Here’s a funny thought that struck me the other day: I don’t think I have ever met a baseball fan who does not like baseball stats. Not once. I have never really thought about it exactly in those terms before — I have friends who I always would have called anti-stats and others who I might have called geeks like me.
But that’s not just oversimplifying … it’s wrong. This struck me when talking with a good friend who I would loosely call “anti-stats” or, to be more precise, “dubious about advanced stats.” This is the kind of friend who wants the Oakland A’s to fail so that the Moneyball people (including me) will shut up. This is the kind of friend who sees letter configurations like xFIP or UZR or WAR and begins to show facial tics. This is the kind of friend who, modern and open-minded as he tries to be, as good a friend as he tries to be, cannot help but believe that many of these blog posts are written from my mother’s basement.
But … but … but he is ALSO the kind of friend who will quote batting averages with passion, who will get a jolt of excitement when he thinks about how many RBIs Manny Ramirez had in 1999 (165, as he can tell you), who can quote pitcher wins like scripture.
The guy loves baseball stats. He just loves HIS baseball stats.
And I’ve come to believe this is the reality: NOBODY who cares about baseball hates all baseball stats. Well, I shouldn’t say nobody. I’m sure that there is the rare bird who likes to go to games to partake in the geometric greenery of the game or whatever — but I don’t know that person.
See baseball is a game of context. You want to know who the best hitter is. You want to know how good the pitcher is. And we instinctively know that while we can tell SOME things with our eyes, we can’t tell everything. Baseball is with us every day of the summer, and the action without context is not especially gripping (which is why the “baseball is boring” gripe has been with us for more than 100 years). To see a pitcher throw a fastball past a hitter is not especially thrilling on its own … you probably don’t often stop the car to watch baseball games being played along the road. Strikeouts happen at every one of those games. But if that pitcher is Tim Lincecum and that hitter is Josh Hamilton, and you know how good Lincecum is (he has led the National League in strikeouts three straight years — something only Randy Johnson had done in the last 50 years) and you know how good Josh Hamilton is (he hit .359 and led the league in slugging!), the moment takes on life and electricity and joy.
So, yes, I think people need baseball stats to enjoy the game. It’s just that many people — and I understand this impulse — want to stick with the stats they’ve enjoyed all their lives. These stats are as familiar as family. And while they may know those stats are flawed, they prefer the flaws in their favorite statistics over the flaws of the newer ones. Why? Maybe the newer stats feel too much like math. Maybe, to them, the newer stats seem to dehumanize the game. Maybe they just just don’t connect with Wins Above Replacement in the way that they CONNECT with RBIs as a statistic, the way they CONNECT with wins as a statistic, the way they can CONNECT with errors as a statistic. These stats they can infuse with emotion and feeling and history.
For some of us, it will always be fun to explore the new numbers, to try and separate what a pitcher does from what the defense does, to break down a hitter by what he contributes to winning and losing rather than by how many hits he gets per at-bat, to judge a player’s defense beyond the occasional diving catch and by how often the ball boinks off his glove. As I’ve always said, there are a lot of ways to enjoy baseball. And there is no wrong way.
So with that as my preamble, I’ve been thinking about the most basic baseball stats — and five very simple ways I would improve them. And let me say up front that my suggestions would not make the basic stats more advanced — the opposite. They would make the basic stats even more basic, which I think would be good.
1. Team wins = pitcher wins
Assuming you’re a baseball fan, you probably know most of the convoluted rules it takes to get a win these days. As a starter you have to go five innings, your team has to be in the lead if you are taken out of the game, your team cannot surrender that lead when you are out the game, and so on. It seems simple but it really isn’t. And as a reliever … well, it can get REALLY tricky for a relievers.
Simplify. I’ve never hidden my disdain for pitcher wins as a statistic, especially in modern times when hardly anybody pitches a complete game, but if you’re going to use this stat anyway (and let’s be honest, it ain’t going anyway), fine. Just keep track of how often a team wins the game when the pitcher starts. That’s all. Eliminate the no-decision, which if you stop to think about it is actually a bizarre concept. There are no “no decisions” in baseball. Somebody wins. Somebody loses.
