Simply Baseball Notebook: Perspectives

Beware of Stat-Heads!

'PERSPECTIVE': December 2003 - January 2004

Beware of the Stat-heads!!!
Sabermetrics Often Miss the Point

Manny: A stat-head's dream.

The sabermetric philosophy seems to be taking over baseball these days.  Terms like OPS (On base percentage Plus Slugging percentage) and Win Shares (a complex formula developed by Bill James, the father of sabermetrics) have become trendy.  While statistics are certainly important, other non-tangible traits such as leadership, production in the clutch, and overall attitude often get lost in the number crunching process.

On base percentage has risen from obsurity to become the most prevelant tool for measuring a player's value.  The theory is that a walk is just as good as a base hit.  A patient hitter that draws walks is more valuable than an aggressive hitter who rarely walks, but posts a higher batting average.  In fact, many say that batting average is the most overrated statistic in the game.

While it is true that on base percentage is important, the idea that a walk is just as good as a hit is a myth.  Walks rarely drive in runs (only when the bases are already loaded) and they only advance base runners if first base is occupied.  When there is a runner in scoring position with two outs, which would you rather have the batter do: slap a single to right or draw a base on balls?  The answer to that question is obvious.  Intentional walks are commonplace, but have you ever heard of an intentional a single?  Of course not, the idea is perpostorous.

Late in the 2003 season, ESPN.com's Rob Neyer, a devoted disciple of Bill James, wrote a column touting Alex Rodriguez as the American League MVP (see link below).  Neyer then went a number-crunching rant to justify his selection.  Based on that, his selection seemed legitimate.

Jason Stark, Neyer's colleague at ESPN, came back a few days later with a column that refuted Neyer's selection (see link below).  He pointed out a key stretch in late May to mid June when the Rangers were hovering around .500 -- it was their make or break time of the season.  Well, the Rangers went broke and fell out of the race.  During that span, A-Rod was nearly invisible.  It wasn't until July, with his team already out of contention, that Rodriguez began to amass his gaudy numbers.

Stark then argued that other candidates like Minnesota's Shannon Stewart and Boston's David Ortiz were more deserving of the award even though their numbers were far more pedestrian than A-Rod's.  Stark pointed out that Stewart and Ortiz were getting clutch hits in big games for winning teams, and their numbers, while not in Rodriguez's class, were solid.

The point here is not to pick on Neyer, who is a knowledgeable, talented, and successful writer who is also a very nice guy, or even A-Rod, who is possibly the best player on the planet; rather to point out that you need to look beyond statistics when determining how valuable a player is.

Take Boston's Manny Ramirez, for example.  Every year Ramirez puts up the kind of gaudy numbers that make stat-heads drool.  While his OPS are off the charts, he is a constant distraction with his me-first attitude and lack of maturity.  The bottom line is, he rarely hustles and can't be counted on.  In late October, the Red Sox placed the enigmatic slugger on irrevocable waivers.  For 48 hours, any team could have plucked him off Boston's roster without giving up anything in return (of course they would be stuck with his $20 million a year salary).  On paper he looks like one of the best players in the game, but not one single team wanted him.

This season's improbable world champions, the Florida Marlins, completely defied sabermetric logic.  Filled with free-swinging, base stealing types the Marlins used pitching, defense (a facet of the game often ignored by stat-heads), and timely hitting to overcome the more powerful Giants, Cubs, and Yankees en route to a title.

The stat-heads will tell you that base stealing is overrated, and that walks and home runs win games.  Sometimes that's true, but often it's not.  That's the point.  Sabermetrics isn't wrong; when used in the proper context, the data can be quite valuable.  Too often however, it is taken as gospel, and that is where the danger lies.

-David Zingler

-photo by Sebastian Vannavong

Neyer: A-Rod is AL MVP

Stark: No he's not

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