Today’s post marks the first entry in what I plan to be a recurring series on my page here at theScore. I believe an understanding of what baseball is today — as a game and as a cultural force — is incomplete without a knowledge of its history, and a knowledge of its history is incomplete without an examination of primary sources.
When it comes to baseball, history is far more than the Hall of Fame and the trivia of past World Series winners and MVPs and Cy Young Award winners. History is about the people who played the game, their stories, and how those stories were told. History is about the interactions between baseball and the society that loved it and fostered it — how society shaped baseball, and vice-versa.
For most fans, our understanding of sports history comes from something resembling an oral tradition — stories are passed down from our moms and our dads, from our older siblings or our friends, the people who teach us how and why we watch sports in the first place. As useful and important as these oral histories are, they are inevitable colored by the biases of the storyteller and shaped by the passage of time.
So if we really want to learn the history of the game, we need to examine its primary sources. We have to examine the documents of the time, whether it’s to learn about why a rule changed, or how the steroid problem somehow went under the media’s nose or why we still have bean ball wars 96 years after MLB threatened expulsion to those who intentionally threw at hitters.
The first primary source takes us back 41 years: the October 1972 issue of Baseball Digest, Baseball’s only monthly magazine. Baseball Digest covered everything from features of current players to historical articles to statistics. This issue in particular had a pair of features that shed some light on baseball’s statistical thoughts in the early 1970s.
Look to the bottom of the cover: “PLUS A new way of rating hitters!” This issue of the Digest arrived in a 12-pack with the rest of the 1972 issues, and the way statistics were generally treated throughout the volume is similar to what I’ve seen in other baseball publications from the 1970s and 1980s. For hitters, three statistics and three statistics only were necessary: batting average, home runs and RBI. For example, in team previews, players were often mentioned with their previous season statistics in parenthesis like so: “the highly talented but often-traded Bobby Bonds (.267-31-90 at Texas).” This was considered comprehensive. For pitchers, it was wins, losses and ERA — “Dennis Eckersley (20-8, 2.99) was virtually unbeatable at Fenway Park” (via Pedersen’s Pro Baseball Yearbook 1979).
The Octber 1972 issue of Baseball Digest actually offered a pair of new ways to rate hitters. These new ways didn’t try to rock the boat too much, but they did suggest even 30 years before Moneyball those around baseball had an idea its statistics were missing something in terms of the full story.
First, we turn to page 35, in which Baseball Digest makes the claim that Ted Williams was baseball’s “most efficient hitter.” As innocuous as this claim seems, particularly pre-Barry Bonds, it did go against conventional wisdom suggesting Ty Cobb was the best hitter of all-time — after all, Cobb’s batting average of .367 was (and remains) the best ever.
The new statistic that put Williams (and his mere .344 career avverage) over the top? Baseball historian Arthur Schott called it efficiency average.
Arthur Schott of New Orleans, now regarded as professional baseball’s foremost historian, offers a new approach. By taking the official times at bat and adding the bases on balls, he produces a column titled ‘Plate Appearances’ (PA). Divide this total in to the Base Hits plus Bases on balls and you get a column titled ‘Reached First’ (RF)
Schott called the resulting quotient “Efficiency Average,” but it should sound familiar to most readers. As the article states, “it indicates how often the batter reached first on his own ability per number of times appearing at the plate.”
On-base percentage was not made an official MLB statistic until 1984. Here we see it — or at least a nearly identical construct — finally making its way to into the mainstream. Efficiency Average didn’t stick around — the only other reference to efficiency average I could find was in a behavioral science journal from 1978 — and it only received one page in Baseball Digest, but its appearance here is a sign there was some dissatisfaction with the ability of baseball’s existing statistics to tell baseball fans what they desired.
Efficiency Average was a mere aside in this issue. The actual new way of rating batting leaders came from Thomas Boswell, a baseball columnist from the Washington Post who went on to invent the Total Average statistic, an OPS-like metric. His discovery for the Digest resembles the Black Ink test Bill James posited in his 1994 book “The Politics of Glory” and can be seen on every player’s Baseball-Reference page. The system is simple: a player gets a point for any time they led the league in any of the following categories: hits, doubles, triples, home runs, runs scored, RBI, walks, batting average, slugging percentage, and stolen bases.
The leaderboard as of October 1972 can be seen here:
As simplistic as the system is — weighting a league lead in stolen bases the same as a league lead in home runs, for example, seems a bit silly — it shows an awareness of a number of dilemmas still around in the statistical community. Specifically, Boswell was trying to account for the issue of overvaluing longevity relative to peak production as well as account for the era a player played in.
“Over-the-hill players don’t lead the league in anything, ever. Old age plays no part.
The era problem also may be beaten. The same man might hit 50 home runs with 1930 jack rabbit ball and only 30 with the mystery ball of 1968. But the best hitter will still lead the league.”
It took the technological advances of the personal computer and the internet for so-called advanced statistics to reach the ubiquitous state they have today. It can be tempting to consider the fans of previous eras total luddites, and surely many of them were — just as many still are now. But a look at the baseball thoughts on record at the time shows, at least 41 years ago, there were people interested in examining and solving these problems. At that point, it was only a matter of time until the right tools arrived and a movement took off.