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Baseball's Past, Present at Your Fingertips

This is a love letter to a website.

I don't know how I lived so long without the Play Index on Baseball-Reference.com.

I have always loved baseball and the stories its statistics tell. Whether on the back of a baseball card, in tiny type on a page of newsprint or flashed on a scoreboard or screen, the numbers tell us of strengths and weaknesses, battles won and lost, accomplishments accumulated over the long seasons of a playing career.

Not long out of college, I landed a baseball freak's dream job: supervising publication of The Baseball Encyclopedia, a 2,700-page doorstop containing the complete statistics for anyone who had played even one game in the major leagues.

The information was kept in a database, making the book one of the first ever produced by computer typesetting. But it wasn't a very flexible database. It was designed in the Jurassic Age of computers, a lumbering beast that fed on keypunch cards. I hoped it might be possible someday to take all that data out to play, to use a statistical centrifuge to spin out the links between present and past, to answer questions and fuel discussions, to have endless permutations of those facts and figures at my beck and call.

The Play Index gives me everything I dreamed of and puts it almost literally at my fingertips.

Consider Aroldis Chapman. The Reds closer has an otherworldly arm and is enjoying an epic season. As good a season as a power pitcher has ever had?

Searching single-season performance, 1901 to 2012, minimum 50 innings, sort by K per 9 innings. Chapman's 113 strikeouts in 64 innings (through Tuesday's games) is an impressive rate of 15.89 K/9. It's third on the all-time list, behind Kenley Jansen's 16.10 in 2011 and Carlos Marmol's 15.99 in 2010.

Let's check his WHIP, since he has yielded just 30 hits and 16 walks in those 64 innings. Again, his 0.719 WHIP is terrific, but it's not unprecedented. It ranks ninth on the list, well behind Dennis Eckersley's two best seasons (0.607 in 1989 and 0.614 in 1990). It also trails the best years posted by such notables as Joaquin Benoit, Cla Meredith and Takashi Saito.

But surely it's unique that he has more saves (33) than hits allowed, right? Nope. With a 50-inning minimum again, there have been 22 such seasons, including those by Chapman and Fernando Rodney that are not yet finished. In 1990, Eckersley had more saves than baserunners allowed.

Verdict on Chapman: great, great season, but not the best by a reliever, at least not so far.

What about this year's two phenoms, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout? What can we find out about them?

For Harper: Search single-season performance before age 20. (One minor shortcoming is that each season is assigned an age based on how old the player was on June 30; an "age-19" season might include some time when the player was actually 20.) How many teenagers reached double digits in home runs and stolen bases?

The answer is two. Harper and Ken Griffey Jr. Nice.

Now Trout. How many players had a season of 25 homers and 40 steals before turning 22? One. And he's not done yet.

Trout's averages for the season are .340/.403/.593. Has anyone ever hit so well so young? Search on-base average greater than .400 AND slugging average greater than .550 before age-22 season.

Six other players have accomplished it: Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Eddie Mathews, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Very nice.

You can search for career stats (four of the top seven in home runs by a switch-hitter are currently active: Chipper Jones, Lance Berkman, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran); period stats (the top five pitchers in ERA since 2000, minimum 500 innings, are Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Joe Nathan, Francisco Rodriguez and Clayton Kershaw; the top five in Wins Above Replacement since 2000 are Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Randy Johnson, Johan Santana and Mark Buehrle); streaks (since 1918, the pitcher with the longest streak of games in which he allowed a home run was Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven: 20 games, from Sept. 9, 1986, to June 10, 1987).

You can find every batter hit by a Don Drysdale pitch, how David Ortiz has fared against Rivera (11-for-33, three doubles, one homer), in which games Greg Maddux hit a triple (an event Skip Caray said "replaces the Kentucky Derby as the most exciting two minutes in sports").

The season and career stats are solid all the way back to 1876, and the individual game searches are complete back to 1973, nearly complete to 1950. Besides that, you're limited only by your imagination.

The Baseball-Reference.com site is free and is marvelous, but the Play Index is a steal at the $36 per year it costs. For me, that works out to nanopennies per hour and an incalculable price-to-pleasure ratio.

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This is my last regular column for RealClearSports. I'm grateful for the opportunity to write, probe, analyze and pontificate in this corner of the Internet ether. Thanks for reading, and commenting, and engaging. Google me from time to time. There's no telling where I may pop up next.

Jeff Neuman's columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday. Follow him on Twitter @NeumanJeff. His collected golf writing and blogging can be found at www.neumanprose.com.

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