Sabermetrics Make Me Nervous Too

Sabrmetrics make me nervous too.

An ongoing discussion in baseball – and the realm of Mop-Up Duty since its inception 5 years ago - has been Sabrmetrics and the search specifically for a metric that would be applicable to go on the back of a baseball card.  A metric that is tangible and simple, something that a 10 year old would be able to understand and compare players performances.  An old adage stands, “if you cannot explain the concept to a barmaid you probably don’t understand it yourself.”

So what is in a Sabrmetric?  What are they really trying to do?  They claim to be more accurate ways of measuring a player’s ability, production and therefore value to a team and a if they are going to get rich playing ball.  We also find that Sabrmetrics can be applied to players to explain known things in a statistical sense.  BABIP can aptly explain why Aaron Hill has been dogged with terrible batting average in 2010 and 2011 but has continued to have a high slugging average.  The answer?  Everything is in the air, it is either over the fence, in the gap for a double or a fly out.  The stat BABIP can isolate this but even without the stat a fan watching him day in and day out, his coaches, the media and Aaron himself know that he pops up way too much, much more than the normal player.  Even without BABIP coaches and players know what they need to work on.  A Sabrmetric may be valuable in this case to quantify what people that are charged with solving the pop-up problem already know.

Also, Sabrmetrics try to absolve unlucky players or correct fortunate players.  For instance Nolan Ryan, who in 1987, probably his greatest single season led the NL in ERA and K’s while posting only 7 wins and a losing record – obviously unlucky.  But was Ryan unlucky his entire career?  While being able to lock up over 300 wins and amongst the top 15 all-time in wins, he is also in the top 10 all time in losses.  The all-time K leader by a long stretch played on average teams his entire life which obviously effected his overall W-L numbers and percentage.  That said, his ERA, WHIP and WAR (I know, a poor stat for pitchers) are well below comparison to similar players who are considered with a similar amount of wins and much fewer K’s.  Did bad luck follow him or was he just able to pitch long enough and effectively enough to become a legendary pitcher.

Sabrmetrics also try to supplant traditional statistics.  Below are two lists of the all-time leaders in two categories.  One is RBI’s and the other is OPS.

List 1
Ruth
Williams
Gehrig
Bonds
Pujols
Foxx
Greenberg
Hornsby
Ramirez
McGuire

List 2
Aaron
Ruth
Anson
Bonds
Gehrig
Musial
Cobb
Foxx
Murray
Mays

Try to guess which column is which.

A keen student of baseball history will surely be able to pick which column is which.  There are a few outliers in this list worth noting.  One is McGuire, to be discussed below. who was all homers and not much of anything else, including RBI’s and OPS makes him one its all-time studs on a list of bona-fide Hall of Famers or future ones.  Also, Hornsby and Cobb stand out.  These players were not the same slugging type of players that the rest are but high avgerage and OBP players.  They are not your normal meat of the order players and interestingly are anomalies in the separate columns. 

The answer, the first column is the all-time OPS leaders and the second list is the all-time RBI leaders.  In generalities the highest OPS players will likely be those players batting in the middle of the order and therefore accumulating the most RBIs.  What worries me here is that even without OPS you can identify your slugging studs by RBIs.  So why is OPS so vital and RBI become as unpopular as a steal of home?  Back to McGuire who was all homers and not much of anything else, including RBI’s and OPS makes him one its all-time studs on a list of bona-fide Hall of Famers or future ones. While players like Anson, Aaron and Cobb who at 20 years in each case and were around long enough to accumulate RBIs despite not have some of the highest OPS’s but all had OPS of over .900.  So who is studlier – Aaron or McGuire? 

Ty Cobb & Hank Aaron

If you use OPS or RBIs you would be able to identify most of the greatest run producing studs of all-time.  When I feel that Sabrmetrics show great value is when they incorporate new measurements into the game.  For example, the greatest fielders are typically judged on fielding average but as Callum pointed out last week there is much more to fielding than how well you handle each chance.  A fielder has always been determined by getting to the chances that no one else can get to.  If someone were to look at the Diamondbacks shortstop John McDonald’s fielding average you would see a player with a good fielding average that makes routine errors just like any other fielder.  But what you don’t see is that by having a player such as McDonald you make your other fielders stronger as he will handle the bad throw from the catcher to keep the ball out of centrefield.  He will handle the bad throw from the third baseman and still turn the double play.  He will make the play in the hole and throw the player out.  Whereas a “normal” shortstop will simply knock it down of even have it go through the infield and not be charged an error.  These, again are items that scouts, managers and media types will always be aware of but it is impossible to compare John McDonald’s ability to dive and throw across his body to that of say Honus Wagner.  What sabrmetrics have tried to do is incorporate range and other factors of defensive play in a quantitive measurement to a qualitative ability, albeit with some success.  However, to see footage of a 1933 game and a ball hit up the middle and the shortstop making or not making a play but to be able to say that John McDonald would have made that play is too naïve to be useful.  There are many other intangibles involved to make a statistical analysis of that play.  For example today’s players are better coached, trained, conditioned and equipped.  Perhaps some of the reasons McDonald would be able to make the play in 1933 is due to sabrmetrics, but until I see a stat that proves it I will be a worried man with a worried sabrmetric mind.

