Wednesday, 13 March 2013

One In A Thousand - Nap

The mention yesterday of Stanley Matthews playing one league game at the age of 50 reminded me of something I read about round numbers and the importance attached to them. It seems highly likely that Matthews decided well in advance to hang up his boots having reached 50. It looks so much more impressive than retiring age 49 and 360 days, in contrast to most of us who would probably much rather retire as soon as possible rather than work past age 50, 60 or 70 if we didn't have to.

And New Year's Eve was far more celebrated in 1999 than it was in 2000, never mind that 2001 was the first day of the third millennium, and not 1.1.00. Incidentally, the Embankment was a lot quieter on 31.12.00 than it was a year earlier.   

There is an amazing statistic from the statistic-heavy sport of baseball concerning hitting percentage. Not all readers will be familiar with baseball, but a hitting average of .300 (how the Americans record 30%) is something of a milestone separating a star player from a more ordinary one. Hit .299 and you are a relative failure, but hit .300 and you are a star. The difference in perception is huge, considering that the difference amounts to one extra hit per 1,000 at bats, and with salaries at the level they are these days, an average of .300 gives a player an estimated 2% more in salary than a .299 hitter. And with the average salary of a .300 hitter in the $6.5 to $7 million range, that's a fair amount.

So what is this amazing statistic I hear you ask?

A study of the final day of the seasons 1975 to 2009 looked at players entering that game on .299 and .300. When it comes to calculating averages, a 'walk' (look it up if you need to) doesn't count, and the study found that players on .300 walked far more often than players on .299 and .298 who swung away trying to get that hit to put them at .300. .300 hitters walked 14.5% of the time, .298 hitters walked 5.8% of the time, and hitters on .299?

Players hitting .299 have NEVER walked in their final plate appearance of the season over a quarter of a century. NEVER, meaning 'not ever'.

Having told you this statistic, I will be very disappointed to hear that this run ended in 2010, 2011 or 2012 after the study, but even if it has, it clearly shows how that .001 influences decisions far more than it should.

The study also noted that players on .300 are far more likely to take the last game off and preserve that number than a .299 hitter, who stays in the game to the final at-bat.

The outcome of this is that on the penultimate day of the season, .300 and .299 hitters is almost identical (0.8% and 0.79% of hitters respectively) but at season's end one day later, the numbers are 1.4% and 0.4% respectively.  

You'll see a similar thing in other sports too. In basketball, players getting close to a personal best or a double-double or a triple-double will usually stay in games long after they would normally have been pulled, and not only that, but their team-mates will play differently to try to ensure the target in question is reached.

On the subject of final day drama, one of the biggest controversies in baseball occurred during the 1910 batting race between the disliked Ty Cobb (a 'virulent' racist detested by opponents and team-mates alike) and the popular Nap (Napoleon) Lajoie. Wikipedia tells the story far better than I could, although to be honest, I don't remember the details too clearly after all this time.  
The Lajoie-Cobb rivalry reached a peak in 1910, when Hugh Chalmers of the Chalmers Auto Company (a direct predecessor to modern-day Chrysler) promised a Chalmers 30 Roadster to the season's batting champion. The public became fascinated with the daily statistics of Lajoie and Cobb in what became known as the Chalmers Race. Sports bettors, who by this time followed the sport attentively, also followed the daily reports with interest. Cobb took the final two games, a doubleheader, off against the Chicago White Sox, confident that his average was safe and would allow him to win the AL batting title—unless Lajoie had a near-perfect final day. Going into the final game of the season, Cobb's average led Lajoie's, .383 to .376.
Lajoie and the Naps faced a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns' pitching staff in Sportsman's Park, Cleveland's final two games of the season. After a sun-hindered fly ball went for a stand-up triple and another batted ball landed for a cleanly hit single, Lajoie had five subsequent hits – bunt singles dropped in front of rookie third baseman Red Corriden (whose normal position was shortstop), who was playing closer to shallow left field on orders, it has been suggested, of manager Jack O'Connor. In his second at bat of the second game, Lajoie dropped another bunt but the runner on first base advanced. According to the rules of that time, the hit was scored a sacrifice and thus, Lajoie did not record an official at bat. He finished the doubleheader a perfect 8-for-8 and his batting average increased to .384, .001 greater than Cobb's mark.
Although the AL office had not officially announced the results, Lajoie began to receive congratulations from fans and players, including eight of Cobb's Detroit Tigers teammates. Most players in the league preferred Lajoie's personality to that of Cobb's. Coach Harry Howell is reported to have said to the game's official scorer, E.V. Parish, "to do well by Lajoie." 
Howell was reported to have offered a bribe to Parish, which described in Al Stump's biography of Cobb, was a $40 ($963 in current dollar terms) suit. Parish refused the offer and the resulting uproar ended in O'Connor and Howell being banned from the major leagues by AL President Ban Johnson.
Johnson had the matter investigated, and after having Cobb's September 24 doubleheader statistics re-checked, discovered only the first game of Cobb's statistics had been scored, but not the second game, in which he went 2-for-3. This put Cobb's suggested actual batting average at .385, again ahead of Lajoie's. In the end, Johnson ruled that Lajoie's sacrifice bunt should have been recorded as a hit (which would have allowed him to go 9-for-9) but that Cobb's batting average was greater, recording 196 hits in 509 at bats to Lajoie's 227 hits in 591 at bats. 
Johnson asked Chalmers if his company would award an automobile to each player, to which he agreed. Initially Lajoie refused the car but eventually relented and accepted it. Cobb said, "I am glad that I won an automobile and am especially pleased that Lajoie also gets one. I have no one to criticize. I know the games were on the square and I am greatly pleased to know that the affair has ended so nicely." 
Lajoie said, "I am quite satisfied that I was treated fairly in every way by President Johnson, but I think the scorer at St. Louis made an error in not crediting me with nine hits. However, I am glad that the controversy is over. I have the greatest respect for Cobb as a batter and am glad of his success."
The Sporting News published an article written by Paul MacFarlane in its April 18, 1981, issue where historian Pete Palmer had discovered that while Cobb's September 24 doubleheader was not correctly tabulated (perhaps purposefully) according to the correct date, the second game's statistics were in fact included in the next day's ledger, thus incorrectly recording a second 2-for-3 performance from Cobb which meant Lajoe's average was greater. Author James Vail wrote in 2001:
"To date, it seems that no one knows for certain who won that 1910 batting title. Total Baseball, which is now the official major-league record, lists both men at .384 in its seasonal section, but its player register has Lajoie at the same number and Cobb at .383—so even the various editors of that source do not, or cannot, agree." Jon Wertheim wrote in Sports Illustrated 100 years after the event, "The statistics for the Detroit players had been crossed out and nullified. Every Detroit player, that is, except one: Ty Cobb. It takes something less than a detective to arrive at the conclusion that at some point Johnson (or someone in the league office, anyway) realized the error and decided to conceal it."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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