The game of baseball, for its fans, is a game of statistics. The greatest of all time at their respective position must have the numbers to back it up. The sensitivity for the era played, the race exclusion, or the tightness of the ball’s seams, has little impact on a fan’s perspective relative to the gaudy home run or strikeout totals the game’s best have compiled. However, the way the game is managed from the on-field and, until recently, the organizational perspective is driven by feel, eye-tests, and experience. If a prospect is 18 years old with no facial hair and big hands, scouts grovel at the potential development of his frame. However, if he is a left handed pitcher scouts are always willing to roll the dice. Baseball is full of axioms that are seldom considered in a quantifiable way and have persisted for decades as SOP’s in the following and management of the game. With the changing emphasis toward sabremetrics, the game’s statistical analysis is diverting greatly from those long held axioms and the classic old school v. new school debate is in full swing concerning America’s greatest pastime.
Let’s start with some of the under-analyzed axioms.
Lefties are always better suited to get lefties out.
Leadoff hitters should be your fastest position player.
Fourth and Fifth hitters should be powerful and drive in runs.
Strikeouts are bad.
Pitch counts don’t matter.
Out of these five, sabremetrics shows that only one of these 5 axioms appears to have merit. Pitch counts truly do not matter. Statistics tend to show a significant regression for starters by the third time through the lineup moreso than the magic 100 pitch mark.
So, for the other 4, how willing are today’s organizations to accept the available data and incorporate it into their management style? The fame of Billy Beane’s Moneyball approach, or the use of statistical analysis to ascertain a correlation between important stats and wins along with player salary, has popularized the idea that there is a different way of doing things for small market teams unable to afford the free agent contracts. But, as of yet, this approach has not yielded a World Series championship for any organization employing its tactics.
But, that doesn’t mean it can be dismissed as many “old-school” fans attempt to do. Instead, an opportunity is being presented to the fans and organizations alike. Baseball can be a stat driven game for all parties, but make them the right stats. Test the flawed or unproven axioms instead of reverting to unfounded conventional wisdom. Leadoff hitters, like any hitter, should primarily be concerned with getting on base. A team with a high OBP and a high slugging percentage will score runs. (Example, 2012 Oakland A’s, 2013 Boston Red Sox). No slot in the order has any statistical advantage relative to qualitative ability when examined in a vacuum. Lineup construction is unique to team ability. Those same Oakland A’s set the record for strikeouts for a team but lead their league in offense. Strikeouts are outs. Seeing a lot of pitches and hitting for power can be successful. It worked for them, just like other strategies will work with other team’s skill sets. The teams that struggle are the teams that attempt to incorporate all aspects simultaneously. The 2013 Phillies have speed at the top of the lineup (Revere and Rollins if both were hitting) and power in the middle (Utley, Howard, and Brown). However, none of those guys get on base. Brown may set the record for solo homeruns this season and the team suffers as a result.
Pitching may be even more revealing in terms of what can be learned using sabremetrics. BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls in Play, is a true guide to determining how lucky a pitcher is getting. For example, Matt Harvey is 15th with a .257 BABIP, but his 2.27 ERA is legitimate because of a 10.2 K/9 which suggests that his success is reliable. Travis Wood, a lefty with an underwhelming track record, leads the league with a .211 BABIP and only a 6.5 K/9 but has managed a 2.69 ERA which is considerably less reliable albeit still very impressive. The idea with stats like this and also Strand Rate, is to illuminate trends for pitchers that are less significantly reflected in more arbitrary measures such as ERA and Wins. Always trust a pitcher’s WHIP over his ERA because the best way to give up runs is to trend toward putting men on base. A bad bullpen or bad defense can easily balloon an ERA or keep a Win total down. High strikeout totals are favorable for pitchers who have high WHIP and BABIP because they can strand higher percentages of runners via the strikeout.
This crash course in pitching and hitting in the world of sabremetrics is less than a glimpse of what is going on inside the most progressive and forward thinking organizations, however, this should give us something to think about when we judge hitters by AVG, HR, and RBI only or pitchers by Wins, K’s, and ERA only. Statistics are meaningless unless they tell you how to predict a necessary adjustment or anticipate a future event as Jeff Van Gundy astutely points out regularly. But, the wrong statistics are even more meaningless in their predictive capacity. So, what should we learn? Don’t bring in the lefty if his split stats don’t tell you to. Don’t draft the baby-faced teen if his “5 tools” are all mediocre, and just ask Billy Beane, a walk truly is as good as a hit.
The so called conventional wisdom in baseball needs to change because that wisdom loosely translates to antiquated, unfounded axioms that can easily lead to the wrong personnel or game management decision. So, bombard yourself with stats, the ones that count. All stats count in a quantitative way, but do they count in a qualitative way?