Numbers Don’t Lie, But What Do They Tell Us?

Updated: February 15, 2013

After Jose Canseco became the first member of the 40 HR/40 Steals club in 1988, Mickey Mantle remarked, “Hell, If I’d known 40–40 was going to be a big deal, I’d have done it every year!”

I was reminded of this comment this week as NBA fans were spellbound while LeBron James wove a streak of 6 games in which he scored at least 30 points with 60% shooting. This was touted as an “NBA record run”. Funny, I’d never heard of that record before.

A day doesn’t go by on ESPN SportCenter where we don’t encounter a stat that we’ve never heard of before…”Thomas is the first player to average 23 points, 14 assists and 3 steals in his away games over an entire season’…Oscar Robertson probably could’ve done it if it ever occurred to him. Or ‘Grimsby was the fastest to 100 HR and 40 steals while committing fewer than 10 errors in MLB history’. Huh?

Photo by Keith Allison

Photo by Keith Allison

Where is this coming from?…from the proliferation of sports talk shows and their stables of stat geeks. The talk shows need topics and the stat geeks need to cut stats in new ways to justify themselves.

A staple of these talk shows is the debate format which often focuses on who is better, whether ranking teams or players. How riveting is the ‘NFL Power Ranking’ week-to-week? NFL teams are notoriously up and down over the course of the season. And the past 3 Super Bowl champs-the Ravens, Giants, and Packers-were left for dead around week 13 before they caught fire. So what did the Power Ranking tell us about them?

And apparently we like to hear about which player is better…that is, comparing a guy in mid-career to a retired Hall-of-Famer. This past week we were treated to comparisons of LeBron James to Michael Jordan. Never mind that LeBron may not be halfway done, or who knows, he could walk away in 3 years. No problemo, we’ve got enough relevant stats to project and put on a good debate. Really?

On the other hand we also heard from Randy Moss during Super Bowl week that he was better than Jerry Rice. Of course since Moss doesn’t have the stats to back it up he said, ”I don’t really live on numbers. I really live on impact and what you’re able to do out on the field.” Randy may not be self-aware but he seems to know if the stats don’t support your position, change the topic.

That’s what most of these debates devolve into when the stats don’t prove your point…’but Johnson was a great leader’…’Thornton could’ve had 200 more HRs but he played his home games in Death Valley’…’MJ could’ve had 2 more rings if he didn’t take off to play baseball’. One valid point is the time lost to military service (add 5 prime years to Ted Williams’ numbers and they’re staggering).

Photo from

Photo from

Debating historical players has always been a staple of good barstool chatter. But can we limit it to guys who have a complete body of work? Meanwhile can’t we just enjoy what they do, or boo them if you prefer, and wait to see how the story plays out? And can we stop referring to guys as Future-Hall-of-Famers?

We always want to romanticize our own experience and believe it’s just the best. So the heroes of our young fan life by definition are the best all-time…they were more developed and evolved than whatever came before, and now they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

It’s hard not to get drawn into a good sports debate, especially if the topic is ‘your guy’. That’s my first inclination. Next thought is, never mind, this is a pointless argument put on by guys filling air time for ratings often supported by inane stats. Step away from the laptop/TV/radio and resume life. If I want to believe Roberto Clemente was the best because he was ‘my guy’ in my youth, that’s all that really matters.

This post was written by

Dave Graziano – who has written posts on Big Dog Sports Blog.
Short Hills, NJ USA


One Comment

  1. Dave

    March 1, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    Today’s ESPN silly stat ‘record’ had to do with Joakim Noah’s performance last night…the first time in NBA HISTORY that a player exceeded 20 points, 20 rebounds, 10 blocks and 65% shooting! Now what does that mean besides he had a great game?

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