Simple numbers have certain advantages
Bill James — the Godfather of all the new wonderful sabermetric numbers we have — once wrote that baseball has certain recognizable numbers that become short-hand for fans, even somewhat casual fans.
Examples would be a pitcher who wins 20 games or a batter with a .300 average. Other sports have similar short-hand, a basketball player who averages 20 points a game is a good scorer.
Because professional baseball has been around so long — much longer than other pro team sports — that short-hand extends to career numbers. We know, without having to explain, that 660 career homers is a lot.
By contrast, I know that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the record for the most point scored in an NBA career. I wouldn’t know his point total without looking it up. Heck, I wouldn’t even be in the neighborhood.
But baseball’s relationship with numbers is changing.
The real drama leading up the milestone was how the Yankees weren’t going to pay A-Rod the bonus they agreed to pay him for reaching 660 because the deal was made before the club knew he was involved with PEDs.
A-Rod’s involvement with PEDs is part of the problem. A-Rod himself — except in his early years in Seattle, he has been unloved by baseball fans at large despite his success — is part of the problem.
The general muddying of the career home run leader through PED use in the 1990s and beyond has lessened the accomplishment.
But there is another issue as well: career totals, or counting stats as they are sometimes known, are losing cachet with hard-core fans.
You could see this with Craig Biggio and the Hall of Fame. Biggio had 3,000 career hits, which has always been an automatic for getting into the Hall. Biggio still made it, but there was some real resistance to his candidacy.
Today, we have numbers, such as Wins Above Replacement, that give us better insight to evaluate players than just adding up their stats. I think more sophisticated analysis exposes weaknesses in many players’ resumes.
In the case of Biggio, he was a great player for a short time in 1990s. But he reached 3,000 hits because of longevity. If not for his proximity to a nice round number, Biggio might not have been in the league for his last season or perhaps the season before that.
Nothing new there. Almost all players who are reaching milestones in career counting stats are past their prime. But stats like WAR shine a light for all to see that maybe some of these guys shouldn’t have been on the roster or in the everyday lineup, that they were kind of padding their totals.
The thing is counting stats are easy to understand, especially for casual fans and non- fans. My parents could understand Pete Rose passing Ty Cobb on the career hits list or Henry Aaron breaking Babe Ruth‘s home run record. I am not sure I could have interested them in the concepts of WAR or weighted runs created.
For an event in baseball — or any sport — to capture the nation’s attention it needs to be draw hard-core fans, casual fans and non-fans.
The problem going forward is that if hard-core fans are not enthusiastic about an event, such as a career milestone, others are unlikely to be.
Think of the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight. Fight fans had been craving the matchup for years. Their enthusiasm spilled out to others.
If real boxing fans had taken the attitude of, hey these guy are past their prime, I’ve lost interest, it will be a boring fight, the rest of us could have saved a lot of money on pay-per-view fees.
Unfortunately, we may entering a time when achievements that thrill hard-core baseball fans — say Mike Trout’s WAR total in 2012 — are hard for others to grasp.
And what is easy for others to grasp — career home run totals — no longer moves the hard-core fan base.