Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Sabermetrics Aren't For Everyone, But Are For Anyone

As baseball evolves in time, one thing will always remain, and that is the fact that the sport is a thinking man's game. Regardless of what is going on in front of you, there's numerous outcomes to consider in any given instance prior to them taking place. A large portion (let's call it 90%) of the game remains simple at its core on the field, but that emerging 10% can often being explained by statistical analysis.

Sabermetrics aren't for everyone, but there's no doubt they are for anyone. In a numbers driven sport, it's probably time for a wider variety of numbers to be given their due.

Full disclosure, I don't consider myself a sabermetrics diehard. I understand their place, value, and use. I include them and credit certain values in my writing, and I believe they help to explain some of what your eye already sees on the field. I don't believe they are a be all, end all. They have a place, and far too often aren't given that.

Recently, Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press caught up with Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki in the name of sabermetrics. Suzuki is the poster child for such a discussion. He's roughly a replacement level catcher, and finding any and every advantage to improve his game and worth should be his constant goal.

In his piece, Berardino asks Suzuki two questions that get somewhat appalling responses. Here is what was said:

On what stats he likes: “Obviously the WHIP for the pitchers. I don’t know what the other stuff is. (Fielding Independent Pitching), I don’t know what that means. For hitters, I like the OPS. I think OPS is better than average. That has a lot to do with it.”

On zero being replacement level:  “I find that hard to believe.  If you take a big-league guy and then you go get some guy from Double-A, you’re telling me that? Unless it’s a bench player, I don’t see that.”

Addressing question one, Zuk keeps it simple. WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) is a valuable takeaway. It's pretty simply logic to understand that putting guys on base (no matter how it happens) isn't beneficial to a pitcher. What WHIP doesn't explain is what Suzuki decides to ignore.

FIP (fielding independent pitching) has become one of the most important pitching numbers over the past couple of seasons. In understanding FIP, a pitcher is able to assess their performance in relation to being a sum of total parts. Knowing there are eight defenders playing into what happens on any given batted ball, a pitcher's effectiveness is quantified in relation to his ERA. FIP helps to tell a deeper story, whether or not hits are warranted, or a by-product of a bigger issue. Once again highlighting that there is no one number that does complete justice.

Again staying in a relative comfort zone, Suzuki looks at OPS (like WHIP, OPS would not be considered a traditional sabermetric stat). OPS (on-base plus slugging) has gained relevance in recent years because of what it says about a batter. As seen in his teammate Brian Dozier, Suzuki understands that average alone is not a good measure of a player's value.

Batting average is the quantifiable sum, but it's on-base percentage and slugging percentage that win games. Dozier for example has a paltry .248 AVG, but his .318 OBP and .495 SLG set him apart. He walks a considerable amount (though less than his career average, which is another issue altogether), and he finds ways to give the Twins runners. When he is hitting the ball, he also finds ways to snag extra bases, which drive his slugging percentage way up. A batter getting on base, and being further on the base paths is no doubt more valuable than a consistent singles hitter.

The second question Suzuki addresses is just somewhat indicative of the problem as a whole. Sabermetrics are definitely not for everyone, but they are very much for anyone. Suzuki has decided to look past a level of understanding because he has chosen to discredit the metrics. Whether that's because they aren't kind to him, or for some other reason, remains unsolved.

Replacement level being zero in and of itself should be a relatively easy numerical,value to grasp. If WAR (wins above replacement) calculates a positive or negative value, then 0 would serve as the statistical baseline. Plus or minus that number would then define a player's ability.

Defining replacement level is somewhat difficult, but FanGraphs states: "One who costs no marginal resources to acquire. This is the type of player who would fill in for the starter in case of injuries, slumps, alien abductions, etc." At it's core, that definition is relatively self-explanatory. Working as an MLB player to increase your value, targeting areas of concern would no doubt be a good place to start. If WAR is a sum of all parts, understanding the underlying sabermetrics that make up the whole would be a good plan of action.

At the end of the day, any amount of numbers can get to a point where the game becomes a chess match inundated by numerical values. At its core though, baseball is a chess match, and knowing how to utilize the numbers in your favor is something that no doubt is the difference in certain key situations.

Sabermetrics aren't for everyone, but they are for anyone and should be comprehended by those looking to utilize their utmost value.

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