Mark Twain once said that there are three types of false-hoods: lies, damned lies and statistics. Statistically speaking, we're 99% certain that Twain never met Steve Hirdt, who is executive vice-president of the Elias Sports Bureau, the official stat keeper for Major League Baseball. "Statistics are not truths in themselves," says Hirdt. "They were never meant to replace the game; they were meant to describe the game. You watch the game, you make your observations, and then you try to translate those observations into statistics. If done correctly, the numbers act as a lens. They can help sharpen your view of what happens on the field."
Since the start of this season, Hirdt has been helping SI readers sharpen their views of the game in The Elias Analyst, a statistics box that has become a regular feature of our INSIDE: BASEBALL column. Each week, with the help of graphic artist John Grimwade, Hirdt takes a close look at the numbers of the game to see where the truths lie—or, in some cases, where the lies lie. "What we're trying to do," says Hirdt, "is isolate one part of baseball, put it under a microscope and examine it in detail to see what it reveals." For example, in this week's box (page 54), Hirdt takes a look at players who have hit .400 or better in the first month of a season. From the data he concludes that for some hitters at least. April is not always the crudest month.
Hirdt, 41, has his own impressive set of ongoing personal statistical streaks: 22 years with Elias; 17 years as a consultant on Major League Baseball broadcasts (first with NBC and ABC, and now with CBS); 10 years as director of information for ABC's Monday Night Football; and eight years as co-author of the Elias Baseball Analyst, the popular statistical guide to the game published annually In Simon & Schuster. Yet for all those weight) numbers, Hirdt's approach to the sport is refreshingly lightheaded. "I'm not a guy who talks with bulging eyeballs and has stats drooling out of his mouth," he says. "I'm a sports fan first, then a statistician. If you saw my high school math grades, that would be obvious."
Drawing from Hirdt's conclusions is Grimwade's job, a task he describes as "simply brightening the numbers." Regular SI readers will find Grimwade's bright touches familiar. His work has appeared regularly in the magazine for the past four years. "What I try to do is lure someone in to take a look at the numbers," says Grimwade, 40, who was born in Sheerness, England. "What you don't want is a technical drawing, something that makes people say, 'Oh my god, this is serious.' You want to add a touch of whimsy so the reader will take that first look at the numbers and say, 'Hmmm, this is sort of interesting.' "
With Hirdt's figures and Grimwade's fancy, the result is a feature that we hope both entertains and enlightens. "Basically, I'm looking for a single truth to illustrate." says Grimwade. "That's what Steve is trying to do as well, isn't he?"
With 100% of our stat team in agreement, even Twain would have to admit that truth can lie in numbers.
Grimwade (left) and Hirdt find truth in stats.