How well dịd a player do it? How well are others doing it? How well have others done it in the past? The answers to these questions supply a context for evaluating whether an achievement is inferior, superior, or acceptable.
Why do we need relative measures? Basically, for the same reason we need statistics altogether, to compare, to interpret, and to comprehend, but in a more reasonable and accurate manner when the disparity of the data sources makes the use of absolute, unadjusted numbers illogical. If the analysis involves data produced under widely varying conditions, such as a sample including baseball performances 20, 50, or 100 years apart, any comparison will be meaningless without dragging in a series of rather complex historical understandings to modify the analysis.
To compare players’ statistics with no recognition of the context in which these marks were achieved, is equivalent to comparing Babe Ruth’s salary of $80,000 in 1930 with Pete Rose’s $806,250 fifty years later and concluding that Rose was $726,250 richer. To understand those dollar figures we must place them within a context which includes such factors as I. R. S. Regulations and inflation.
A statistic removed from its historical context can be as deceptive as a quotation pulled out of context.
A relativist approach offers suggestive truths and can measure precisely the extent to which a player dominated his contemporaries. Note however, that a relativist approach is not a time machine.
What the theory of relativity, baseball-style, does beautifully is to eliminate the need for bringing historical baggage to statistical analysis. The normalized or relative versions of any statistic-BA, OPS, ERA, SLG, you name it; even homers or strikeouts, will be greater than 1.00 for all above-average performers (1.41, for example, means 41 percent better than average in the given category) while relative statistics less than 1.00 will indicate a below average level of play (0.88 means 12 percent below the norm).
In Relative OBA, SLG, OPS, and ERA (Indeed, even Linear Weights, with its built-in normalizing factor, can be made more accurate, i.e., meaningful, by dividing the runs contributed through batting, fielding, base stealing, or pitching by the number of runs required for an additional win in the given year. For example, two batters in different years might have contributed the same number of runs but because one played in a year which featured more run scoring, more runs would be required to produce an extra win and his wins total would be less.
Relative Batting Average lists seem to confirm the oldtimers’ notion that hitting, or at least hitting for average, ain’t what it used to be: The dead-ball era heroes dominate the upper echelons here nearly to the same degree as they do with absolute BAs. Why is this so? For one, the best hitting talents in baseball in recent years have been applied to run production through power, which necessitates a fuller cut, which in Urn necessitates an earlier commitment to swing at a pitch and thus a greater chance of miscalculation.
A second and no doubt more significant reason for the lowered Relative Batting Averages of the postwar era is that the overall level of Play today-especially among the third, fourth, and fifth starting Pitchers and the relievers-is superior to that of 1910, and thus the star Stands out to a lesser degree.
On top of that, pitchers find it easier to notch strikeout victims today because of several factors unrelated to their ability. Because big-swinging hitters (and homers) were less common in 1910 than they were in 1970, pitch-ers back then did not strive for K’s the way they later did; in 1910, the hurler’s objective was to make the batter hit the ball to a fielder, not to vanquish a batting order all by himself.
The employment of relative counter” stats of any sort-be they strikeouts, homers, triples, steals whatever-is fraught with danger. With homers, for example, the man who led the National League in 1876-George Hall, with 5-may emerge as superior to Babe Ruth in 1921 as a relative home run hitter. His high Relative Homer mark is merely the result of an extremely low league Saverage in a category with a theoretically unlimited ceiling.
On to pitching. We cannot employ a Relative Won-Lost record, for the league average is every year the same:.500. (A logical corollary is that one cannot fruitfully use relative measures of any sort for a single season’s analysis, as all like figures will be compared to the same league average. The numbers may be changed into normalized form, but the players’ rankings will be unchanged.
In baseball, there is nothing either good or bad, but context makes it so. Relative measures permit comparisons across time where absolute figures do not, for it is reasonable to compare two figures however many years apart by their relation to those of their peers and/or their relation to the league leading performances.
Relativism redefines our understanding not only of particular accomplishments but also of baseball history itself.
Absolute figures lie. Are hitters today worse because none has hit .400 since 1941? Or are they superior because Dave Kingman can average nearly 30 homers a year while Cap Anson only averaged 4? Are infielders better today because they make fewer errors than their counterparts of 50, 75, or 100 years ago?
Do modern outfielders have limp-noodle arms because their assist totals pale before those registered in the 1900s? Is baseball improving or declining, and has its rise or fall been steady? One can spit absolute stats on the hot stove all winter long and get no closer to the answer, but with relative statistics, the issues are clarified. (The relative approach is not a panacea for all that ails absolute stats, but is a substantial advance.)
Baseball is a team game, too, but one in which individual effort stands out more clearly and individual credit or blame is doled out more fairly.
There are things that relative baseball stats won’t do, questions they won’t answer. What would Ty Cobb bat if he were playing today?
Everything is relative, even relativity.