It is raining quite hard here today, so I am housebound and about to rant a bit.
I love baseball. I love the Dodgers. I am in love with minor league baseball. However, the game now frustrates me. Every little move on the field it seems is a pre-calculation (if that is a word), before something even happens. Dave Roberts is ready to come striding out briskly to take a pitcher out almost before he has completed his out pitch to his one batter. It makes no difference that the pitcher in question just destroyed his one batter faced. A hot hitter is primed to be removed because he hits from the wrong side of the plate. A pitcher can’t face a lineup for a third time although he has doused them twice already. Freaking platoons run rampant even though a hitter is hot and is a stellar fielder. Fortunately, such is not so, at least in the lower levels of the minor leagues. There, restricting innings pitched and getting reps at bat are the more predominant stats.
Baseball, among all of the major sports, is the one most closely linked to statistics. There seems to be a stat for just about every circumstance one can imagine. Each year the game becomes more and more saturated with statistics. The time may be approaching, and maybe has arrived, where the manager has a white board and is designing the next play with X’s and O’s as they do in football, basketball and hockey.
WAR!!! How can it be a creditable stat when it is so subjective and is not consistent in its derivation by different stats geeks? Whose WAR is correct – FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus? WAR calculates the total number of wins that any player adds to his team over the course of a season by comparing the player’s performance with that of a fictitious replacement. A what – a fictitious replacement.? Of course, one player will have a greater impact on the game because of his skill set. He will also have a greater impact because of other conditions not so much related to his skill set – the stadium in which he plays his home games, the skill set of his teammates, the climatic conditions. Are his age, his physical health, his drive, determination taken into account? There is not, and cannot be, a standardized formula for WAR among all its proponents. With the present political climate in full view, I am going to declare WAR a fake stat.
The use of statistics in the greatest game of all is not new. The practice of keeping records of player achievements was started in the nineteenth century by Henry Chadwick. Based on his experience with cricket, Chadwick devised the predecessors to modern day statistics, including batting average, runs scored, and runs allowed. There is even a Dodger connection to the evolution of baseball statistics. During the early 1950s, Allen Roth (pictured), a statistician for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Branch Rickey, developed the formula for on-base percentage.
We might say the modern era of statistics took off, beginning in the sixties. In 1964, Earnshaw Cook, a John Hopkins engineering professor, published, “Percentage Baseball”, one of the first sabermetrics essays. Then in 1977, the renowned baseball historian and statistician, Bill James, wrote his first Bill James Baseball Abstract in which he featured: “18 Categories of Statistical Information “That You Just Can’t Find Anywhere Else”. Moneyball followed in 2003 and FanGraphs in 2005.
So, what should we, as baseball fanatics, make of all this sabermetric invasion into the game we love? What are our own personal favorite statistics by which we measure players, one to another? I really don’t understand sabermetrics and have not read nor seen “Moneyball,” However, I do have a few favorite stats that I think predate the sabermetric invasion. Simplicity is the requirement for me.
On offense, my favorite is on base percentage (OBP). It is so simple. If you got on base, then you didn’t make an out. The sole purpose, the only purpose, of the hitter is to get to first base, hopefully beyond, but first base as a minimum. If the home run was the objective there would simply be a home plate and no first base. There is no other purpose to be standing at the plate. Every time the hitter gets to first base, he has the possibility of scoring a run. The greater his OBP, the greater chance he will score a run. In addition to that, being on base changes the dynamic for the pitcher. I understand that scoring a run depends on other factors on the field, but so do most, perhaps all other stat categories, so those factors are a constant with all statistics. They do not stand alone. I also really appreciate batting average with runners in scoring position and two out runs batted in (see Red Sox), but my top category is OBP.
On the mound I prefer ERA and WHIP as a measure of a pitcher’s performance. That is perhaps old school, but I think ERA is the more important. It demonstrates how a pitcher battles during his innings, with so much happening around him, and ultimately what kind of a chance he gives his team to win the game – the lower his ERA, the better chance the game will be won while he is on the mound, or when he is replaced in the later innings by a reliever. My favorite stat for a reliever is inherited runners stranded. Quite often that is when the game is saved. A game in which a closer comes in with no one on base and has more than a one run lead is not in need of a save because it is not in jeopardy. A one run game always is in jeopardy as the hitter may hit a home run.
WHIP is in essence a defensive statistic determined by a combination of walks and hits per inning pitched. Once again, it is simple. The fewer runners that the pitcher allows to get on base, the fewer possible runs there are to be scored against his team. WHIP too cannot stand alone, although the walks part of the statistic is about as close to standing alone as any statistic can be, since the walk is under the pitcher’s control (and/or umpire’s), or lack of it, as is the strikeout. WHIP naturally is affected by the defensive acumen of the team behind the pitcher.
In determining Cy Young awards, wins is a huge category. However, I submit wins is not a pitching statistic, but is a team statistic, garnered by a team, combining pitching, hitting, and defense. A win is arbitrary and can have very little to do with the pitcher’s performance. That is, a pitcher can pitch a gem and lose 1-0, or pitch very poorly and win 12-11. The win or loss is not a measure of either pitcher’s performance. That performance is more accurately measured by their ERA and WHIP. If wins are to be used as a pitching statistic, then a more accurate tally of wins would be how many wins the team secured in the games a given pitcher started. That would be a measure of how many games the pitcher gave his team a chance to win, depending on his ERA and WHIP, and they succeeded in doing so.
My least favorite stat in all of baseball is the strikeout. Don’t even start talking to me about home runs/ strikeouts ratios. A strikeout is totally useless with one exception. In the National League it may keep a pitcher from grounding into a double play. Otherwise it is a waste of a plate appearance if valued in the context of home runs. That is, an all or nothing scenario. It accomplishes absolutely nothing and doesn’t have the possibility of accomplishing anything. Put the ball in play. First base is only 90 feet away. Walking back to the dugout after being punched out seems longer than that. Give me a sacrifice bunt any day because it moves a runner up just as a “productive out” does in moving a runner up, especially to third base. Both are an out so why is a bunt not considered a “productive out”? It sure knocks the stuffings out of a “K”.
A quiz. Now I know I am cherry picking, but it is still raining here. Which team in 1965 had the fewest home runs in MLB (78), most sacrifice hits (103), second lowest slugging percentage (335) and had the fourth fewest strikeouts (891)? Of course, it was the World Champion Dodgers. Now I know there were other major factors like Koufax, Drysdale, Podres, Perranoski, Maury Wills but the least powerful offense in MLB still scored enough runs to win it all.