STATISTICS AND STREAKS
Numbers are vital to modern sport. Statisticians keep track of anything and everything. Interpreting these numbers is both a science and an art. Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane famously used statistical analysis to build a winning Moneyball team, but there are always those pesky intangibles to factor in. For example, a baseball player could have big RBI numbers, but statistical analysis may show that he doesn’t hit well in the clutch, when the team is behind.
Once upon a time the only hitting statistic was “batting average.” Then we got slugging percentages. Equivalent average. Gross production average. Secondary average. On and on.
For pitchers the key stat was ERA or “Earned Run Average”. (Honestly, how many of you fans know how to figure out ERA?) And now we have Adjusted ERA. Component ERA. Defense-Independent Component ERA. Peripheral ERA. On and on.
But if the old ERA formula is a bit arcane, what about the one for football passing efficiency? I was going to include the formula here, but it would take up the whole column. You’ll just have to look it up.
As to what the numbers mean, I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s bromide. “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics!”
But one thing every fan understands is a streak. The Golden State Warriors went to 24-0 on Dec. 14 when they beat the Celtics in double overtime. No NBA team had ever started a season in such a fashion. The streak was broken the next night, keeping safe the all-time NBA record of 33 straight wins set by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972.
Cal Ripken’s consecutive games played streak of 2632 is considered one of baseball’s greatest records, along with Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, though I think the DiMaggio streak is way over-rated as a significant sports stat. But marketing people understand how to use stats and streaks to create interest. Once a player’s hitting streak reaches 25 or so, then the drama really starts to build. How close can he come to DiMaggio’s record? When Pete Rose had a streak that went beyond 40, sports fans everywhere were caught up in the drama.
Soccer doesn’t have the stat categories that baseball does, but Leicester City’s Jaime Vardy set a record by getting a goal in 11 straight English Premier League matches earlier this year. Given how hard it is to score a goal in that league, that’s a pretty neat streak.
The approaching Super Bowl L (50) reminds me of one of my favorite streaks. Tom Henschel, Larry Jacobson, and Don Crisman have attended every Super Bowl game so far.
Some streaks are of a more negative nature. The converse of the Warrior success story is the Philadelphia 76er streak of consecutive losses. Philly recently lost its 27th regular season NBA game in a row, over two seasons, breaking the record of 26, which was held by … the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 1961 Philadelphia Phillies lost 23 straight games. Poor Philadelphia.
But did you know a Major League Baseball team once lost 13 post-season games in a row? Yep, our beloved Boston Red Sox did that between 1986 and 1995. But a happier streak occurred more recently when the BoSox triumphed in nine straight World Series games, sweeping the Series in 2004 and 2007 and winning Game #1 in 2013.
So what is the saddest streak in sports history? The Chicago Cubs 107 straight years without winning a World Series? Anthony Young going 0-27 pitching for the Mets in 1992-93? The Cal State men’s basketball team losing 207 straight?
I’m going for Michael Potter, who played 14 Major League Baseball games for the Cardinals back in the ‘70’s, going 0-23 at the plate. His .000 batting average is the worst ever for a non-pitcher. But for a while he could take solace from Chicago Cub pitcher and former BoSoxer Jon Lester. As of July 6, Lester was 0-67 lifetime at the plate, the worst ever by far. But history was made that day when Lester hit a ball off the leg of another former BoSox pitcher, John Lackey. Lester beat a throw to first base for his first hit ever as the crowd went wild.
Michael Potter’s .000 average lives on. Feel his pain.
What is the “Mendoza Line?” (Answer follows)
Born Today …
That is to say, sports standouts born on Christmas Eve include former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (1940).
“It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
Shortstop Mario Mendoza had a career batting average of .215. When a player’s batting average falls under that level, the player is said to be “below the Mendoza line.” This is often thought of as the offensive threshold necessary to justify a player remaining in Major League Baseball.
Michael Moffett is a Professor of Sports Management for Plymouth State University and for NHTI-Concord. He recently co-authored the critically-acclaimed and award-winning “FAHIM SPEAKS: A Warrior-Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back” (with the Marines)—which is available through Amazon.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.