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There's nothing new in preferring the old

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Arguments pitting new statistics against old have been around nearly as long as baseball itself

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F.C. Lane (via SABR)
F.C. Lane (via SABR)
SABR

Baseball statistics have been invented, tweaked, dismissed and argued over since the first box score appeared in a newspaper in 1858. And as long as these arguments have existed, there has been a clash between those who seek to refine current stats or invent new ones and those who insist that the old ways are superior. This theme appears repeatedly in Alan Schwarz’s excellent book The Numbers Game (a book I cannot recommend strongly enough, by the way). In that book, Schwarz tells the story of F.C. Lane and William Phelon, a story that will likely feel instantly familiar to many of modern fans, despite the fact that it occurred nearly a century ago.

F.C. Lane was a baseball writer who in 1907 founded Baseball Magazine and dedicated himself to challenging conventional wisdom about the game. Besides publishing traditional baseball stories and interviews with players of the day, he delved deep into statistical analysis at a time when the lack of computers made such a pursuit fiendishly difficult.

In 1916, Lane published an article headlined, "Why the System of Batting Averages Should Be Changed." The article can (and should) be read in its entirety here. In it, Lane became the first person to use the analogy comparing hits to coins, saying that as dimes are worth more than nickels, so too should doubles be worth more than singles. As he points out, anyone who proposed a financial system that counted all coins equally "would deserve to be examined as to his mental condition" so why should baseball count all hits equally? Over a period of years, Lane proposed a system that, as FanGraphs noted in 2011, is astonishingly similar to weighted on-base average. Lane predated linear weights by determining that a triple was worth 0.90 of a run and a home run worth 1.16 runs and so on, all with a pencil and paper. He also felt that walks were "the orphan child" of statistics and that their exclusion from batting average was another mark against that particular stat. Lane was clearly ahead of his time, and the amount of manual math he must have had to do boggles the mind.

However, a certain Cincinnati sportswriter wasn’t having it. William Phelon was a generation older than Lane and the baseball editor of the Cincinnati Times-Star (a newspaper that went out of business in 1958). While conceding the point that batting average was far from perfect, Shwarz quotes him writing in reference to Lane’s work, "’The present system is about as good as any, and it seems really impossible’ to do any better." He was critical of Lane's ideas as being too complicated, and, as Joe Posnanski points out, he was probably the first newspaper writer to invent a straw man stat as a means to mock the idea he was trying to discredit, a ploy that would become commonplace a century later.

Essentially what happened here is that somebody proposed a new and more detailed way of comparing baseball players’ value, and a writer for a Cincinnati newspaper dismissed that attempt, preferring the old way of doing things for no real reason other than the fact that it was the old way of doing things. I wonder if Phelon was in the habit of bolding random words and phrases in his columns, too.

Lane, to his credit, did not take Phelon’s pessimism lying down. His response, again via Schwarz: "There are many men who are fond of making an unsupported statement under the apprehension that they have posited an argument…Let’s not make any effort to improve the present system which Mr. Phelon admits is grossly inaccurate. If there is any logic in this contention it escapes our feeble intellect." Nice line. It’s good to know that sarcasm was the go-to response to head-in-the-sand willful ignorance even during the Woodrow Wilson administration.

Again, this argument went down in 1916. Swap out a few of the particulars, and it could play out on Twitter or in the comments section of a blog post today. As frustrating as it can be when old-guard media types reject innovation out of hand because it’s new and scary to them, just remember that these arguments are nearly as old as baseball itself. Let history be the judge.