Friday, May 4, 2007

Justify Your Existence

The recent passing of David Halberstam led me to re-read The Teammates, Halberstam's book about the friendship between 1940's-era Red Sox Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Dom (Not the Misanthropic One) DiMaggio. The book was written in the twilight of Halberstam's career, and his realization of that fact lent itself well to the overall elegaic tone of the book, which ends with Williams's death in 2003.

Upon re-reading, however, I was actually most fascinated by the book's appendix, which contains career stats for each of the four teammates. More specifically, Williams's 1941 season jumped out at me in a way it hadn't before. Just about every serious baseball fan knows that 1941 was one of the great seasons in baseball history, the year in which Williams hit .406 and threw in a walk-off home run in the All-Star game for good measure, but lost the MVP vote to Joe (Very Much the Misanthropic One) DiMaggio and his 56-game hit streak.

But I hadn't gone back to look at that season since the mainstreaming of sabermetric analysis changed the way we (or at least I) look at stats. Two things from the stat line in Halbertsam's book really stood out once I looked over it with a more modern eye.

First of all, Williams's slash line that year was .406/.553/.735, for a neat little OPS of 1288, and an OPS+ of 235 (league average OPS+ is set at 100, and the stat adjusts for ballpark and era). Barry Bonds and his pharmacist have since teamed up to better those numbers, but they're still boggling to see in print. An OPS+ of 235 means that Williams's bat was more than twice as valuable than that of a league average player that season. That's insane.

But not quite as insane as the second point, which is one that I'd never quite realized before: Williams put up that line in his age-22 season. Twenty-mother-fucking-two.

Can you imagine the media frenzy that would erupt now if some 22 year-old kid showed up and hit .400? Peter Gammons would have (another) stroke. John Kruk's ball would ascend into his abdomen. Joe Morgan would criticize the kid for clogging up the bases (OK, so some things would stay the same). Just for reference, here are the age-22 seasons of some recent phenoms:

Ken Grffey, Jr.: .308 /.361 /.535 (OPS+ 148)
Albert Pujols: .314 /.394 /.561 (OPS+ 155)
Miguel Cabrera: .323 /.385/ .561 (OPS + 151)

Nifty and all, but not even close to Ted's season. That kind of work is essentially unprecedented and unduplicated for that point in the development curve (which tends to peak around age 27 for ballplayers as a population).

So, what does all this have to do with a fantasy baseball blog? Well, not a ton, honestly. But I think there is something here that points to the allure of fantasy baseball. I can't think of another sport where someone can get a real charge out of looking over a line in a player's career stats.

This is not a particularly original thought, but the historical language of baseball is numbers. Similarly, the language of fantasy baseball is almost entirely numbers (except here at the GRBG, where it's a mix of numbers and dick jokes). That means there's an overlap between an appreciation of the history of real baseball and an appreciation of the here-and-now of fantasy baseball that I think a lot of people undersell. And that's why we here at the GRBG don't mind focusing so heavily on fantasy stuff--at the end of the day, it's all just thinking about baseball.

I recognize that, coming as it does on the heels of Ang's increasingly influential Derby previews, this post makes a bunch of quasi-serious ones in a row. Accordingly, the GRBG promises that the next post will contain at least one Ryan "The Cum" Dempster joke to compensate. You gotta know your strengths.


El Angelo said...

Who give Rick Reilly privileges to post on this blog?

Teddy said...

No, no, Reilly would have finished it up with "I don't know about you, but I'd take Williams or Halbertstam for a teammate any time."

I ended with a cum dumpster joke. What can I say, styles make fights.