So, make it so that the only pitcher who can get a win or a loss is a starting pitcher. This won’t hurt anything — nobody cares about reliever wins anyway. We’ll come up with a better statistic to judge reliever performances. Make it the starter’s game. If the starter goes 2/3 of an inning, give up 8 runs, but the team comes back and wins — he gets the win. If he goes 9 innings, give up no runs, and the team loses in the 10th, he gets a loss. Chris Carpenter “went” 16-9 in 2010. But what does that even mean? He made 35 starts. Isn’t it more telling that his team went 22-13 when he started a game?
And don’t hit me with “But that wouldn’t always be fair to the pitcher.” It’s not fair now. It’s less fair now.* If a starting pitcher’s job is to keep a team in the game, give a team the best chance to win, then let’s see how often the team wins and loses when he pitches.
*I feel about this the same way I feel about awarding the All-Star Game winner homefield advantage in the World Series. I think it’s a dumb way to do it. BUT it’s certainly less dumb than the old way when they just alternated homefield advantage. Sometimes, you have to judge something against its history.
2. If it’s a sacrifice, make it a sacrifice.
Consider this scenario: Man on second, nobody out. Batter is asked to bunt the runner to third. He fails on his first attempt. He fails on his second attempt. And with two strikes, he takes a goofy swing and chops the ball to second base, which moves the runner to third.
In this scenario, he gets an at-bat. He’s zero-for-one. Why? If he had managed to get the bunt down, he would not have been charged with an at-bat. He’s zero-for-zero. Why? There’s no reason why. A bunt and a chop to second accomplished precisely the same thing. The reasoning seems to be that a bunt is a TRUE SACRIFICE, meaning that the hitter is entirely giving himself up for the sake of the team, while the chop to second is only a PARTIAL SACRIFICE because he might luck into a hit. But, of course, the bunter might have gotten a hit too. And anyway, I think the chop to second is a much truer sacrifice because the hitter is sacrificing his own stats.
I say count ’em. All of them. I’m all for keeping up with sacrifice hits and sacrifice flies so that we can know who are the scrappy gamers, and the gamey scrappers out there. But to me, all sacrifices should count as at-bats. You made an out. That should count against your batting average. That, to me, is what sacrifice means. You are giving up something for the betterment of the team. You are willing to reduce your individual statistics in order to help the club win. I have no special appreciation now for the unselfishness of someone who lays down a bunt — big deal, it doesn’t hurt the average. I have no special respect for the generosity of spirit of someone who hits a sac fly — for hitting the ball in the air, he gets an RBI, and he gets fist bumps, and he gets heaped with praise by announcers AND it doesn’t count against his average either.
I say count ’em. If you bunt over a runner, if you drive them in from third base with a fly ball, you get credited with a sacrifice, you get the appreciation of teammates and fans, you get known as a team player. But your batting average goes down. That’s a true sacrifice, my friend.
3. Simplify RBIs.
In many people’s minds, there is nothing more noble in all of baseball than driving in runs. Yes you can scream — I have screamed — about how RBIs are context stats, they are a reflection of a team and the batting order as much as the skills of a player and so on. RBIs might be the most deceiving popular statistic in baseball because people love it so much.
But, people DO love it. So, to me, if you are going to to give out RBIs — give ’em out. In this spirit I would make two recommendations:
— If a run scores based on your hitting, you get an RBI. Basic baseball statistics are way too judgmental. I’ve often told the bit about the first baseball story I ever wrote for a newspaper. My mother, a decided non-baseball fan, read the story and, being a supportive Mom, said she liked it except for one part: I had referred to a run as an unearned run. Well, who was I to say that a run wasn’t earned?
