John Maine and the BABIP Mystery

I have two questions for you — no visiting Baseball-Reference, Googling, or otherwise cheating:

1. What was Yogi Berra’s career batting average?

2. Name one quote attributed to Yogi Berra.

(answers come after the text ads, scroll down)

OK, so how did you do? I’m going to go out on a limb and say you didn’t know — off the top of your head — that Yogi’s career batting average was .285. Imagine if I asked something more obscure, such as his career OPS? (Which was .830, by the way.)

Now, I’m also going to go out on a limb and say you can probably repeat MORE than one “Yogism”. If not, here are a few of the more popular:

“It ain’t over till it’s over.”

“If there’s a fork in the road, take it.”

“90% of the game is half-mental.”

“This is like deja vu all over again.”

“I want to thank all those that made this night necessary.”

and of course, “I didn’t really say everything I said.”

Now, you may remember several others, as there are literally dozens of “Yogisms”. Heck, there were several books published, filled with his quotes, mis-quotes, and malaprops.

What’s that tell you? That Yogi was a better talker than he was a hitter?

Actually it’s a clue to what has made baseball so popular for over 100 years: the stories.

In the last few days, both FlushingUniversity and MetsGeek posted stories that John Maine’s success should be taken with a grain of salt, because his BABIP suggests that he’s merely been lucky.

Thanks for raining on our parade, guys. And you’re both supposed to be Mets fans!

Originally, this post was going to be about how I think BABIP is a bunch of poppycock. (For those of you who don’t know what BABIP is, I strongly suggest you read either of the above-mentioned articles, and/or google the research of Voros McCracken — it’s all fascinating stuff, if you are into numbers.) But two things kept me from explaining why I think it’s skill, and not luck, that has made John Maine a great pitcher so far this year:

1. I don’t want to get flamed again by the statheads over at The Baseball Think Factory

2. I don’t care if John Maine has been lucky. I just want to enjoy the story.

While it’s true that baseball is the most measurable of the major sports — there’s seemingly a stat for everything, and stats based on stats — the words are what have carried the sport through over a century. It began with the stories spun by scribes such as Ring Lardner, JG Taylor Spink, Zane Grey, Hugh Fullerton, and others. It continued over the airwaves, and through the years people have felt comfort from the voices of Vin Scully, Mel Allen, Red Barber, Ernie Harwell, Curt Gowdy, and dozens of others. The most successful writers and broadcasters are remembered for conveying the story that was on the field.

Yes, we count the hits and the homeruns, and acknowledge the milestones — but the numbers are a part of the story, not the story itself. In fact, with the recent controversy surrounding performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, it’s doubtful people will even care about the milestones anymore. For example, how many people outside of San Francisco think Barry Bonds’ career homerun total means anything? Not nearly as many people are talking about 755 as much as the STORY behind Bonds’ getting there.

So in the case of John Maine, the numbers geeks are telling us not to get too excited, don’t get your hopes up, the BABIP tells us that Maine won’t keep this pace up.

Hmmm … so John Maine won’t go 32-0 this year? He won’t finish the year with a 1.35 ERA?

C’mon guys, we already know that — no one expects Johnny Maine to continue pitching like Tom Seaver on steroids. Eventually, there will be a game where he gets knocked out in the fourth inning, and his ERA — and BABIP will swell like a pregnant elephant.

But until then, let us bask in the moment. Let us talk about how confident Maine looks on the mound; how he worked so hard in spring training, believing he had to earn a spot; how he really has command of his fastball; how those new offspeed pitches are keeping the hitters off-balance; how Omar Minaya fleeced the Orioles; how Maine has built on the 2006 postseason. That’s what we enjoy about baseball — personalities, opinions, argument, banter. Drowning oneself in the numbers to quantify performance may give us an idea of what will happen in the future, but in the process you’re destroying the universal appeal of the game — the storytelling.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.