The Elo rating system was created to compare chess players. I don’t pretend to understand exactly how it works, but I think I get it at the most basic level. When you win a chess match, you get a few points and move up the table of chess players. If you lose, you also lose a few points. If it’s a draw, everything’s about the same. The Elo rankings are based on how well you perform relative to expectations. In practice, this means if you are the 100th-best player in the world and you beat the 25,000th-best player, you won’t get many points, but if you are the 1000th-best player and you beat the 500th-best player, you’ll get lots of points.
Like I say, I’ve probably butchered this explanation, but that’s how it seems to me. It has been applied to many other games that have wins and losses. I think it is used as part of the complex BCS rating for college football, and there are unofficial uses for everything from baseball to online role-playing games.
Well, the fine folks at the indispensible Baseball-Reference.com website have decided to apply Elo to baseball players. Of course, there are no precise “wins” and “losses” for individual players, but that turns out to be easily rectified. At the MLB EloRater page, you are given two players and asked to decide who is better. Your vote is considered a win for the guy you choose, and a loss for the guy who don’t choose. The Elo Ratings are immediately recalculated, and you are given two more players to compare.
It sounds a bit pointless … well, it is, I guess … and it’s not clear at first exactly what your votes “mean.” But the design of the damn thing is pretty much perfect for creating a time-wasting addiction. You get two players, you vote for one or the other, and a new pairing appears. You think “oh, just one more,” you vote, new pairing, one of the players is a favorite of yours, you vote, new pairing, you think “oh, just one more,” and the next thing you know, you’ve wasted an hour.
And that’s why you’re going to hate me, at least if you are a baseball fan. Because one day, maybe not now, but one day, you’re going to go to the EloRater page, you’ll vote once or twice to see how it works, and an hour later you’ll wonder why you’ve wasted all that time.
And you can just breeze through the pairings, or you can get all serious and think deeply about who you will vote for. For instance, right now I am looking at a battle between Jonathan Papelbon and James Shields. They are both active … Papelbon has one more major-league year under his belt … Papelbon has made several All-Star teams and leads Shields in several important categories. But … Papelbon is a relief pitcher, Shields is a starter, which means Shields has pitched almost three times as many innings as Papelbon. So you have to ask yourself, are 365 innings of relief work at a very high level worth more than 978 innings of work at a pretty high level.
And as soon as you vote, another battle appears … in my case, I just got John Clapp vs. Ival Goodman, and I admit I’ve never heard of either of them. Luckily, you are provided with a set of key stats to help you make your decision (I went with Goodman).
See you in an hour. (Bob Allen or Glenn Beckert?)