Same goes with RBIs. If someone hits into a double play, and a run scores, the run still scored. Give ’em the RBI. If a player hits the ball and it is botched and a run scores, the run still scored. Give ’em the RBI. I’d say any batted ball that results in a run scoring should get a run batted-in.*
*I still would not give an RBI for a run scoring on a wild pitch or passed ball since the term is Run BATTED In. I’m actually surprised, based on baseball’s statistical history of disregarding the walk, that they credit a batter with an RBI if he walks (or is hit by pitch) with the bases loaded. But I’m glad they do.
— I would make it so that you do not get an RBI for driving yourself in with a home run. This is not just double counting — it’s triple counting. The guy who hits a home run already gets credit for the home run. He already gets credit for the run scored. I don’t think he should ALSO get credit for the RBI. Making this small change would clarify some things anyway — it would bring back the rarity of the 100 RBI season for one. Anyway, my sense is that with RBIs we are really looking for how often they drive in OTHER runners. By “Good RBI Man” people tend to mean the guy who will drive in the runner from second with two outs or the guy who can get the runner home from third. Tacking on their home runs muddies up the concept, I think.
Here are your home run minus RBI leaders in 2010. You might be surprised by who is No. 1.
1. Alex Rodriguez, 95
2. Delmon Young, 91
3. Miguel Cabrera, 88
4. Vlad Guerrero, 86
5. Carlos Gonzalez, 83
6. Evan Longoria, 82
7. Casey McGehee, 81
8. Robinson Cano, 80
9. Ryan Braun, 78
(tie) James Loney, 78
4. Give me “every run average” rather than “earned run average.”
The funny thing about xFIP and how much some people despise it is that it’s hardly a new effort. People have been trying to pinpoint and separate a pitchers individual ability from the team’s defense for 100 years and more. That’s the whole concept behind the earned run. The idea is that if a fielder makes an error, well, that’s NOT THE PITCHER’S FAULT. And if it’s not the pitcher’s fault, then why should you count it against his statistics?
This, of course, leads to all sorts of ridiculousness. My mother really was right. For one thing, we don’t add runs to the pitcher’s “earned run” total when the fielder makes a spectacular run-saving catch. We don’t add a home run to the pitcher’s home runs allowed total if an outfielder leaps at the wall and brings a home run back. In those cases, the pitcher and the fielders are all in it together. So why discount the pitcher’s ERA because of errors? Why mess with reality?
Second, you do know how unearned runs are figured, right? The official scorer goes through the inning and attempts to RECREATE the inning without the error. That is to say, a third baseman boots an easy ground ball with two outs, the official scorer makes the determination that the inning SHOULD be over. That’s why every run scored after that error is called “unearned.” Sometimes, believe me, this sort of recreation can go beyond absurdity. Let’s say a guy is on second with one out. A ground ball is to short. The shortstop throws the ball away, and the batter goes to second. Well, at the moment, that’s an unearned run because the guy would not have scored. But if the NEXT GUY hits a single, then it becomes an earned run because now it’s assumed the guy would have scored. There are a lot of assumptions like that.
Third, of course, an error is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a moving target. An error in Cincinnati isn’t necessarily an error in Baltimore. Baseball stats should not change and shape-shift at the whim of some official scorer. Make it ERA — Every Run Allowed — after all, it’s a pitcher’s job to work around errors, to make the best of any and every situation.
2010 Leaders in Every Run Average
1. Josh Johnson, 2.50
2. Roy Halladay, 2.66
3. Adam Wainwright, 2.66
4. Clay Buchholz, 2.85
5. Felix Hernandez, 2.88
6. Tim Hudson, 2.91
7. Ubaldo Jimenez, 2.96
8. Roy Oswalt, 2.98
9. Johan Santana, 3.03
10. David Price, 3.06
5. Create simple but effective middle-reliever stats.
These poor middle relievers. Starters have wins. Closers have saves. But the middle relievers, who are becoming a bigger part of the game every year, don’t have anything. Yes, I know, people have tried to make the “hold” catch on … but it lacks the simplicity and power that a mainstream statistic must have. More on that in a minute.
