Where Stat-Heads Got Their Start

This is a baseball post rather than a TV post, but I can’t enter this post in the sports category for some reason. So: issues of Baseball Digest have been made available on Google Books (which has quietly digitized the archives of a few magazines). As one of the most popular newsstand/checkout-line baseball magazines, it specialized in a) Happy articles about how great current ballplayers were, and b) Articles about how much modern baseball sucked compared to the old days. Look how many hits you get just by looking for the phrase “in my day.”

I was also happy to find some of the early articles by Bill James, the father of modern baseball stat-geekery. James had trouble selling articles to mainstream baseball publications, eventually starting his self-published “Baseball Abstract” to write the essays and studies that Sporting News and Baseball Digest wouldn’t publish. But before that, he did manage to get a couple of articles into BD, including two that deal with very important stat-head subjects: how to compare statistics from different eras in the game, and how to evaluate fielding performance.

A 1975 article about a statistical method for judging a player’s performance relative to the overall standards of the league. (This is, of course, the only way to compare performance from different eras: a .300 average in one era means something very different from a .300 average in another.)

This 1976 article called “Big League Fielding Stats Do Make Sense!,” where he argued (as Branch Rickey and others had already argued; James didn’t invent these ideas, just helped to mainstream them) that errors were basically meaningless as a measure of fielding skill, and that a more important measure was how many plays a fielder does make, which he called the “range factor,” an estimate of how much ground the fielder covers. James and other stat-heads later admitted that this too was a very flawed measure, since the number of plays a fielder makes is partly dependent on who the other fielders are and what kind of pitchers the team has — but at least it was a start.

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