I was recently contacted by Bryan Johnson about a couple of his old sabermetrics articles for the Toronto Globe and Mail in the ’80s that I’d presented here. You can click here to learn what he said about how he came to write his column for the paper, and why he stopped writing it.
The exchange inspired to me go looking once more for some old journalism on sabermetrics. Here’s excerpts from one of those articles: Thomas Boswell unveiling his Total Average statistic in his Washington Post column on Sunday, April 30, 1978:
Since the 1880s debate over whether a walk was truly “as good as a hit” in figuring a batting average, one statistical puzzle has been the granddaddy of them all: How do you measure a player’s total offensive ability?
All arguments on pitching and fielding numbers are tepid beside this.
How in the name of long division can batting average, slugging average , on-base percentage, stolen-base percentage and other parameters be consolidated into one supreme statistic? How can players with skills and styles as disparate as George Foster and Rod Carew, for instance, be compared?
Batting eye, raw power, place hitting for average , running the bases – all have their rightful place in an evaluation of total offensive worth.
But how can their relative worth be balanced? And how can a player’s performance be, at least partially, isolated from the quality of his teammates?
Gather round and start getting annoyed. That all-encompassing offensive stat – which incorporates batting, slugging, bunting, drawing walks, stealing bases – has arrived.
Can it the Total Average . Or call it worse. Even this writer, who cooked it up and who believes in it, gets nervous around it.
Why? Because the Total Average says that:
Rod Carew is overrated. Minnesota’s .388 hitter was only tied with Reggie Jackson as the seventh best offensive player in baseball last season.
Los Angeles Manager Tom Lasorda was right when he insisted that only Cincinatti’s George Foster had had a better season than his Reggie Smith.
Oscar Gamble, Mitchell Page, Andre Thornton, Ken Singleton and Toby Harrah were among the 15 most productive players in the game on a per-at-bat basis.
Big names like Jackson, Steve Garvey, Pete Rose and many others finished far lower in total offensive contribution last year than Hal McRae, Harrah, Ron LeFlore, Jose Cruz and the rookie Page.
Baseball is packed with incredibly overrated players, especially those playing either in major cities or with World Series teams, or both.
Boswell added: “The most significant aspect of the Total Average is its simplicity. Anyone can prove almost anything with a sheet of year-end stats and a pocket calculator.”
And that Joe “Morgan is the perfect example of how versatility is better for Total Average than one dominant skill.
“Though Morgan’s .320 average, 27 homers and 111 RBI in 1976 didn’t come close to any of the triple crown championships, only one player in baseball came within 99 points of his .681 Total Average because of his 60 steals, 114 walks and .576 slugging average.
“In 1975 Morgan did not lead the majors in any category – except Total Average.
“Yet, in both years, Morgan was the league MVP and acclaimed as the best player in baseball. Thus, we see now Total Average gives a statistical reinforcement to common sense.”
He concluded: “Certainly no one average – not even our new friend Total – is the Rosetta stone to baseball’s century of statistical hieroglyphics. No true fan would want baseball’s rich tradition of esoteric argument to be diminished. Nevertheless, Total Average may come closer to clarifying disputes than any single statistic before it.”
Boswell wrote an expansion of his argument for Total Average in one of his books, I believe How Life Imitates the World Series. I guess he’s now seen by many sabermetrics people as a fuddy-duddy in the old guard of sports writers, but 30 years ago he was one of the revolutionaries too.