Comparing Analytics vs. Old-Time Stats

ALSO: GLAD TO GET RID OF 'MANFRED MAN,' OTHER COVID CHANGES

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Pregame Pepper

A Red Sox fan named Chris Nandor, a software developer, hacked the 2015 All-Star ballot, launching a program that gave nearly 40,000 votes to Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra before MLB discovered and discarded his ballots . . .

Atlanta’s All-Star right-fielder Ronald Acuna, Jr. was leading the majors with 72 RBI when he suffered a season-ending ACL tear . . .

Contrary to the unwritten rule that prohibits Sunday starters from pitching in the Tuesday All-Star Game, Oakland’s Chris Bassitt worked for the AL following a 94-pitch outing two days earlier . . .

Yankees nemesis Jose Altuve capped a one-out, six-run, ninth-inning outburst with a three-run homer to give the Astros an 8-7 win in the last game before the All-Star break . . .

Home Run Derby entry Trey Mancini of the Baltimore Orioles may be trade bait despite his feel-good story: diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in March 2020, he had a malignant tumor removed a few days later and underwent chemotherapy until late September . . .

Because his father Dante was Colorado’s hitting coach in 2013, teenaged Bo Bichette, now an AL All-Star, once took batting practice at Coors Field and hit a home run – at age 15 . . .

All-Stars from both leagues honored the late Hank Aaron by wearing his famous No. 44 on their batting practice jerseys . . .

Leading Off

I Got My wOBA Tangled in My rOBA and Tripped on My FIP

By Russ Walsh

If you are a baseball fan of a certain age, you probably learned most of what you know about baseball statistics like I did – from the backs of baseball cards. It was a simpler time. You rated your heroes by BA and ERA and H and HR and W and L and SO and BB and you were happy. Today things are much more complicated. Bill James and Moneyball and Sabermetrics happened and now all the data available can’t fit on a multi-page spreadsheet, let alone the back of a baseball card. All this data can be daunting to a baseball writer raised on AB and PO.

Don’t get me wrong, I am no Luddite seeking to overthrow the wheels of progress. The new statistics have greatly increased both my enjoyment and understanding of the game. It has also helped elevate the value of previously undervalued players like a Brett Gardner or Carlos Ruiz. It forces a reckoning on what really constitutes a great player and enriches arguments about who does and does not belong in the Hall of Fame. It is just that this sea of data can be the cause of vertigo for the baseball writer who grew up thinking RBI was a key statistic. How do I square my instinct to look at batting averages and earned run averages to evaluate players with the new math that tells me to look deeper?

To deal with my confusion, I decided to look at the statistics for a comparable set of hitters and a comparable set of pitchers. I chose players who were retired and from two different eras – the 1950s and the 1990s. The older player is in the Hall of Fame, the younger is not. I also chose players I had seen play for an extended period, because I still trust my eyes more than my BAbip. Here is what my comparison showed. Who among these belong in the Hall?

For the hitters I chose two long time center fielders and lead-off hitters, Richie Ashburn and Kenny Lofton. Here is the comparison using traditional statistics.

As you can see these two players had similar career lengths in terms of years, games, at bats and hits. Ashburn hit for a slightly higher average and Lofton hit with considerably more power. Ashburn’s on-base percentage, a traditional measure for lead-off hitters, is .396, a good bit higher than Lofton’s .372. On the other hand, Lofton was a much more prolific base-stealer, influenced in part by the premium put on stolen bases in his era.

Now let’s look at player value using more advanced metrics.

These figures result in some mixed messages. Rbat (Runs batting) and Rrep (Runs above replacement) would indicate a clear superiority in runs produced for Ashburn. On the other hand, Lofton has a clear advantage in dWAR (defensive Wins Above Replacement) a critical statistic for a position like center filed. While these data would indicate Lofton was the superior fielder, traditionalists might point out that six of the all-time top ten seasons for putouts by an outfielder were recorded by Ashburn. The salary line shows one clear difference in the two eras that we all can understand.

Finally for these two players, what can these “Advanced”  metrics tell us.

Here we see the players with nearly identical BAbip (Batting Average of balls in play) at .327 and .326 respectively. Ashburn, a prolific walker, has the advantage in OPS+, while Lofton blows Ashburn away on PwrSpd (combined Power and Speed).

Taking all the data together, I would conclude that these are two comparable players who fall in the marginal Hall of Famer category. The advanced metrics help Lofton’s case for induction, but I am not sure that the case is not also made by the standard measures from the back of his baseball card.

Now let’s look at pitchers Robin Roberts and Curt Schilling. Both were right-handed power pitchers and workhorses for their teams. Schilling compiled a remarkable post-season record pitching with the Red Sox and Diamondbacks, while Roberts won 20 or more games six seasons in a row, mostly with a mediocre team.

