Baseball’s statistical revolution

Getty Images - Ned Yost was regularly criticised during the World Series for using his 'gut' and not the numbers
Getty Images – Ned Yost was regularly criticised during the World Series for using his ‘gut’ and not the numbers

By Casey Boguslaw

I had a board game that I played as a kid, I can’t remember the name that allowed you to play a full baseball game only using a pack of baseball cards, a gameboard that had a baseball field on it and a die. You would create your lineup with any cards you had and you would play the game with the statistics from the player’s previous season read off the back of their card. I believe it went something like, you could try for a homerun and if your player had a specific amount of homeruns the previous season, say 20; you would need to roll a 10, 11 or 12 for a homerun. The specifics aren’t necessary, but the game kept me busy for hours and it allowed a child a chance to learn about batting average and earned run average. These statistics are still the building blocks for learning the basics of baseball and are usually the first taught to a young inquisitive fan.

Batting average and earned run average are easy enough to teach a young fan because it can be explained with relative ease. “Son, this batter hits .300, therefore every ten times he comes to bat, he should get a base hit three times.” “Daughter, this pitcher has a 4.00 ERA, so if she pitches all nine innings, she will be likely to give up four runs.” We are starting to learn that these numbers tell us very little of the story. A hitter could have a .300 batting average but what about when he is facing that 4.00 ERA pitcher? We can now break down what that hitter’s numbers are against that pitcher. What about all left-handers? What if the pitcher’s ace pitch is a sinker? We now have numbers that will allow us to see how good of a hitter he is against sinkers. The point I am making is there is so much more to the science of the game than just the back of the baseball card (or at least what is currently on there). There are new ways thought up of every season on how to give a team its best advantage in every single situation.

Now, there is more to baseball than just the science. I do not want Charles Barkley to start ridiculing me because all I am looking at are the numbers. There will always be a human element to baseball, as all sports. Statistics can only put you at the mathematical advantage. In blackjack, there are set odds that show you the winning percentage of every single situation. If you play completely by those odds, you are technically always giving yourself the odds-on advantage. However, sometimes you want to hit that 16 against a 10 because you just have a gut feeling. Ned Yost had a gut feeling multiple times in last year’s postseason and was successful many times. He was critiqued by many for these “risks” but he got within 90 feet of possibly winning the World Series.

My goal for this article is to stake a claim that these new statistics matter and they need to be part of the everyday vernacular in baseball. I will use this article as a reference point moving forward in my future articles. If you’re like Charles Barkley and believe that statistics don’t prove anything, and are not anywhere near the key to winning the sport, you can argue with my leaning on these numbers. The truth is these numbers help better understand the game than just the simple batting average and earned run average that we all grew up with. Let’s start putting these numbers on the back of baseball cards.

Batting

  • OPS+ — I am going to take a leap and hope that “on-base percentage” and “slugging percentage” are widely enough known to not have to define. “OPS” is a relatively new stat that simply adds these two numbers. The stat helps show how well-rounded a hitter is. Not only does it take into account how often a player gets on base, but it also factors in how many extra bases they are getting when they do get on. The “+” adds a wonderful identifier in many baseball stats. There have been many eras in baseball history such as the “dead-ball” era or the steroid era. The “+” normalizes the statistic to the time range the player performed in, usually the current season. If you give the average OPS in the league a value of 100 or 100%, then a player with a 150 OPS+ is 50% above league average. This stat allows one to see how they are performing compared to the rest of the league.
  • ISO – Isolated power allows one to see how much power a player has. It’s a fairly simple statistic as it is slugging percentage less their batting average (or extra bases divided by at-bats). When comparing two .300 hitters, a player with a higher ISO is hitting more extra-base hits.
  • BABIP – Batting average on balls-in-play is a statistic that does have some flaws, but when put together with other statistics, can show how “lucky” a hitter is. This stat can also be shown as a “BABIP against” for a pitcher to show the same attributes in their performance. The useful way to look at this stat is to compare it to league average or to compare it to a player’s career numbers. If when putting the ball in the field of play the batting average is .500, it could mean the player is truly finding holes no matter the contact made or where a team is playing against him. It could also mean that they player is having an amazing string of luck and all bloop hits are finding a home on the outfield grass. However, the regression to the mean is likely to happen soon.
  • LD/FB rate – How hard a player is hitting the ball, when combined with BABIP, can better show how well a player is hitting the ball. A line drive is generally the most consistent type of hit just due to simple physics – a ball in the air at a greater speed allows less time for a fielder to react.

Pitching

  • ERA- — I explained the “+” addition above and the “-” addition here is treated exactly the same (but it’s negative as runs are bad for pitchers). No matter the “era”, ERA+ gives a better idea of how the pitcher is performing when compared to the rest of the league.
  • FIP – Field independent pitching is a more complex stat to calculate but is easy to explain. Referring to BABIP above, FIP allows a way to look at only the things a pitcher can truly control. A pitcher is solely responsible (umpire jokes aside) for walks, strikeouts, and homeruns. Any other ball would be hit in play and fall under the BABIP definition. A low FIP shows that the pitcher is limiting walks and homeruns, has a high strikeout rate, and is giving a large amount of the work to the guys standing behind him.
  • Strand rate – A relief pitcher is a tough job, but some appearances are tougher than others. Strand rate simply shows how a relief pitcher does when called on to get an out with players on base. A manager is calling them in to perform that job; this allows to see how successful that pitcher is. Since ERA does not change when inherited runners score, this stat gives a more accurate display of a relief pitchers true worth.

Fielding

  • UZR and DRS – Ultimate zone rating and defensive runs saved are two statistics that are still being molded throughout the baseball world. Essentially, there are statistical calculations out there that show how many runs a fielder can save and when comparing that player to others, shows you their true value. It’s apparent that Troy Tulowitzki can get to more groundballs than Derek Jeter and these two statistics help show that.
  • Shifts – Shifting fielders around to be in more advantageous spots based on where a batter is more likely to hit the ball is a growing trend. Almost every team in the league now utilizes shifts. If you’ve seen David Ortiz bat, you probably have noticed that the second baseman is standing in right field because if the ball is hit on the ground, it is usually hit to the right side and with some speed. It makes sense, according to likelihood, to play the second baseman there and to shift the rest of the infielders accordingly.

Overall

  • WAR – What is it good for? Almost everything. Wins above replacement is the baseball stat that is defined as covering it all. Baseball is a sport that has really lent itself to making each individual pitch a mathematical outcome. What WAR attempts to do is to give a full calculation of how much impact each player had on a game, a season, or a career. For hitters, it takes in batting stats, fielding stats AND baserunning stats. For pitchers, it takes in pitching and fielding stats. The stat is also calculated to normalize league-wide. It is defined as an estimate, but its true value is when comparing one player to the next. The Most Valuable Player award at the end of the season has been a debated tribute since its inception. If you’re truly defining “MOST valuable” you don’t have to look much further than this stat.

Most of us were probably taught how to fill out a scorecard at a young age when attending a ballgame. We saved those scorecards as souvenirs and could always look back and see who scored runs and how each pitcher performed in those games we attended. When headed out to the ballpark this year make sure you’re adding in line-drive rate and BABIP. It could make that souvenir serve as practically a visual replay of your memory.

You can find Casey on twitter @CaseyBoguslaw and join in the conversation @CTBPod

Advertisements

One thought on “Baseball’s statistical revolution

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s