If you’ve read this site long enough, then you’re probably familiar with the idea of linear weights and wOBA. If not, then I suggest checking out Joe’s primer. In a post at the FanGraphs Community blog yesterday, Sam Menzin presented an article from the 1915 edition of Baseball Magazine (pdf link), in which author F.C. Lane questions the idea of batting average and its accuracy. Allow me to excerpt…
Lane opens his discussion with a question: “Suppose you asked a close personal friend how much change he had in his pocket and he replied, ‘Twelve coins,’ would you think you had learned much about the precise state of his exchequer?” He goes on to compare two mens’ respective financial situations: Man A, with “twelve coins” consisting of a combination of quarters, nickels, and dimes; and Man B, with twelve silver dollars. Saying both men have equal financial means is equivalent to the system of tracking batting averages, he explains. “One batter, we may say, made twelve singles, three or four of them of the scratchiest possible variety. The other also made twelve hits, but all of them were good ringing drives, clean cut and decisive, three of them were doubles, one a triple, and one a home run…Is there no way to separate the dimes from the nickels and give each its proper value?” Sound familiar?
This issue was not solely unique to Lane’s inquisitiveness. John Heydler, secretary and future president of the National League, added, “that the system of giving as much credit to singles as to home runs is inaccurate to that extent. But it has never seemed practicable to use any other system. How, for instance, are you going to give the comparative values of home runs and singles?”
Lane goes on to use an example of two players, one with a higher batting average and lots of singles and another with a lower batting average but lots of extra base hits. He compared each players’ hit rates (singles, doubles, triples, homers) to the league average, which is essentially an early version of wOBA and wRC+. It’s very fascinating stuff, a nearly hundred-year old article questioning the merits of a statistic still valued so highly today. I suggest clicking the links above and reading both articles, Lane’s and Menzin’s. I really can’t recommend it enough, it’s amazing stuff.
Full Disclosure: Our own Larry Koestler edited the post for Sam. Not that that means anything, just figured I’d mention it.