By Mike Clay
You can calculate batting average. You can recognize when a player commits an error. You know all about Runs Batted In or, as they’re more commonly referred to, “RBIs”. In the old days, that was about all you needed to know to hold a conversation about the best and worst players in the major leagues. Today, that just doesn’t cut it. Enter terms like OPS, BABIP, LOB%, win shares, UZR, etc. If you have no idea what any of that means, you are quickly becoming a minority.
From Bill James to fangraphs.com to Tom Tango to baseball-reference.com to the next name or organization out there in the world, there are almost unlimited places to go to learn all about the new wave of baseball statistics. What does all this stuff mean? Without doing a full analysis, I’ll give an explanation.
The most obvious issue with the recognizable statistics is the fact that they don’t take enough available variables into account. You’d probably recognize that 40 homeruns at Coors Field in Colorado isn’t quite as impressive as 40 homeruns at Petco Park in San Diego, but in terms of statistics, how much less impressive is it? These are questions advanced statistics attempt to answer.
Batting average is probably the most common statistic used to rate a baseball player. It shouldn’t be. All that batting average tells you is what percentage of the time a player turns an at-bat into a hit. What about walks? What about extra base hits? Which pitchers did he face? What stadium was he in? Statistics like OPS and wOBA will take things like these into account and come up with more accurate numbers.
Now you should have an idea of what I’m talking about, so let’s try a test. The topic will be Earned Run Average (ERA). Pitcher A sports a 10-5 record and a 2.50 ERA at spacious Petco Park with the league’s 3rd best defense behind him. Pitcher B sports a 6-7 record and a 3.00 ERA at Coors Field with the league’s worst defense at his back. Which is better? If you answered Player A simply because of his lower ERA and better win-loss record, you’d be making a mistake. Pitcher A might not be the wrong answer, but you selected him for all the wrong reasons. Questions like “What is each player’s BABIP and LOB%?” need to be asked. Another is “how many runs would’ve been scored against the two pitchers had they been playing at a neutral park with league average defenses behind them?” A statistic like FIP can help answer that question.
There are tons of statistics out there, several of which overlap each other. Your best bet is to sit down, study them, and determine which ones, in your opinion, best rank players from top to bottom. This is by no means a perfect science and statisticians and baseball fans alike are developing better methods every day.
Next time you have a free couple of minutes, take the time to learn a few of these statistics. The conversion to the days where you hear them on ESPN and in the newspapers is coming faster than you think.