Monday, February 21

Help me,'re my only hope

I've heard rumors that uniformed professionals are playing baseball in various warm locales in the United States, and from the confines of snowy Norway, this development pleases me. I'm already looking forward to driving home from work on Friday and seeing a smiling Chief Wahoo on a banner proclaiming "46 Days Until Opening Day." You'd best believe FCF will be at that one in full force.

In the meantime, let's get back into thinking about the National Pastime. I've decided to get into the swing of things by deconstructing one of my least favorite sports cliches: the one about baseball being a "game of failure." I've heard this repeated mindlessly enough times as if it's some literary or philosophical chestnut that I finally feel the need to set the record straight.

The typical expression is something along the lines of, "what other line of work can you fail in 2 out of 3 times and still be considered a success?" As witty and hilarious as this may be, it doesn't really hold up. Here's why.

The other side of the equation
If hitters are "failing" 2 out of 3 times, does that not mean pitchers are succeeding 2 out of 3 times? Doesn't this make it a "game of success" when you consider it from a defensive perspective? Also, fielders typically sport fielding percentages of well over 90% - that seems rather successful to me as well. It seems unnecessarily negative to focus only on the low nature of batting averages.

Measuring success
Whoever said that failing two out of three times is a good record of achievement for a batter, anyway? Like so much classical wisdom about baseball, this one needs to be updated in light of our modern understanding of the statstical underpinnings of the game. I'll grant you that the .333 batting average the quipster is romanticizing is a solid job at the plate, but if you only reach base 1 in 3 times,'re an almost exactly average MLB hitter. This simplistic notion of failure completely disregards the various degrees of success a batsman can have outside of the uninstructive constraints of batting average: there's a walk, an out that advances a runner, and of course extra-base hits. If you're on my baseball club, you can "fail" four out of five times as far as I'm concerned, as long as you draw 100 walks and every time you "succeed" the ball goes over the fence.

Cross-sport comparison
Basketball players on average hit a little bit less than 50% of their field goals, and less than 40% of their three-point attempts. Hockey players find the net with less than twenty percent of their shots. Soccer players fail to score a goal almost literally every single time they touch the ball. So why is it only batters who are singled out as failures? I know the question people ask in this fashion is supposed to be rhetorical, but I'm fond of challenging rhetorical questions, and in the world of sports, there are plenty of places where "failing" two out of three times makes you a star. Show me an NHL'er who scores on 1 in 3 shots (Mario Lemieux career: 19.2%), and I'll show you the greatest player who ever laced up a pair of skates.

So next time you hear this particular piece of wisdom, relate some of these facts to the speaker. Also tell him: Go Tribe!

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