As you know, I’m in favor of giving ALL wins to the starting pitcher. So I would be in favor of a couple of special and very simple middle reliever stats. I’m not smart enough to invent these statistics, but I would make recommendations:
— Inherited Runners Stranded. I would have this as a simple counting statistic — how many innings did you end with other pitcher’s runners on base? You could also do this as a percentage, though I love the idea of a counting stat so that a pitcher could lead the league in IRS. We could even give out the Orosco Award — no pitcher in baseball history* stranded anywhere close to the 790 baserunners Jesse Orosco stranded. And Orosco stranded them at a 75% clip — a very, very high percentage. It’s the highest percentage for an pitcher who inherited more than 500 baserunners.
*I assume — the stat only goes back so far but relievers weren’t as big a part of the game before the stat.
This year’s Orosco Winner would be San Diego’s Joe Thatcher, who stranded 54 base runners (Orosco’s career high was 57). Here are the Top 10 in IRS (with the IRS percentage in parentheses):
1. Joe Thatcher, 54 (81%)
2. Randy Choate, 51 (77%)
3. Javier Lopez, 48, (84%
4. Peter Moylan, 47 (69%)
5. Randy Flores, 46 (78%)
6. Santiago Casilla, 41 (87%)
7. Pedro Feliciano, 41 (82%)
8. Todd Coffey, 39 (65%)
9. Darren O’Day, 37 (74%)
10. Tony Sipp, 36 (80%)
— Clean Innings could be quite simply the percentage of full innings thrown where the reliever did not give up a run.
— A Setup. The setup stat could be simply be how often a pitcher hands off the lead to the ninth inning. You might even do this with the same rules as a save, only for the eighth inning.
Finally, all this gets at one more point: I don’t know that we do as good a job as we can of explaining the power of some of the best advanced statistics. WPA, for instance, is a wonderful statistic, one of my absolute favorites. WPA simply looks at every situation and credits or debits each players account based on how his actions helped or hurt the players chances. For instance, with the score 3-3 in the fourth inning, a guy hits a double with two outs. Well, his team now has a better chance of winning than it did before. That better chance is put into the hitters account. But at the same time, the pitchers team has a slightly smaller chance of winning. So that same amount is taken OUT OF HIS account. If they pitcher strikes out the next batter to end the inning, well, the chance for his team to win is now better, so that amount is put into the pitcher’s account, and it is taken out of the account of the batter who struck out. You see? It’s figures EVERY CONTRIBUTION (including fielders contributions) and EVERY SETBACK and and puts them into a season-long bank account.
It’s a great statistic, but it’s hard to take mainstream because:
1. It’s a somewhat more complicated concept than most people want.
2. It’s not something that a kid can figure out at home at the breakfast table.
3. It just took me a lengthy paragraph to explain and I’m still not sure I explained it well.
People do want baseball statistics — they want them, they need them, they rely on them, they argue about them, they cherish them. But the statistics must have at least the illusion of simplicity. On-base percentage, as I have pointed out many times, is a much simpler statistic than batting average — people will always say “Batting average is simply hits divided by at-bats” without explaining exactly how they got that at-bats total in the first place. On-base percentage is also a much more telling statistic than batting average.
But so far, anyway, on-base percentage does not have the power that batting average has. In part, I think it is because we have not yet come up with good verb for it — a guy can “hit” .300, but he can’t “on-base” .400. In part, I think it is because there are strong anti-walk feelings out there. In part, I think it is because batting average has been part of the American baseball landscape for more than 100 years and on-base percentage has not. I think the more we talk about on-base percentage, the more it will become ingrained in the baseball statistical landscape. But it takes a long, long time — and a lot of power — for a statistic to go mainstream. It’s not enough to yell “This statistic is better!” It may be better. But it has to grab the baseball fan’s heart. In the meantime, they’ll keep talking RBIs.