M Thomas Apple Author Page

Science fiction, actual science, history, and personal ranting about life, the universe, and everything

I like stats. Go figure.

March 16, 2015

I like stats. There. I said it. I’m a stats geek.

This past Sunday, I was invited to give a presentation/workshop in Kyoto called “Basic Statistics for Language Teachers.” That’s what I do: educational statistics. Writing about statistics is usually not as interesting as writing fiction. I think that probably goes without saying.

But actually, the history of sports, and of baseball in particular, is exactly that: writing about statistics. When I was a kid, I was introduced to baseball not via TV, video games, or (gasp) actual baseball outside, but via a statistically-oriented and -devised card game called Strat-o-Matic. The game had one card for batters, one card for pitchers, and dice. To play the game, you’d throw the dice and look at the appropriate column (L/R pitcher, L/R/S batter) and then the cards would tell you the outcome based on statistical probabilities from the players’ stats the previous season.

I was fascinated. How could cards predict something that seemed so unpredictable? We could play an entire baseball game in a matter of minutes. I quickly learned how to keep score, then I got interested in watching games on TV (no cable back then), starting with the 1982 World Series between the Cardinals and the Brewers. I bought some Topps baseball cards that winter for the first time (I still have my old Cecil Cooper and Robin Yount somewhere in a box in my closet…). Stats, stats, stats. I memorized them all.

Now, over one or two games, you could argue that the game of cards just didn’t work. When we played the 1983 season, Dale Berra hit a grand-slam off of Tom Seaver. Mike Schmidt stole second base. Daryl Strawberry struck out five times in a game (well…).

But over the course of, say, forty games, the stats would begin to look a little more familiar. My father and I figured out the ratio of how many at bats or innings pitched that the players actually had to how many at bats and innings pitched that they had done in our games. We would deliberately rest players who were “over” and use the ones that were “under,” to try to recreate the real numbers on the back of the players’ cards.

It didn’t always work, of course. The stats were probabilistic. But the games became more and more realistic over time, as new data were added. Stadium factors like wall height, outfield distance, wind speed. Day versus night games. “Tiredness” after a certain number of innings pitched. Frequently injured players. Players who were better at bunting or hit and run. Pitchers who were better at holding runners on or picking them off.

In the end, I have to conclude that my father bought the game for me on purpose. I got interested in stats and in baseball. Yet the game is not just about numbers. Stats don’t measure emotion, grit, humiliation, depression, determination, frustration. “Is that all that’s left in the end, just a bunch of numbers?”

I’m a stats geek. Even when the numbers are against you, there are always confounding variables. Celebrate the statistical outlier!

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