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Today's Musings: Numbers

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This is the time of year when we are especially prone to gawking at numbers (since there are no players to gawk at). So the tendency to gauge players by their various stats--a tendency that is already high during the season--seems to rise at VORP speed right about now.

Numbers are great, but as Calvin Trillin so eloquently put it, "I never did very well in math--I could never seem to persuade the teacher that I hadn't meant my answers literally." (I love that quote.) The problem with stats is that they don't tell you how good the player is; they tell you how the player performed, without providing any context for the performance. Did they perform that way because they stink/rule? Because they are young/old? Because they are injured/healthy?

You look at a guy with a 4.46 ERA and 40 BB in 74.2 innings, and you don't get too excited (until you know it's Rich Harden, getting his feet wet on the way to dominance).

You look at a guy with a 12.27 ERA, a 1.91 WHIP, and a .353 BAA and you are understandably underwhelmed (until you know it's Justin Duchscherer before he added the cutter to his repertoire).

You look at a guy with a 2-8 record and a 5.36 ERA in AAA and you're not too hopeful (until you know it's Dan Meyer and he was pitching injured).

So what do we learn from these stats? That 21 year old flame throwers need a season to learn how to pitch. That a reliever needs a third effective pitch to retire major league hitters consistently. That an injured Dan Meyer simply can't get anyone out.

My point is this: Players with horrible stats turn into players with great stats (and vice versa) all the time, so we are wise not to judge players too permanently on the numbers without putting those numbers in lots and lots of context. Otherwise, we run the risk of taking math way too literally, y'know?