Sunday, April 16, 2017

Westbrook's Statistics

Yes, Russell Westbrook is having an amazing season. How amazing? You have to look past Michael Jordan all the way back to Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain for apt comparison.

Commentators are reaching beyond basketball, claiming Westbrook’s feat deserves comparison with Ted Williams hitting .406 in 1940 (no one has hit .400 since), Joe DiMaggio hitting safely in 56 straight games that same year (a record that still stands), Hank Aaron breaking Ruth's lifetime home run total, Bonds hitting 73 homeruns in one year.

It's kind of odd to hear comparisons to baseball, though, not because Westbrook's achievement is inferior but because basketball has never been a game of numbers the way baseball has always been. Basketball has never fetishized its statistics, though these days, when all aspects of sports are being quantified  that's changing.

Still, when Williams hit .406 everybody knew Bill Terry in 1930 was the last to hit .400. They knew it on the sports pages and they knew it in the schoolyards. They knew Ty Cobb had done it three times, Rogers Hornsby twice.

When Robertson set his triple double record in 1961-62, everybody was aware he'd had an amazing season, in the midst of an amazing career, but as for the record itself, it was barely recognized as such. Robertson himself has said nobody thought much about triple doubles.

As I said, that's changing.

I used to think the reason boys were better at arithmetic than girls, assuming they were, is that boys computed batting averages, earned run averages, won lost percentages in their spare time. If you wanted to argue that Mickey Mantle was better than Willie Mays you had to have some numbers at your command, and having such numbers meant you had toned up your command of the times table and of simple division.

Once again, that's changing. Sabermetrics has transformed the way baseball is evaluated and played, and is doing the same for basketball.

But sabermetric evaluations are subtle and numerous. Do any stand out the way simple, durable verities like batting average and home run do? I don't think so.

Westbrook, though, is providing a readymade, unforgettable stat, a benchmark for basketball fans to come, something unforgettable.

Like Williams hitting .406.

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