Friday, June 17, 2005

September 2003

Numbers in context: The Difference Between Fabulous & Feeble

By Matt Baron

With the college and professional football seasons getting under way, you will have to excuse this spin on a gridiron cliché: Telling stories effectively and powerfully is a context sport.

And perhaps more than any other element, numbers provide one of the easiest ways to spot the fabulous or feeble use of context.

The police department recently hired five new officers? There were 20 fender-benders on your town’s snowy roads yesterday? The city council is looking to cut $1.7 million from its budget?

Unless you note how many officers the department already has; unless you indicate a typical day’s fender-bender count; and unless you provide the overall budget tally, then you have painted a world that exists in a vacuum at best and, at worst, can veer into the distorted.

If you fail to put figures in a proper context, then it figures that your story will fail to properly communicate.

The issue comes to mind with some of the recent buzz around Barry Bonds, the most imposing batter in professional baseball.

Two years ago, he so intimidated pitchers that they avoided pitching to him at a record pace and he walked 177 times. Amazingly, he still slugged a record 73 home runs.

Last year, Bonds focused on a lofty batting average, and his .370 mark made him, at 38, the oldest player in history to win the batting title for the first time. At the same time, he slammed another 46 home runs and breezed past his record for walks with 198 bases on balls—an astounding figure when you consider that the next-most walked player had 135 and only 12 others had even half as many walks as Bonds.

Certainly, the San Francisco Giant outfielder posts huge numbers. But it doesn’t mean that he knows how to put those numbers in context. Earlier this summer, regarding his pursuit of Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record, Bonds made this swing-and-miss comment:

“The only number I care about is Babe Ruth’s. Because as a left-handed hitter, I wiped him out. That’s it. And in the baseball world, Babe Ruth’s everything, right? I got his slugging percentage and I’ll take his home runs and that’s it. Don’t talk about him no more.”

With all due respect to Bonds, we really ought to chat just a bit about Ruth. Stated another way, let’s put Ruth’s and Bond’s careers in context. In Ruth’s career, he hit a home run every 12 at bats. Depending on the season, his peers, on average, hit a home run every 100 at bats, meaning Ruth outpaced them eight- or 10-fold in a typical season.

In 1920, Ruth’s 54 home runs were more than all but one of the other 15 Major League teams. As impressive as he has been, Bonds has never been even half as dominant as Ruth. And he certainly has never outhomered an entire opposing team.

Bottom line: Ruth was posting huge numbers in an era when nobody came close to putting up similar numbers. Bonds is playing at a time when home runs are much more common. As of Sept. 1, despite needing fewer at bats between home runs than Ruth ever did, Bonds was still not even quadrupling the pace of his peers. Aside from small pockets of time at the start and end of his career, Ruth never slumped so badly as that.

It’s probably not fair to jump all over Bonds. Yes, his comments are the intellectual equivalent of a hanging curve ball, just ripe for knocking out of the park. But others, who really should know better, often slip under the radar with statements void of any context.

For instance, as I write this column, a national radio announcer declared that Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox, stepping to the plate to face a right-handed pitcher, had hit 18 of his 23 home runs this season against those throwing right.

It’s ominous sounding enough—hey, 78 percent of his homers are off right-handers! A little research, however, reveals that 75 percent of his at bats have come against righties. Hmm, maybe that explains why those are the ones who so often surrender homers to him? What’s more, the announcer failed to note that Garciaparra’s batting average against lefties, .381, was much better than his .304 mark against righthanders. Based on that stat, maybe he’d have been better off facing a southpaw.

(By the way, Garciaparra was walked intentionally, though not because the pitcher got wind of the announcer’s windy stat.)

While sports lend themselves to exhaustive contortions, rampant neglect and shameless abuse and misuse of numbers, the context conundrum courses through any story you may encounter in business, entertainment, politics and beyond.

As you face these would-be “con” jobs, just be sure to probe with questions that will add sorely needed “text.”

BARON BIT: To see why Bonds’ 73-homer season, adjusted for home run inflation, is not even in the all-time top 50, read:

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