About the Numbers (08/24/00)
Stats and projections are wonderful tools for discussions. But they don't always tell the whole story.
Home Run King?
He hit .363 in his first year of professional baseball. The next year he was in the majors. By the time he was 22, he had become the youngest player ever to lead the league in homers and the 3rd fastest to reach 100 homers for his career. And he was doing this in one of the toughest eras to hit in the history of baseball. He was a local boy who made good, not only on the baseball diamond, but in other endeavors as well: he recorded 2 singles, both making the top 10 in his baseball hometown, he appeared on national talk shows and he dated one of the most famous glamor girls of his time. He was a man who enjoyed life to it's fullest, not entirely unlike Babe Ruth. But on August 18, 1967, in the heat of one of the best pennant races in Amercian League history, Tony Conigliaro was smashed in his left eye by a Jack Hamilton fastball and his life and career was never the same. He was out the rest of the season and all of the 1968 season. He came back in 1969 and won the Comeback Player of the Year Award, hitting 20 homers and driving in 82. In 1970, he hit 36 homers and drove in 116. But in 1971, he retired citing physical problems. The spectre of tragedy wasn't through with Conigliaro - he suffered a heart attack that completely debilitated him in 1982. He died 8 years later at the age of 45.
Many people have played "what if..." with the career of Tony C. What would have happened had he not gotten beaned? Would he have broken Aaron's all-time home run record? Baltimore ace Jim Palmer once said that with his swing and the park he played in, he thought Conigliaro probably would have done it. Several people have published projections of what they thought he might have done. Using what is known about the learning curve of young players, the incremental progession of production they experience until they reach their peak age (28-29), and the progression of decline once they reach their waning years (beginning at 35), and what they know of Conigliaro's actual performance, they postulated he would have finished in the top 10 all-time. Still others have said that because he was so injury prone, having missed time due to broken bones in his hand and shoulder from pitched balls, they project he might not have made it into the top 20.
However, what the projections don't take into account is that Tony C. was blinded in his left eye by the beaning. That was one of the "physical problems" that casued him to retire - he simply couldn't see half the balls that were being thrown to him. If the man could hit 36 homers a year with just one good eye, as he did in 1970, what could he have done with two good ones? How does one project the effect of an injury, especially one like that?
Stats and projections are useful tools. They certainly help us grasp the quality of what we're seeing on the field, but as a precise and complete evaluation they are inherently flawed: they always overlook a significant variable. Whether it's the seeming chaos of nature, human error or simple hubris, there is always something that undermines the reliability of these derived numbers that prevents us from getting the whole story. At least, that's been true so far. I'm not suggesting that they should be abandoned or dismissed. Just that there is usually a lot more to the story that just the numbers.
AL vs NL
I admire the work of Clay Davenport. His Minor League Translations are an excellent tool for evaluating minor league talent. And much of his statistical work at the Baseball Prospectus is informative and top rate. However, I was dismayed to read his recent article on ESPN.com stating that he had proof that the AL was the tougher league to hit in. He cited a number of players who had switched leagues and noted that most of the former AL hitters are doing much better than their NL counterparts this year as opposed to last year and that he had detected a trend in recent years. That was the focus of his proof.
However, this is greatly misleading. He didn't take into account some significant variables. For instance, he didn't compare this year's production with each player's career performance. Just with last year's. So if a guy had an off year last year in the AL (like Damon Buford or Willie Green), but popped back to his career norm in the NL... or if the converse were true and a player had a career year in the NL last year and is not doing quite as well because of an expected natural fall off in production (a la Mike Cameron or Carl Everett)... or if a guy was injured for most of last year but has been healthy all this year and therefore has returned to his pre-injury production levels (a la Jim Edmonds)... well, if one dosen't consider those things then it's certainly likely to cause some very skewed results.
I also wondered why he didn't look at pitchers. If the AL is a tougher league to hit in, then it'd make sense that the pitchers switching leagues would be affected as well. But from a cursory look after adjusting for the effect of the DH, there doesn't appear to be any significant difference.
If one goes case by case, nearly all of his examples can be explained with the fact that these players are merely returning to their career norms. This is not exactly news, nor is it proof that the AL is tougher than the NL. Just putting numbers together doesn't always tell the story.
A Nice Return
In his senior season in high school, he struck out over 150 batters in a little over 70 innings and had an ERA under 0.30. He dominated each level of the minors even though he was one of the youngest players in the league. He pitched on the most celebrated pitching staff of the decade and is the only one of that vaunted staff to throw a no-hitter... and he's done it twice - once by himself and once with the assistance of two relievers. But quite possibly his greatest achievement came on August 12, 2000 when Kent Mercker returned to the mound after recovering from a life threatening brain hemorrage. Two days ago, he got his first win since his return.
Medical science has advanced immeasurably in the past 30 years. Kent Mercker might have have died from this trauma had he played 30 years ago. Instead, his remarkable story continues to unfold. Who knows what doctors could have done for Tony C. had he played today. Would Tony Conigliaro have become the home run champ? Maybe. I think it's fitting that a principled and disciplined man like Hank Aaron is the home run king. But I tend to side with Jim Palmer that Conigliaro had an awful lot going for him. Regardless of what the numbers might have said, it would have made a much better story.