Saturday, April 16, 2011

Feet of Clay: Did Elias Make a Mistake??

Statistical geeks such as myself generally bow down to the words “Elias Sports Bureau,” since that oft-cited agency is the gold standard for statistical accuracy and omnipotence in the world of sports. This is especially true where baseball is concerned. If you want to know the last time an Oklahoma-born second basemen named Fred with shin splints and a stubbly beard hit into a force play in five consecutive games batting lefthanded in the month of August, the guys at Elias will find that stat for you.

Sometimes it’s even annoying the stats Elias comes up with, their obscurity and/or irrelevance so remote that it bears recalling that presumably someone is actually getting PAID to look that stuff up. (Those of us who toil in a similar sports vineyard but hardly get paid much at all to exercise the same statistically geeky impulse can only imagine what an Elias statistician brings home every week. Besides a head full of useless but sometimes still very interesting information and factoids.)

As the esoteric facts get revealed in baseball game accounts with increasing regularity, it has occurred to me that the Elias folks at some point must have lurched headlong into the computer age with sophisticated metrics and search enginery that makes looking up the improbable oh so very possible. The other possibility--that there’s a small army of bespectacled, socially awkward and hermitlike nerds sitting in little cubicles at an office in New York City constantly looking up the facts using PCs and books and only their brains--just can’t be right.

But last night, in’s reprinted Associated Press account of the game between the Indians and Orioles, we read this:

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, [Zach] Britton is the first Orioles pitcher to allow just one earned run in his first two starts since Tom Phoebus, who did it in 1954 when the franchise was still in St. Louis.

Hmmm, thinks I... I remember Phoebus, but he played in the ’60s. Then I thought, was there ANOTHER Tom Phoebus, and was he on the 1954 St. Louis Browns, which the Orioles were before they moved to Baltimore?? As Miss Clavell used to say in the Madeline books, “Something’s not quite right...”

So I looked it up at Sure enough, there was--and is--only one Tom Phoebus, and he played major league baseball from 1966-72, with the Orioles, Padres and Cubs. Phoebus was a decent pitcher, mainly a starter--56-52 lifetime, 3.33 ERA, 11 career shutouts, and he picked up a World Series ring with the 1970 Orioles. As for the 1954 reference, in fact that was the first year the Orioles played in Baltimore, so they were no longer in St. Louis by then. Needless to say, there was also no one named Tom Phoebus on the 1954 roster.

Which means that a) ESPN made a huge series of improbable misprints or mis-types; b) the AP reporter working on this item was hugely incompetent (not outside the realm of possibility); or c) the Elias boys released incorrect statistical information.

If it’s the latter, I think there should be a major press conference. I mean, if Elias & Co. got this wrong, how many other bits and bites have they fed us through the years that also were incorrect? Who knows, maybe those guys have just been making stuff up. How would we know they weren’t, since their word is accepted as gospel all the time?

Makes ya wonder. (Well, makes ME wonder.)

Anyway, hello to Tom Phoebus, 69 years old, wherever you are.

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