Tips on Arguing: Decorative Statistics

Brandon T. Bisceglia

At the end of 2008, National Public Radio commentator Frank Deford railed against a growing trend among sports aficionados that he found downright annoying. “It’s getting harder for the statistics freaks in all sports to dream up anything original,” he said. “And so I began to notice that a whole new category of stupid records was now being created.”

Deford went on to list some of the most convoluted stats he had come across, such as the following: “He’s the only pitcher in – get this –the last 4,113 to debut with 10 strikeouts and no walks.” Whoever came up with the above statistic had to work hard to make it sound impressive. And it might be effective for the casual observer, who is likely to see the words “only pitcher” followed by a large number and assume that this “record” is significant.

But look a little more carefully, and the emptiness behind the number becomes apparent. The most glaring problem here is the seemingly arbitrary range of 4,113 pitchers. This pitcher’s record would be meaningful, if say it was the first time it had ever happened. That’s apparently not the case, or else the author of the statistic would have said so. Chances are that the reason the statistician picked 4,113 as a starting point is that pitcher number 4,114 had the exact same record (or better).

It turns out that 4,113 isn’t even a big number when put into context. The website MLB.com lists over 1,100 current pitchers in Major League Baseball alone – never mind the other leagues. Granted, not everyone gets replaced every season. Still, it only takes a decade at most to see 4,113 new pitchers. That’s the nature of all decorative statistics; they’re relatively mundane numbers that are tweaked to look more impressive.

Decorative statistics are rife in the sports world, but they can be found in other arenas as well.

Take movies for instance. The 2009 film Avatar was heralded as the highest grossing movie of all time, at approximately $761 million in domestic sales, according to Boxofficemojo.com. It is the highest, until you adjust for inflation. Measured in today’s dollars, Gone with the Wind weighs in at over $1.6 billion in domestic sales, blowing those Na’vi out of the water. Avatar doesn’t even make the top ten.