Thomas Boswell Unveiling His Total Average Statistic

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.

Published in: on April 11, 2010 at 7:50 am  Comments (2)  
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The 1990 Lockout

The spring training lockout of 1990 is one of the most obscure disputes in the  long, early ’70s through 1995 stretch of sharp bitterness between MLB players and management. As Thomas Boswell wrote just after the lockout ended, “Can anyone remember the details of the baseball strike of 1985, which lasted two days? How about the spring lockout of ’76, which Bowie Kuhn ended by fiat?

For that matter, do most fans even recall that the ’72 season was shortened by a week because of a strike? No team played more than 156 games that season – yet Steve Carlton won 27 games and had a 1.97 ERA, 30 complete games and 310 strikeouts.

If history is any umpire, then the lockout of 1990 – all 32 infuriating, unnecessary days – ultimately will be a comparably trivial footnote. At worst, every team will play 158 games this season. That’s enough to avoid an asterisk.

So what if the season doesn’t start until April 9? That’s earlier than it began during the sport’s first century. As for the idea of a three-week spring training, it might be an entertaining novelty – as long as you aren’t a pitcher who ruins his arm.”

But, given that the lockout was one of the strongest links that led to the strike of 1994, here’s some more information about it. The lockout, which wiped out most of the 1990 spring training, wound up with the owners giving away 17 percent of the salary arbitration concession they won from the union in the 1985 strike by misrepresenting their profits.

Commissioner Fay Vincent said: “Whatever damage had been done doesn’t seem to me to be very significant at the moment. People are happy that baseball is about to be played and they are very forgiving.

“I think baseball is fine. I think the fans are supportive and I believe we’ll have a terrific year. The fans are baseball and the best part of baseball is the terrific tie between the game and the American public.

“I worried a lot that we wouldn’t have a season. I worried that the season might be substantially impaired. From where I sit I feel very fortunate for baseball that we avoided any major incursion into the season.”

More ominously, Vincent also said: “I think it’s important that we work month in and month out on labor relations.  As you know, the agreement is the most visible part of labor relations but not the most important.

“I don’t think I can say with great confidence there won’t be a problem in four years. All I can say is that if people are bright, and I hope they are, they will work to avoid it.”

Seattle Mariners principal owner Jeff Smulyan added: “Nothing in the negotiations helped baseball in Seattle. Maybe this was a waste of time, but in four years, if the same approach applies, it’s going to be worse than a waste of time, it’s going to be a disaster.

“I’m a student of labor relations, and this wasn’t about a food-on-the-table issue. Negotiations were never elevated beyond the I’ll-get-you position. Everybody lost in this one. You can’t negotiate when your goal is to murder the other guy.”

And Tom Candiotti said: “I don’t think it was worth it. By missing opening day, all it did was create animosity with the fans, owners and players. We’ve got to learn to live harmoniously with each other.”

Bud Selig, then-president of the Milwaukee Brewers and one of the dozen or so owners behind the lockout, claimed: “We’re all sorry for the inconvenience to the fans. We truly hope this is the first step toward a reasonable, more mature relationship between the clubs and the union.” It’s left to the fan to judge whether Selig’s actions over the last 20 years back up this claim.

Boswell commented that “baseball’s labor dynamic is now all too familiar. The owners create an 11th-hour crisis situation for the purpose of testing the union’s solidarity. The union then responds with a spectacularly convincing yawn.

The owners, certain the union’s resolve is as cold and hard as Marvin Miller’s smile, fold their bluff. The players win a minor victory – in this case a teeny-tiny rollback in salary arbitration eligibility. The fans get their chains jerked big time. And the image of the sport gets a black eye.”