Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Tim Kurkjian: Arbiter of Importance

Tim Kurkjian explains for you intrepid ESPN.com readers why baseball statistics are more important than other statistics.

His first couple reasons, that baseball is old and that milestone baseball stats are round (500, 300, 3,000, 60) are so are more iconic, I can get on board with. Even though 2,000 yards in a season is pretty easy to remember.

Then he goes crazy.

Baseball is the ultimate skill sport rather than an athletic sport such as basketball and football.

What? Even assuming you buy this odd statement, by that rationale, shouldn't hockey numbers be even more memorable, since you don't have to skate to play baseball?

The biggest, strongest and fastest guy doesn't always win in baseball (but it sure helps), which hasn't been affected as much as other sports by the growth and evolution of players.

Yeah, I can't think of a way that growth has affected baseball. Especially muscle growth aided by technology and science. Good thing the strongest, fastest moron with no skills always wins in football and basketball; just look at the hall-of-fame careers of Raghib Ismail and Greg Ostertag.

What happened in baseball in 1920, if not before, is relevant today because the game is played -- the bases are still 90 feet apart, the mound is still 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate -- in much the same way that it was 80-90 years ago.

1. So is basketball and football. Oh, right, the three-point line came in, so no one cares about Pete Maravich or Oscar Robertson. And instant replay challenges completely obsoletized Joe Montana's accomplishments.
2. Uhm, except for the fact that MLB lets black people play now.

The greatest of the great players of the early 1900s -- Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig -- would be great players in 2007 given all the advantages of today. That cannot be said of football and basketball. Offensive linemen in football 70 years ago weighed around 175 pounds; they couldn't compete with the 350-pound linemen of today. In the early years of basketball, some of the centers weren't as big as some of today's NBA point guards.

Well, there's still the whole white-people-only thing. And I don't know that they'd be great. I mean, Ty Cobb would be Scott Podsednik today. And he'd be in jail because he would have tried to assault the first black pitcher he faced. Also, Bill Russell was pretty tall. That Wilt guy was tall, too. They even nicknamed him "Stilt."

Consequently, numbers in those sports don't translate as well as they do in baseball.

Quick, name Cy Young's win total! If you can't, that's because it's over 500 and no one can possibly catch it, because it was in the Dead Ball Era.

Bob Cousy was a fabulous player who undoubtedly could play in today's NBA. But he never shot 40 percent from the field in any season of his Hall of Fame career. John Stockton, whose game was similar to Cousy's, shot over 50 percent for his career.

Joe DiMaggio struck out like 369 times in his 13 seasons. Alex Rodriguez, who is right near him on the HOF Monitor, has struck out more than 1,400. Clearly, they don't even play the same sport.

Baseball milestones and numbers play a big part in where we place a player in history, including whether he's a Hall of Famer.

Right, other sports don't care about numbers. Canton let Michael Irvin in because they like his fashion sense.

It's not the same in football where Art Monk retired as the leading receiver in history, and still isn't in the Hall of Fame.

Right, baseball would never not let in, say, the all-time hits leader. Also, Art Monk should be in the Hall of Fame.

There can be -- and we're not suggesting this is fair -- a big difference between 500 home runs and 493, as Fred McGriff might find out in a few years.

1. Kurkjian is now using the Royal We.
2. Might have something to do with players getting bigger, so the bar moves. Oh, right, baseball hasn't been affected by physical changes to people. So Rafael Palmeiro will definitely get in, with his 500/3,000, he's first ballot! And Mark McGwire rolled in easily this year.

Bert Blyleven should be in the Hall of Fame, but you wonder if he already would be in Cooperstown had he finished with 300 wins instead of 287. Others want Maris in the Hall on the strength of one number: 61.

1. Kurkjian is now speaking in the second person.
2. So one guy, who isn't in, should be, despite not having a magic number, and another guy who's not in maybe should be because he has a magic number? What?

What is football's one number? Does it have one?

It's 12. I asked football. That slut.

Casual football fans can miscalculate Marino's passing yards by 10,000; casual baseball fans likely wouldn't miss the baseball equivalent by nearly that much.

I'm a decent-sized fan of both sports, and if a baseball player had 10,000 of anything to miscount by, that would be quite a record. But I can't get Nolan Ryan's K record within a few hundred without checking, and that's probably the same. I'm having trouble refuting this claim because there's not really much of a claim to refute.

Football numbers, it seems, don't have the same meaning as baseball numbers. Can anyone not working in the game explain in simple terms the Quarterback Rating? In basketball, what precisely is a steal (does the guy who tipped the pass, or the guy who recovered the errant pass, get the steal?), and how can that statistic be considered legitimate if it wasn't kept until after Jerry West retired?

We didn't keep track of WHIP in the 1920s. And no one even cared about home runs until Babe Ruth. How can any stats be considered legitimate? Stuff changes, Tim! Stats aren't perfect, they're just what we have!

And how can blocked shots be called a real statistic when they weren't kept until after Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell retired?

How can saves be a real statistic when no one used relievers for 80 years? Somehow, we manage.

Baseball's tracking of statistics always has been more thorough than the other sports. In press boxes across America, there is a person who tracks every foul ball, every time a pitcher throws over to first base to check the runner, every pitchout, etc.

There are scorekeepers in other sports, too. They keep score of meaningless statistics like "blocks" and "steals" and "sacks."

"Who says there's an unemployment problem in this country?'' Andy Van Slyke, then a Pirates outfielder, said years ago. "Just take the five percent unemployed and give them a statistic to follow.''

Tim Kurkjian just quoted Andy Van Slyke as support! Awesome!

Shut up, Tim.

Fortunately, he does for a while, and Steve Hirdt, VP of Elias, gives a very sound rationale behind Tim's claim:

"Offensive statistics in baseball are more legitimate for a player because they are more his own than someone in another sport, which are more team dependent. In baseball, everything is visible, it is easy to recognize. The confrontation between a batter and a pitcher is in plain sight without extraneous factors involved compared to other sports where someone has to get the ball to you, or runs interference for you in football, or sets a pick for you in basketball. Baseball is more an individual battle between a pitcher and batter. It makes individual stats more personal. And those statistics are less likely to fluctuate when you go to another team. In baseball, it's your turn to hit. Michael Jordan usually took the last shot, but other sports really don't have turns...

"In the socialization process in this country, when you open your first package of baseball cards, you are at first enthralled by the picture, then you turn the card over and say, 'Whoa, what's this on the back?' It opens a whole new world to kids of a young age. It makes a difference. They begin to develop an interest in baseball through statistics.''

Hmm, actually plausible. Cool. But then Tim says more things.

An interest in baseball statistics has become, for some, an obsession. A colleague from ESPN recently asked me to name the 10 guys who have hit .370 or better, starting with the 1980 season. Using a couple of hours that I didn't have, I couldn't rest until I'd made my 10 guesses.

Actually, I've changed my mind. If it keeps Tim Kurkjian from writing for a few hours, I'm behind it all the way.

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