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How Math and Baseball Are Connected

By Shane Staret on 2017-11-11

Math and baseball. Two things that seem completely unrelated to one another. When someone says “math” you may cringe when thinking about all your past math tests or you may think of a bunch of nerds sitting around with pencil protectors having fun doing god knows what with a bunch of numbers.

And what about when you hear “baseball”? You probably think of your favorite sports team or you may think of someone not really good at math. It seems like these two things are polar opposites. But in reality, math has changed the way many sports are played.

Did you know that there only used to be two statistics in baseball that were really kept track of? They were batting average and earned run average. Nowadays, there are a whole lot more with the invention of sabermetrics‒defined as the empirical analysis of baseball. The idea of sabermetrics and many of its early findings within the mid 20th century were actually rejected by the baseball community at first. The most famous and controversial sabermetric book was released in 1964 titled Percentage Baseball by Earnshaw Cook. It was ridiculed at first, as it questioned many popular baseball plays at the time like the sacrifice bunt and the hit and run, along with other elements of baseball like the relief pitcher and the batting order. Seeing how these were traditional elements of baseball, of course people argued against Cook.

You can argue against a person, but you can’t argue against mathematics. Except if the math is mostly incorrect or exaggerated...which Cook’s was. You see, Cook was actually wrong about most things. Even though he was able to properly conclude that the sacrifice bunt was inefficient, he apparently exaggerated many of his findings in order to make his arguments more valid. George Lindsey, a baseball statistician at the time, was quoted as saying that Percentage Baseball should be “kept out of the sight of students of the theory of probability.” Cook probably flubbed his numbers because he knew he could get away with it since sabermetrics was a developing field.

Cook’s findings were not what made him influential, rather it was the fact that he brought advanced baseball statistics to national attention. This allowed fans and other statisticians to objectively research the game of baseball and to truly question if baseball was truly being played at the most efficient level possible. Was a pitcher’s success strictly due to skill or was luck and random chance largely to blame? Should the most powerful hitter always bat fourth? While Earnshaw’s research may have been flawed, he got people questioning whether or not traditional strategies in baseball were flawless.

In 2001, a sabertician named Voros McCracken published a book titled Pitching and Defense, How Much Control Do Hurlers Have? in which he proclaimed that nearly all pitchers had a similar percentage of balls put into play that turned out to be hits‒regardless of their alleged level of talent. Of course, we would suspect that balls hit off of better pitchers would be weaker as they were hit in areas of the strike zone that were less than ideal. But that simply was not the case. Rather, McCracken claimed that random chance had a lot more to do with a ball in play turning into a hit than a pitcher’s ability to throw the ball. So in reality, the pitcher's “talent” really did not have much value at all, rather his defenders ability to properly catch or run down a ball was much more important. This revelation led to professional teams putting much more value on limiting walks and trying to get more strikeouts because a pitcher had little influence over a ball that was put into play. Over time, the percentage of strikeouts and walks per plate appearance have gone up and gone down respectively. Obviously, this discovery is not the only reason for this change over time, however, it shows that sabermetrics certainly can influence how the sport of baseball is played.

While sabermetrics has introduced new statistics that are kept track of in baseball, the one thing that it has not been able to answer yet is how to lower the number of injuries a player experiences. With how many mathematical advancements there have been within baseball and with the devastating effects of injuries‒particularly on pitchers‒you would think that sabermetrics could find ways to drastically reduce chance of injury. The hope was that as teams began to implement mathematically sound methods to take care of their starting pitchers, injury rates would go down. But, they have actually increased since the 90s. It could be entirely possible that the act of throwing a baseball above 90 MPH is simply damaging to the arm over time, even if a pitcher only throws about 80 pitches twice a week.

An interesting theory presented by FiveThirtyEight is that the large amounts of injuries seen at the professional level are due to survivorship bias. Players who had poor mechanics or habits when they were younger were more to not make it to the MLB, while those who had near flawless pitching mechanics made it. Pitching at the professional level is much more competitive and player’s strain their arms much more greatly to throw harder. Therefore, younger players entering the league are working harder than they ever had before, which could lead to injury.

Math has certainly changed the way baseball prospects are looked at, as managers and scouts have changed what they look for in a player due to the development of sabermetrics. While this field isn’t perfect and it hasn’t been able to reduce the number of injuries pitchers face, it has certainly influenced the way the game has played. So much so, that people are beginning to wonder if the game is being perfected to the point where it is no longer fun to watch anymore. What do you think? Personally, I thought the concept of baseball was always boring...I mean the average game lasts about three hours but only has about eighteen minutes of action. I wouldn’t exactly call that fun to watch.

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