D.L. STEWART: Enjoying Major League Baseball by the numbers

In the latest example of fascinating Major League Baseball statistics, studies show that a 29-year-old centerfielder saves an average of four fewer runs per season than a 28-year-old centerfielder, The New York Times reported this week.

While you may wonder why a prestigious newspaper would use valuable space to report stuff like that, baseball fans take such statistics seriously. And no statistic is too trivial to report. Somewhere in baseball’s huge trove of baseball records, there may be one for “Most errors committed by a left-handed shortstop born in Alaska.” (This is a hyperbolic example. Only 11 of the 18,672 players in the history of baseball was born in Alaska, none of whom was a left-handed shortstop.)

Talking about statistics gives fans something to do when nothing’s happening on the field, which is most of the time. In an average three-hour game, according to one study, there are nine minutes and 45 seconds of actual activity. Unless you count players jogging to and from their dugouts as actual activity.

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Now that most baseball fans in the stands are armed with cellphones, they don’t have to wait to get home to their computers to savor the thrill of baseball statistics. Instead of watching a hitter stand in the batter’s box and not swing at a pitch, they can Google the record for standing in a batter’s box and not swinging at a pitch. Which, of course, was set last season by Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, who imitated a statue for seven consecutive at bats in a 13-inning game.

Devout fans can use authentic statistics such as the following to engage in meaningful dialogues.

Fan No. 1: “Did you know Felix Hernandez is the only pitcher who made 16 consecutive starts, pitched at least seven innings and gave up two or fewer runs?”

Fan No. 2: “Duh. But did you know that three pitchers who started 13 games and lasted fewer than seven games allowed at least three runs?”

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The downside about getting engrossed in these statistics at the ballpark is that fans may not pay attention to the 9:45 of action on the field. In 1957, Philadelphia’s Richie Ashburn set the record for most foul balls hitting the same fan (2); the first one struck spectator Alice Roth in the face, breaking her nose. As they carted her away for medical attention, Ashburn hit another foul ball, which struck the unfortunate Ms. Roth in the leg, breaking a bone in her knee.

My guess is that she had been distracted by talking to the fan next to her about Cleveland’s Bob Feller, who, in 1939, set the record for throwing the most pitches that were fouled into the stands, striking the pitcher’s mother on Mother’s Day (1).

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