Volume 7, Number 3, 1998

Talkin' baseball

At age 11, Stephen Grimble sat under the family Christmas tree mesmerized by a book he had lobbied for all year, Baseball's Greatest Hitters by Tom Meany.

"I would read it over and over, all this statistical information about baseball," Grimble, who is now vice-president and University treasurer at Delaware, says. "Back then, I was a kid obsessed with being able to go out every summer day and play. Like many kids, my dream was to be a major league ballplayer."

Today, sitting at a conference table in his Hullihen Hall office, Grimble recalls his boyhood aspirations. However, after 25 years as a financial analyst and executive at the DuPont Co., and nearly three years at UD,
he is gripped once again with a quest to
ascertain the most legendary hitters in the history of baseball.

In June, Cedar Tree Press of Wilmington published the result of Grimble's work, Setting the Record Straight: Baseball's Greatest Batters. In the 200-page book, Grimble, through breakthrough statistical analysis, reveals to baseball fans the game's 50 greatest batters of the 20th century.

Grimble's publishing odyssey began in the winter of 1994, during a trip to the National Baseball Library and Archives at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. During a week's time, he pored over countless historical records, culling statistical and biographical accounts of many of the game's most revered players. Grimble said he spent about a year and a half researching the book.

Grimble, who mostly played sandlot ball games as a youngster, recalled time spent voraciously inhaling the weekly baseball stats that arrived in every Sunday's sports section. In recent years, he said, with the advent of the computer and the efforts of professional statisticians Bill James and Pete Palmer, enormous strides have been made in researching and interpreting baseball hitters-past and present. However, Grimble-who has more than 50 baseball books in his varied personal library-was left with a gnawing feeling that the real statistical story was not being told.

By the time he entered UD as a college student, Grimble had put his passion for baseball aside. After graduating in 1966 with a degree in accounting, he joined the DuPont Co., worked there for six months before entering the military. He spent four-and-a-half years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, including a year in Vietnam.

Following military service, he rejoined the DuPont Co., but his interest in baseball never waned. In later years, Grimble began to develop a better way to measure the achievements of major league players.

"As I got older," he explains, "I came to the realization that baseball's official statistics for measuring batting performance were inadequate and in need of revision."

In Grimble's view, "Baseball's the most sublime of the team sports. The players are not slaves to a clock, and the game has an elegant symmetry linked to the numbers 3 and 9. Three strikes, three outs, three bases, nine players per team, nine innings to a game and 90 feet between bases."

While pitching and fielding generally tend to win championships in baseball, it is the art of hitting that's the elixir to most baseball fans-the crack of the bat that sends a screaming line drive into the outfield gap or a titanic home run blast crushed into an upper-deck seat.

Grimble mentions that many boys of his generation first honed their mathematical skills by computing their batting average from their Little League ball games. Since the National League's inception in 1876, the primary official statistic for evaluating a hitter's mastery has been the batting average, which is simply derived by dividing the number of total base hits by total "at-bats."

Grimble, as the saying goes, "has a better idea." He says he believes the key stat for assessing a batter's greatness should be related to his proficiency at generating runs. His formula: Take the total of runs scored and runs batted in and divide that by total plate appearances (at-bats plus walks)-the result becoming the Run Generation Average, or RGA.

"If scoring runs is the objective of baseball offense, and that's a given, then RGA is the one stat that directly measures a player's knack for generating runs," Grimble emphasizes. "With batting average, there's no distinction among the types of hits; it also ignores walks. In any case, the team with the most hits doesn't always win the game, but the one with the most runs wins every time."

He says he believes the batter in each league with the highest RGA, not the highest batting average, is the true batting champion. He has determined the league RGA champions for each season since 1900.

While he expects some backlash from diehard fans, he predicts that many of baseball's statistical experts will come down on his side. Grimble attributes a healthy chunk of his insight for his RGA formula to his experience as a finance professional, which included nearly seven years working abroad for the DuPont Co. in various financial management positions in Bogota, Colombia, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he met his wife, Eliete.

At one point during his DuPont career, in between international assignments, Grimble developed several new financial measures for evaluating business performance.

"It was only natural to apply this knowledge to baseball," he says. "While I don't consider myself a writer, I learned how to write business memoranda directly and concisely throughout my career," he adds. "It made undertaking the book project a little bit easier. It gave me confidence to get it done."

So, who are Grimble's greatest batters of all time?

His selections are based exclusively on another statistic he has developed called Run Generation Index (RGI). A batter's RGI, he explained, is calculated by dividing a player's career RGA by the league, or average, RGA during the years he played and multiplying the result by 100.

RGI measures how well a batter performed versus his peers, and it may be used to compare objectively hitters from different eras-always a problem for ardent baseball fans.

To be eligible for his all-time list, Grimble considers players with a minimum of 5,000 plate appearances (at-bats plus walks), the equivalent of 10 seasons.

Here are Grimble's top 10 hitters:

Not unexpectedly, Babe Ruth is number one with a career RGA of .419 and a RGI of 170.3, which means he was a lifetime .400 batter and 70 percent better than the average batter of his era. He's followed by Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Johnny Mize, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle. Aaron and Mantle are the greatest batters since 1950.

Six of the top 50 batters are active players-Barry Bonds, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Ken Griffey Jr. A number of other current players, such as Larry Walker, Mike Piazza, Frank Thomas and Juan Gonzalez, are not yet eligible due to insufficient plate appearances.

Grimble's selections are sure to please many, while rankling others.

When asked about the controversy he may inspire, Grimble says, "That's the beauty of baseball; there are as many opinions as there are fans. From the beginning, statistics were critically important to the game, more so than in most other sports. In my opinion, for the reasons set forth in my book, RGA should be baseball's primary batting statistic."

-Terry Conway