decisions.
1984 -- Prompted by the Pete Palmer's and John Thorn's "The Hidden Game of Baseball," a comprehensive analysis of new statistics, The New York Times starts publishing a weekly box with a new statistic: On-base plus slugging percentage (OPS).
1985 -- Facing bankruptcy, STATS Inc. shifts focus from developing software for teams to keeping and distributing statistics for the public.
1989 -- "Total Baseball" debuts as rival to "The Baseball Encyclopedia."
1989 -- Retrosheet begins massive compilation and online publishing of old box scores and play-by-plays, allowing droves of historical research never before possible. Current holdings have swooned to almost every game from the mid-'60s onward, and thousands more before that.
1990 -- USA Today, with STATS Inc., overhauls box score to include all batters' walks, strikeouts, men left on base, and updated batting average. Also included: pitch counts and a new statistic called "holds."
1990 -- Journeyman Billy Beane hired as advance scout by A's, where he soon reads Eric Walker's on-base manifesto, "Winning Baseball." Never looks at baseball the same way again.
1994 -- STATS Inc. revolutionizes statistics delivery by updating its AOL box scores and statistics during games, pitch-by-pitch. Real-time statistics delivery ultimately draws lawsuit from NBA and other sports leagues, claiming they violate broadcast licenses.
1996 -- Baseball Prospectus begins publication of annual book and Web site; soon introduces statistics community to Value Over Replacement Level, PECOTA, Pitcher Abuse points and more.
1997 -- After losing decision of U.S. District Court, STATS wins appeal of NBA lawsuit and secures right to disseminate statistics in real time.
1999 -- After 22 years of fighting among SABR members, MLB and the Elias Sports Bureau, Bud Selig announces that Hack Wilson's record RBI total from 1930 is being officially changed from 190 to 191.
2000 -- John Dewan sells STATS Inc. to News Corp. for $45 million.
2001 -- Voros McCracken publishes his "Defense Independent Pitching Stats" system, which suggests that pitchers have little influence over whether batted balls fall in for hits or are turned into outs by their defense. Hired following year by Red Sox as statistical analyst.
2001 -- Bill James unveils Win Shares system. Hired following year by Red Sox as baseball-operations advisor.
2003 -- MLB.com decides to begin outfitting stadiums with sophisticated camera systems to capture pitch and throw velocities, runner speeds, batted-ball trajectories and more, in part to build an entire new set of fielding statistics, ETA 2006.
2004 -- Alan Schwarz writes "The Numbers Game," the first full-length history of baseball statistics. Hope you like it.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His new book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.