Monday, May 07, 2007

Don't get too caught up with stats

I've always been a stats geek, particularly when it comes to baseball. For instance, I know Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average is .367, Lou Gehrig has drilled 24 grand slams, and that Cy Young has won 511 games, nearly 100 more than Walter Johnson and 163 more than Roger Clemens, who, yesterday, decided to return for yet another abbreviated season. But I also know that Sam Crawford has 309 career triples and how to calculate earned-run average and on-base percentage, like many other sports fanatics.

I've covered my share of games where I've focused on walks, unearned runs and runners left on base. On Sunday, I sat outside under a tree debating what major-league records would never be broken with my neighbor. Jon said DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak; I countered with Cy Young's wins. Arguably, neither will be broken. We both agreed A-Rod would probably break Bonds' imminent home run record and that Derek Jeter transcends his stats (not that they are pedestrian by any means.)

But in these discussions, we forget that stats are just one way to measure a player's success. I thought I knew this. My daughter drove home this point several days ago.

My daughter, Kristen, plays for a travel softball team in town, a team that is competitive but not among the state's elite -- much like my daughter, a player who works hard, runs hard, and does fairly well. Last year, she was among the youngest players on the team, a slightly built girl among emerging women. She lacked size and confidence, striking out whenever she did not walk through the first 20-plus games. Then, an amazing thing happened: She hit the ball, a grounder to short that was easily scooped up for an out. She beamed. She did not care that her average remained .000. She realized she could hit a live fastball and eventually racked up some big hits, drove in some runs, and ripped some line shots to the outfield.

Now, she is a starter for this team. Kristen is still not the biggest nor the best player, but she is among the hardest working, whether that is shagging fly balls or hitting the batting cage. She was hitting .333 at one point. Last week, she started a game-winning rally in the last inning, ripping a shot up the middle that the shortstop knocked down but could not handle. Kristen stole second and scored on a passed ball, sliding so hard she ripped up her knee. Her team won a few batters later.

A few days later, I checked the team's stats online and realized this last-inning hit had not been recorded, nor had a few others. Instead of batting .300, she was hitting .178. I was angry, so I told my daughter to check with the coaches. "I do not think they gave you some of your hits last weekend," I said.

Kristen did not pause. "I don't care what my average is," she said rather confidently. "I know I'm hitting really well." And she walked out of the room to go set up her playhouse in the front yard.

Too often, we parents get upset at things that do not matter. And too often we sports writers get too caught up in stats. We need to spend more time with players, watch their reactions, and learn more about the teams we cover -- which, admittedly, is difficult for writers covering six (or many more) teams at a time.

I know I'll continue to focus on stats, but I'll be more cautious when I cite them in stories. Like a batter giving herself up for the team by hitting a grounder to second that advances a runner, we all need to give up the easy stat-laced lead for one that considers the more subtle aspects of games. That's the one worth writing and reading.


Blogger Ron Kaplan said...

Well said.

My daughter was in a similar situation on her team: she was the smallest for her age, didn't hit for much power, although an excellent contact hitter and bunter and surprisingly good on defense. And like your daughter, her numbers weren't as impressive as others.
Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, these games are played "on paper." Coaches down the line who don't know these kids might take the easy way out and rely on stats, which obviously don't tell the whole story.
In the professional ranks, however, few care about getting to know the players better, looking at their numbers as the sole basis of their worth.
Having said that, since the odds on our kids joining the pro ranks -- especially, at this point, girls -- is unlikely. Parents should realize and just enjoy the experience as much as possible.

10:38 AM  

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