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Images courtesty of The Big Picture and Ninety Feet of Perfection.

  • http://www.twitter.com/callumhughson Callum Hughson

    Oh, really? I thought it was always a good time to get f*cking rich.

  • http://www.twitter.com/callumhughson Callum Hughson

    Earl: we’ve had some comments on Twitter. I’ll let you address them as you see fit:

    1) Good article but there’s a mistake, shortstops does not handle throws from third basemen in a double play chance. That’s a second baseman’s duty to cover and turn to first. Big mistake there! Maybe you meant to say First baseman.

    2) Plus, how many times we see an IF has to make a perfect throw, or the 2B/1B won’t get it? that’s tricky. ’cause IF can be(& are) judged by their peers inability to properly field a perfectly good pick-up throw. i mean, yeah, love SABRmetrics, but with some of ‘em we need ‘em paired with others to see its meaning.

    3) in the BABIP example, we can’t know its by his pop-outs, ’til we check said stat and AO/GO, etc.

    4) and applied to OF: Gardner covers so much, Granderson is moved towards fewer balls are hit and as a consequence, his UZR can take a plunge, while Gardner’s increases.

    5) Good pitchers can make IF look bad by their sheer ability to K more. more K’s = less grounders = less chances, sometimes more linedrives difficult to field = ‘bad’ UZR.

  • http://www.twitter.com/callumhughson Callum Hughson
  • Early

    To comment.

    1. Mt bad, not a big one. True SS take turn from 2B and 2B takes turn from ss or 3B. My point remains the same.

    2. The greatest fielders will make routine errors and that is easily reflected in FA. Maybe they are judged by his peers more harshly when they can’t make a play on fielding a throw rather than a batted ball. I would agree with that if that is what he is getting at. I think it would be easy to isolate FA on thrown received, throws made and batted balls fielded.

    3. True.

    4. And Ruth wouldn’t have had such great numbers if Gehrig wasn’t hitting behind him. That is the essence of the article. Yankee followers know that both OFers can cover ground but trying to quantify that can be deceiving. I say that SABR incorporates defensive stats with some success. I understand there is a need to quantify performance and with trad stats and SABR alike they can miss the point in a team game.

    5. Again, it is a team game. Nowhere do I defend UZR other than pointing out there is great value in incorporating measuring range for fielders. Of course there are flaws in the application. Just like SABR heads try to say there are flaws in tradition stats or old school “feel” managers.

    • http://www.twitter.com/callumhughson Callum Hughson

      Re: Ruth/Gehrig. So you’re saying you believe in lineup “protection” then?

  • Craig

    “So why is OPS so vital and RBI become as unpopular as a steal of home? ”

    OPS isn’t a “replacement” for RBIs. OPS is supposed to roll in batting average, walks, and hitting for power/bases (slugging). Sabermetricians have already come up with an improvement of OPS called wOBA, but that’s really beside the point.

    People crap all over RBIs because the stat measures how often a players’ teammates got into scoring position. Player 1 has an on-base percentage of 1.000 and plays on a team with 8 other people who never get on base (.000). Player 1′s only RBIs would come from home runs, so let’s say they get 50 RBI. Player 2 has a .333 OBP and plays on a team with 8 other people who always get on base (1.000). In 750 plate appearances, player 2 gets AT LEAST 100 RBI. Wow, Player 2 sure is AMAZING.

    RBI is a terrible, imprecise stat, and it is not a good way of identifying “run producing studs”. I’ll take Player 1, please, and RBI can go into a corner to die.

  • Early

    I don’t think you understand my point here. Look at the list of OPS vs RBI. They are the same people or types of player. Would Ruth be an RBI guy if he batted 9th? No, but because he is a big OPS guy he bats in the meat of the order. Your example isn’t realistic unless you are looking at the first game of the season or a similar tiny sample size. Look at the long run in the statistical history of baseball and many RBI is a stud and high OPS is a stud. How can you disagree that RBI’s don’t identify the alltime greatest players?

  • daperman

    At our level discussing SABRMETRIC we tend to only look at the “ELITE” players to uphold our point of view. Looking at both lists generally what ever old or new stat you use they will indicate that that player is a good player.

    For stats old and/or new try making the arguments for run of the mill players.

    Everyone on Early’s list would be taken in a moment if made available but start applying the stats to players of ordinary stature.

    If you take catchers for example. They move from team to team each year on one year contracts. Blue Jays have seemed to have a new one each year. Molina, Buck, Barojas, Zahn. Arencibia. How would SABRMETRICs and traditional stats determine who would be the best of this group. I guess both offensively and defensively.

    • http://www.mopupduty.com Matthias Koster

      The Jury is still out on defensive SABR stats for the C position.

      From the above list, I imagine Zaun would win out due to his higher OBP, which is such a large component of wOBA, which is turn is offensive WAR. All catchers get the suspect (in my eyes) catcher run bonus which is calculated out based upon games played.

      • Tight_PP

        YOu could do the same for Blue Jays SS. Escobar/ Gonzalez/ Scutaro/ Eckstin/

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