Better to judge baseball talent with the naked eye

Posted: February 08, 2013

ONCE, WHEN the Internet was not as friendly and we sought to observe athletic greatness rather than quantify it, sports was a simpler world. You watched under well-lit skies and inside of electrified arenas and amid pivotal moments and you did not need to look anything up afterward to understand what you saw.

There were numbers guys back then of course, keeping their own stats in notebooks, reciting them at the lunch table or later, at the end of the bar. They were interesting and, as long as they didn't go on too long or get too wrapped up in minutia, welcome too.

Those guys are our high priests now, no doubt about it. Whether they are exuberantly noting a baseball player's WAR or WHIP, a hockey guy's plus-minus, a quarterback's "rating," they seek to quantify exactly what you saw.

And if it's not exactly what you saw?

They tell you that you are mistaken.

They turn a blind eye to your naked one.

Thing is, we believe them now when they recreate reality. The Internet has allowed them to multiply unchecked, like Canada Geese. The door into mainstream has been kicked open for every cellar dweller with a laptop.

You know these guys. They get all frothy-mouthed each time a new acronym is invented to try and quantify value, yet show little or no reaction when a difficult doubleplay is executed, or a well-thrown pitch is fought off by a batter down in the count. They feed off each other, creating a culture more hell-bent in arguing a debatable point than reflecting what you actually saw.

I was watching a smart debate recently on the Major League Baseball Network about the steroid era and the Hall of Fame when Al Leiter brought Jack Morris' name up. Morris, said Leiter, taught him the value of "pitching to the scoreboard" and not the stat sheet. Leiter said it was the best advice he ever got.

Maybe to win big World Series games and championships, but not necessarily the approval of the stat mavens that will rank your status all time. I brought Morris' name up in a dinnertime press room Hall of Fame discussion the other day and a numbers guy immediately reeled his lifetime ERA of 3.91 off the top of his head, spitting it out almost in disgust to discredit Morris' candidacy.

Push aside for a moment that his ERA ballooned 20 points over his last two seasons as he tried to milk one last big paycheck out of his abilities. Thing is, I saw Jack Morris pitch, and he was great. Great enough for the Hall of Fame? All I know is there are less great players in there.

It's one reason I don't use my Hall of Fame ballot. Statistics, even the more contrived ones, have value. Greatness, though, is a naked-eye assessment. If they're going to argue that Morris or even Curt Schilling are less significant than guys already in there, guys like Bert Blyleven, then they ought to call the place the Baseball Bureau of Statistics. Because to the naked eye, it's absurd.

Here's another thing that bothers me: The valuation of regular-season statistics over postseason ones. Some of the game's more selfish players have recorded some gaudy regular-season statistics. Others have built their impressive résumé playing for poor teams in pressureless environments. Statistics built in the AL Central over the last two decades are not equal to statistics built in the AL East.

That's a naked-eye assessment. I'd probably put Morris into the Hall too, probably for the same reason stat mavens would throw him out. He won more games than anyone in the 1980s, but many, including our own David Murphy, have compellingly argued that a pitcher's won-lost record is among baseball's greatest irrelevancies.

Murphy has mentioned Cliff Lee's 2012 season as recent evidence of this. There is no doubt that Lee deserved better. But the naked eye, the one that watched the season in its entirety, recalls at least a handful of times when he received substantial leads and could not hold them. Morris would say, I suppose, that in those cases, he failed to pitch to the scoreboard.

Clearly, statistics are not irrelevant. But they should be used to support the naked eye, not create an alternate reality. Discussing Schilling's Hall of Fame candidacy, a stat disciple mentioned that his win total averaged out to 12 games a season.

I'm with Murphy on this one. It might be one of the most irrelevant statistics one can offer about the former Phillies ace.

Schilling, by the way, was one of the first athletes I ever saw use a laptop inside of a clubhouse. He kept tabs on every umpire's strike zone, what pitches got batters out, what sequences he had used the last time he faced that night's team.

It's one of the tools that made him great. But if he ever does get a plaque in Cooperstown, I doubt it will mention that.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: philly.com/

SamDonnellon

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