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BU Ph. D. to publish study detrending baseball stats

Ever wonder to yourself if Barry Bonds is really the most deserving home-run king of all time? Feel certain that, after Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson is the best strikeout pitcher ever? Wonder if Ichiro Suzuki’s 262 hits in 2004 are really more impressive than when George Sisler punched out 257 base knocks in 1920?

Alexander Peterson has some reading material for you.

On February 28, Peterson, a Ph. D. student in the Boston University Center for Polymer Studies, and fellow physicists Orion Penner and H. Eugene Stanley published the findings of their study, “Detrending career statistic in professional baseball: Accounting for the steroids era and beyond.”

“Naturally, baseball’s all about numbers,” Peterson said. “You have to try to justify: “So what about the numbers?’ For baseball enthusiasts, it’s kind of what we grew up with. You look on the back of a baseball card, or maybe on Sunday, you’re looking at the box scores &-&- you look at who’s leading the league in particular categories. Naturally, there’s a convergence toward these numbers. They mean something.”

The goal of the project was simple: find a way to compare baseball statistics and find a way to nullify era-dependent factors, such as steroids in the 1990s and 2000s. In particular, the study compared players for single-season and all-time marks in home runs, hits, runs batted in, strikeouts (for pitchers) and wins.

The process was a bit more complex. Peterson and company followed a procedure known as detrending to compare each individual season to that of other ballplayers in the same year.

For instance, Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs in 2001 are the most hit in a single season ever. However, Bonds hit those 73 home runs in a year when 1.12 home runs were hit per game in Major League Baseball.
In comparison, when Babe Ruth slugged 54 home runs in 1920, just .26 home runs were belted per contest.

“Essentially, it just doesn’t make sense to compare single season statistics of some players to other players [over different eras],” Peterson said. “Maybe one guy in one era is trying to hit more home runs, or something else, so we just eliminate &-&- or just detrend &-&- the time-dependent factors and compare the time-independent factors.”

Based on Peterson’s detrended statistics, Ruth’s 1920 season was the most impressive by a slugger in comparison to his peers of all time &-&- in an era-independent season, Peterson’s study says Ruth’s performance would be as impressive as belting 133 home runs.

In fact, Ruth owns seven of the 10 most prolific power seasons off all-time, according to Peterson’s study, with Lou Gehrig (1927 and 1931) and Jimmie Foxx (1933) as the only other season’s cracking the top-10.

According to the study, Ruth was so impressive in comparison to his peers, if he played his entire career in an average home run era &-&- a five-year span from 1935-to-1940 most closely matches the average &-&- he would have belted 1,215 long balls. That’s nearly twice as many as his closest contender, Hank Aaron, who’s detrended number rounds out to 637 dingers.

Bonds, the all-time home run king with 762, has a detrended total of 502, which places him eighth in Peterson’s study.

The study also helps bring to the forefront players who may have been underappreciated for their home run prowess during their era. For instance, when Cy Williams belted 251 home runs for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies from 1912 to 1930, he did so at a time when home runs were such a small part of the game that his detrended total is 527 home runs &-&- seventh highest in Peterson’s study.

On the pitching side, Peterson’s study finds that Cy Young’s dominance, remarkably, may have been underrated. All-time, Young ranks 20th with 2,803 strikeouts for his career.

However, after Peterson detrended the numbers, Young’s totals proved to be the third most impressive of all time &-&- behind only Nolan Ryan and Walter Johnson.

In the modern era, Dazzy Vance, who finally cracked the Brooklyn Dodgers rotation in 1922 at the age of 31, registered some of the most impressive single-season strikeout totals ever, compared to his peers. After detrending, Vance’s 262 strikeouts in 1924 expand all the way to 443 &-&- easily the most in Peterson’s study.

Home runs were far and away the most drastically affected statistic according to the study. Some statistics, such as hits, proved fairly consistent over time. Even with the detrended numbers, Pete Rose still holds the record for hits in a career, while Ichiro Suzuki’s 2004 season, when he collected 262 base hits, is still the most impressive of all-time.

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