Gehrig, Jeter and the Age of Context-Free Sportscasters

I don’t like Tim McCarver. But if I’m going to watch any of the World Series that starts tonight, I’m going to have to put up with him.

McCarver, who was a catcher for four Major League teams from 1959 to 1980, is now a baseball broadcaster for Fox Network Sports. He’s won Emmy Awards as a sports analyst.

I don’t care. In my opinion, he’s a shallow huckster who, like so many sportscasters today, sees his job as selling a product rather than giving an accurate description of what’s happening on the field.

Last week during one of the American League Championship Series games between the Los Angeles Angels and the New York Yankees, McCarver glibly stated that Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ star shortstop, has more “postseason” hits than Lou Gehrig, the Yankees’ legendary first baseman from 1923 to 1939.

That was one of those smoke-and-mirrors statistics that broadcasters today love to recite. I think they throw those kinds of stats out there to make you think that the athletes you’re seeing today are the greatest in history, and those old guys who played the game back in the prehistoric days before 1980 can’t compare to the jocks of today.

Now, Derek Jeter is a fine baseball player who will be remembered as one of the best shortstops for a team that already has two shortstops – Tony Lazzeri and Phil Rizzuto – in the Hall of Fame. Jeter almost certainly will enter the Hall the moment he becomes eligible.

And technically, Jeter does have more “postseason” hits than Gehrig. But the operative word in McCarver’s statement is “postseason.”

Jeter joined the Yankees in 1995. Since then he’s played in 132 “postseason” games, which include the elongated league playoffs as well as the World Series. To get to the World Series, a team can play in as many as 12 postseason games. The World Series could add as many as seven more games to the modern “postseason.”

Jeter has collected 164 hits in those “postseason” games. By comparison, Gehrig had only 43 “postseason” hits during his career. So if you lump all of Jeter’s postseason games together, he has more hits than Gehrig by a wide margin.

What McCarver didn’t bother to mention, however, is that Gehrig’s “postseason” games only included the World Series. When Gehrig played, there were no league playoffs preceding the World Series. The first place team in the American League played the first place team in the National League in the World Series.

Gehrig played in 34 World Series games. When you compare Jeter’s and Gehrig’s performances in World Series games – that is, when you compare apples to apples – the outcome is different. In 32 World Series games, Jeter has 39 hits – four fewer than Gehrig.

But McCarver will never provide that kind of background. He will merely spout context-free statistics that create misleading impressions about the game you’re watching. He'll tell you that Jeter has more "postseason" hits than Gehrig, but he won't tell you that Jeter has played in about four times as many "postseason" games as Gehrig did.

So if McCarver starts reciting statistics during the 2009 World Series trying to tell you that today's players are breaking longstanding records, don’t take his word for it. Look it up.

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