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A game of numbers
August 28, 2014 - Steve Murch
Baseball is a numbers game and those numbers get discussed, dissected and debated by those who love the game (count me among them). Everything from the timeless RBI, batting average, ERA, etc., to the more recent WAR, WHIP and OPS, numbers are a driving force of conversation.
All sports have their stats, but no other sport is so thoroughly wrapped up in them. And while every player has a specific role, and some are on a roster more for a certain skill, they all have to play the field and hit. So a shortstop is a shortstop is a shortstop — meaning they all have to be able to field the ball and play the position, as well as provide some sort of offense. While some players may be used more for moving runners ahead and sacrificing their at-bat, if there aren't any base runners, they are expected to get hits.
Take football for instance. Try debating statistics for every left guard in the NFL. What stats that are kept are quite limited for LGs, and frankly things like pancake blocks aren't always relevant — it just means he can knock guys on their butts from time to time. That doesn't take anything away from those kinds of stats, it just means they aren't as all encompassing and analytical as baseball.
So baseball people like to compare eras, and the fact is you can't because the game has changed so much and players' roles are so different now. I won't even get into the fact that knowledge and approach to the game are nowhere near the same, and the payscales meant that most players worked in the offseason way back when.
You need not look any further than pitching stats to see how the game as changed. A couple of Sundays ago the Tigers were playing Seattle and I decided to watch a little bit of the TBS broadcast rather than the Fox Sports Detroit broadcast.
At that particular time of the game when I was watching, the broadcast team was talking about the Seattle pitching staff's ERA and how it was the best since the A's back in the 1970s. Then they brought up Catfish Hunter, who in 1974 was 25-12 and had 23 complete games. Twenty-three! (He had 30 the next year pitching for the Yankees) With a little more than a month left in the season the Dodgers Clayton Kershaw leads MLB with six. As a team, the Dodger lead baseball with seven — only one other pitcher aside from Kershaw has a complete game, but it was no-hitter by Josh Beckett.
The Tigers have five complete games by starters this year, three by Rick Porcello, all of which were shutouts as well (anyone still want to trade him?). So take Mickey Lolich, one of baseball's underrated pitchers and still third all-time in strikeouts among left-handers (18th overall).
In 1971 Lolich finished second in Cy Young voting and fifth in MVP voting; Vida Blue won both awards. That year Lolich started 45 games — unheard of in this day and age — and finished with 29 complete games, which would take four or five TEAMS to have that many this year. His record was 25-14. He was 31 years old, which is an age nowadays teams are questioning if guys can hold up to the grind like they did when they were younger. Three years later, by the way, he had 27 complete game starts at age 34.
Lolich finished with 195 complete games in his 496 starts in a 16-year career. By comparison Justin Verlander, is in his 10th year, ninth full season, and has 292 starts. He has 20 career complete games.
While the numbers can be interpreted any way you want — and those kinds of debates rage on among baseball lovers — the numbers clearly point out how much the game has changed in the last 40 years.
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