Saturday, September 27, 2014


Why a parable? Why a duck? Hell, why bother, for that matter? Because somebody's got to do it--and besides, we've got the ticket to ride, and we don't care.

For you see, parables are written by people who once cared not wisely but too well. And so it goes, even though where it's going, no one knows.

Or cares. that that's understood (!), let's move right on to the parable, shall we? Poor Fergus McFollicle has torn out the remaining scraps of hair from his head (you can call it a bald pate if you like, he doesn't care...) trying to keep up with the crescendo of chatter over the end of the Jeter Affair that is (mercifully) wrapping up this weekend. (Imagine if the Yankees had made the post-season!) C.O. Jones reports that Fergus is so frazzled by the clatter he's been forced to track over these past several weeks that he's considering several job offers with the intelligence community simply in order to relax.

So, to distract him long enough so that he won't make yet another ill-advised career decision, we've devised what we've taken to calling "the parable of the hits." Now, hits have taken a hit over the past twenty years: as a baseball statistic they are now considered just about as meaningless as RBIs; but we wanted to look at them in a way that no one seems to have considered during this long rush-to-a-modeled-reality phase that has afflicted baseball--and everything else that's been touched by the "lounge lizard MBA approach" (yes, yes, a quick nod in the direction of our sponsor, "Fright Quotes R Us," a company that doesn't care about anything, either, except how many times a fright quote appears across the cockeyed caravan that we call the Internet).

How to get to parable from the increasingly parabolic? In this case, simple--though tedious, as Forman et fils displays how semi-manual and repetitive some of the research still is when one thinks outside the box. (And Sean might actually care about that, except he's too busy buying boxes of Band-Aids for those clanky defensive "metrics" to which he's committed himself.)

We went through and compiled the yearly list of the active hit leaders beginning with the first year in baseball history that the active hit leader had 2000 or more hits. That occurred in 1888, which happens to be another of those election years in America where a candidate (Benjamin "Don't Call Me Bennie" Harrison) won without carrying the popular vote. (You see, the Electoral College doesn't care, one way or the other.) As we compiled the year-by-year list--all the way to 2014--we kept track of the number of hitters with 2000+ hits, with 2500+ hits, and 3000+ hits.

We wanted to see the ebb and flow of the active hit leader board, if for no other reason than the fact we'd never seen it before: if it had been thought of by anyone, it had been discarded (for reasons we've already covered above).

We also wanted to see how many of the yearly active hits leaders were Hall of Famers, just to see how reliable a statistic hits proves to be, despite its precipitous decline in the minds of the increasingly overzealous.

Now, we'll get to the findings, but first we have to fill a little time here so that there's enough text here to cover the size of these jumbo tables we've created. (Not that you care about our problems...)

So, here (at right) the first fifty-three (53) years of data, from 1888-1930. What we see here are three clear trends. First, twelve of the thirteen players who appear on the active hits leader list (and we include all hitters still active with 3000+ hits in any given year even they aren't actually #1) are in the Hall of Fame. (Only George Van Haltren, who held the #1 slot in 1900-01, missed the Hall. And yes, that's right, nobody cares.)

Second, such a list tends to be dynastic. Cap Anson (ten consecutive years as the active hits leader from 1888-97), Honus Wagner (six years, from 1912-17), and Ty Cobb (eleven years, from 1918-28) dominate this list.

Third, there is a kind of generational component in the ebb and flowof the active leader list. We see big drops in the leader list from time to time as a result  (Anson to Bid McPhee in 1898, for example; another is Wagner to Cobb in 1918, something that might not be immediately apparent, since folks tend to lump those two guys into the Deadball Era--whereas Cobb's dominance of the active hits list lies mostly in the heavy-hitting twenties).

So now let's move on to the next large swatch of active hits leaders data, covering the next fifty-nine years (1931-1989).

As will be clear, the patterns we discussed above are readily apparent here as well.

We see the same high correlation of active hits leaders with Hall of Fame slots (aside from Pete Rose, we have three "unworthies" who slipped their way into the active hit leadership due to various lull points: Doc Cramer back in the late 40s, and two ex-Dodgers, Steve Garvey (1987) and Bill Buckner (1988-89).

And the tendency for dynastic succession interspersed with some generational chaos is also here.

It turns out that Stan Musial was the "man" with the active hits lead for the longest time, pushing his way to the top in 1952 due to a dearth of long-career players at the time (WWII had messed up the generational continuty). He stayed right there for twelve consecutive years until he retired in 1963.

And there was the big drop when that happened: the new active hits leader, Nellie Fox (who held that slot for two years before his retirement in '65) had almost a thousand fewer hits when he became the leader.

The only greater drop occurred in 1986-87, when Garvey took over the top spot from Rose, with close to 1700 fewer hits.

We also see an ebb and flow in the number of active hitters with 2500+ hits during this time frame. Expansion has something to do with it, of course, but there seems to be a clustering effect that takes hold about every 7-8 years. Despite the greater profusion of 3000+ hit players, we only have two instances where we have three of them active in any single year.

So let's push on to the present day (our third and last table covers the years 1990-2014). With this group, we see a few changes in the patterns.

First, there's no dynastic pattern. (At least not until Jeter took over in 2010. He's the first hitter since Rose in 1986 to hold the active hits lead for five or more seasons.)

Second, the pattern of multiple active hitters with 3000+ hit totals is more pronounced--or, at least it is up until 2002. Some have speculated that Jeter's outsized veneration has to do with returning us into an era with a 3000+ hit player. It looks more like a combination of East Coast media hype and a cohesive mainstream press attempting to steamroll the backlash from (mostly) the post-neo set who have operatically overstated Jeter's (very real) defensive shortcomings, but Derek did make the climb to the highest lifetime hit total since Rose (he ranks 6th all-time).

And that just might be a residual reason for all the rancor. We remember how unseemly Rose's pursuit of the hit record was in the mid-80s. There has probably been some transference of those feelings from that event in a certain subset of baseball's collective memory that has glommed onto Jeter. And, to a certain extent, they're right: Jeter is the epitome of a media phony, whose "humility" is manufactured as cheaply and baldly as the products that came from Kathie Lee Gifford's infamous sweatshop.

But some people project even more onto this than is actually there. They waste valuable time and effort on the maelstrom of media spectacle, and by doing so feed further into it. They have created a kind of caring that is untenable and unusable, and that will have little or no effect on those who've swallowed what the media has concocted. If anything, they will actually reinforce it.

In short, they should take a look at this list, and all the other leader lists, and realize that "fame" and "value" (and "fright quotes") are all wispy shadows of a reality that isn't really any more real just because we keep score and have all the numbers that go along with it.

They should let go, and cease to care. They should simply admit that, despite his shortcomings on and off the field, Derek Jeter was a great player and, barring some unforeseen scandal, he is going to be in the Hall of Fame in 2020.

He will be overrated by many. He won't be the first, and he won't be the last. But fixating on him won't solve anything.

We'll return to this data a bit later from a couple of different vantage points. Stay tuned.