Never judge a player by his batting average

Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez may lead the American League in batting average, but batting...

Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez may lead the American League in batting average, but batting average seems to mean squat to baseball's geek-like sabermatricians. (Reuters)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:36 AM ET

TORONTO - I grew up believing that Ted Williams was the greatest hitter of them all, primarily because thatís what my father told me and because he often referenced the year Williams batted .406 and didnít win the MVP.

My dad even lived long enough to see John Olerud and George Brett flirt with .400 in different summers and seemed pleased by that, back when the number seemed to mean more than it does today.

My dad was a baseball freak. The kind who would listen to major league games from the United States on a crackling radio, scoring along on his yellow notepad at home. The kind who would debate any issue at any time. The kind who sat regularly behind home plate at Maple Leaf Stadium, and once when Jack Kent Cooke still owned the International Leagueís Maple Leafs, Cooke was asked about a certain Leaf player by a major league scout.

ďDonít ask me,Ē Cooke said, pointing to my father. ďAsk him. Heís the expert.Ē

I think about my fatherís baseball sensibilities and all he taught me about the game every time I open an email from one of the new generation of statistical zealots who nastily inform me how little I know about baseball. On his behalf, I take offence and wonder what he would think of the sabermatricians and their assault on traditional thinking, and how a sport already reliant on numbers and statistics has somehow gone over the top.

My dad was a stats nut enough himself. He even invented a card game weíd play at home where he had broken down every possible play in a baseball game and turned it into probabilities. It was perfect summertime fodder for a rainy day: A kind of video game of the mind before there were any video games.

But I wonder what heíd think ó and how heíd argue ó in favour of the statistics he grew up devouring.

Today, seemingly the worst offence you can make in writing about or talking about baseball is to reference someoneís batting average. Putting relevance in a playerís batting average has become akin to stripping yourself naked and pretending to be an Emperor. In baseball parlance, it renders you a Philistine of sorts.

Never mind that Major League Baseball annually rewards the leading hitter in both leagues. The number, I am told by email that regularly insults, has been rendered meaningless by the sabermatricians and those of further advanced mathematical and analytical minds.

I asked Alex Anthopoulos on Monday which old school statistic he values the least and he agreed, saying batting average.

He was less clear about which statistics he values the most.

But all that said, itís difficult after a lifetime of thinking one way, putting value in batting average, putting value in the RBIs, watching the game one way, to adapt to numbers that often seem as complex and unexplainable as quarterback ratings. You try and have an open mind about anything thatís new. But that doesnít make it easy. And that doesnít mean you readily accept something, just because opinion is shifting.

Pat Gillick remains my reference point for almost everything thatís baseball. When he looks at a player, he isnít necessarily considering OPS, VORP, WAR, BABIP or any other baseball statistic that was invented after he began pitching in the lowest minor leagues. The first thing he wonders: What kind of athlete is he? What kind of athlete can he be?

Anthopoulos, who some compare to a young Gillick, is more of a stats man. But heís not a numbers geek of any kind. He says he has people in the front office who specialize in statistical breakdowns on players. Anthopoulos, like Gillick, trusts his eye, but also looks at what he calls peripheral statistics, how many times a player walks, how often he strikes out. He is not a worshipping member of the Church of Sabermatrics.

He probably puts more stock in on-base percentage than anything else ó and to think, Hall of Fame voters have been referencing such off-beat numbers as home runs, RBIs and batting average to determine who gets in and who doesnít.

For many of us, itís emotionally uneasy to eliminate the past and welcome a future of numbers that are still not all readily accepted. This is still a new math of sorts, with varying professors, a statistics debate for a classroom of baseball scholars.

One thing Iím glad about: No matter which of the newfangled statistics you choose to believe in, Ted Williams still translates as one of the greatest hitters ever, if not the greatest. And that makes me smile on behalf of my father.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/simmonssteve


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