Standard measures show that Roberts won and lost many more games than Schilling. Schilling had a much higher W-L %, while Roberts, pitching in the 1950s before relievers took on the larger role they have today, blows Schilling away in terms of CG (complete games). ERA and WHIP (Walks + Hits per Innings Pitched) are close, while Schilling was the greater strikeout pitcher. 

In doing my research for various articles I have written I have found ERA+ to be useful construct. ERA+ attempts to normalize earned run average for ballpark effects. Schilling scores somewhat higher on ERA+ at 127 to 113. FIP (Fielding Independent ERA) is also useful because it uses the same numerical construct as ERA but tries to determine what a pitcher’s ERA would be independent of a good or poor defense behind him. Again, Schilling (3.23) shows up a bit better than Roberts (3.51).

What about the value metrics?

Roberts comes out higher in WAR (Wins Above Replacement), while Schilling has a considerably higher WAA (Wins Above Average). Statisticians looking into the qualifications for entry into the Hall of Fame find the WAA statistic to be more useful. WAA compares a player to the average major league player, while WAR compares a player to a replacement level (i.e. minor league) player. There is no question that Roberts belongs in the Hall, but advanced metrics would indicate that Schilling, who came close last year, certainly belongs in there, too. 

Thank you for joining me in my journey to integrate advanced metrics into my “back-of-the-baseball-card” mentality. My nostalgia for the well-placed bunt or the complete game may sometimes cloud my vision. A better grasp of the advanced metrics of the 21st century will help us all make more clear-eyed assessments. 

Russ Walsh is a retired teacher, die-hard Phillies fan, and student of the history of baseball with a special interest in the odd, quirky, and once in a lifetime events that happen on the baseball field. He writes for both the SABR BioProject and the SABR Games Project and maintains his own blog The Faith of a Phillies Fan. You can reach Russ on Twitter @faithofaphilli1.

Cleaning Up

Baseball Czar’s Bizarre Changes To Hit Dustbin Of History

By Dan Schlossberg

When Rob Manfred succeeded Bud Selig as Commissioner of Baseball, the move was widely greeted as a case of good news and bad news.

Good that the octogenarian, scowling Selig was gone but bad that Manfred was his hand-picked choice to seize the baton in a game rife with problems.

Selig, who will always be remembered as the man who cancelled the World Series and presided over a 232-day player strike, must have seen the handwriting on the wall. And that was before Covid created a national nightmare that hit the game especially hard.

The outgoing commissioner knew that the Basic Agreement between owners and players would expire on Dec. 1, 2021 and that a work stoppage would be likely.

Manfred, formerly chief labor negotiator for the owners, would be held hostage by the union and the angry visage of Marvin Miller, its no-nonsense executive director for 27 years and a newly-elected Hall of Famer (after seven rejections).

Facing the uncertainty of an upcoming labor battle, Manfred managed to hold out an olive branch during a lunch date with the baseball writers at the Denver All-Star Game.

Among other things, he said that ownership favors a return to more traditional baseball.

No more seven-inning games in doubleheaders or automatic runners on second in extra innings, for example.

“It’s not change, it’s restoration,” Manfred said. “That’s why people are in favor of it. I’m hopeful we will have productive conversations with the MLBPA about non-radical changes to the game that will restore it to being played in a way that is closer to what many of us enjoyed historically.”

Manfred noted that baseball has gone without a work stoppage for 26 years and said he hopes labor peace will last. “Our No. 1 priority is to get a new agreement without a work stoppage,” he said. “We have a very professional working agreement with the [union]. The fact that we had a period of time, as we did last spring, where we had serious disagreements is not an indicator of whether we’re going to get a new agreement.”

So far, both sides agree that special rules enacted because of the pandemic will likely be removed during collective bargaining. And the designated hitter will become universal again, as it was for the single virus-shortened season of 2020.

So say goodbye to things like the Manfred man, the automatic runner placed on second to start every half-inning, and the seven-inning double-header, a device designed to speed up games and save the arms of pitchers. Maybe MLB could even award a no-hitter to Madison Bumgarner, who got credit for a shutout and complete game without allowing any hits but was denied an official no-hitter, which would have been his career first.

Manfred also claimed credit for better attendance (16 million in the first half) and TV ratings, higher TV ratings, the launch of an annual Lou Gehrig Day, and the incorporation of Negro Leagues statistics into general MLB records.

He disavowed blame for moving the All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver for political reasons and the general plunge in the game’s offensive output (a mid-June decision to search pitchers for sticky substances to accelerate spin rates has helped). Manfred is already on record in opposition to the extreme shifts deployed by many clubs in this age of analytics.

The commissioner added that the Oakland Athletics have permission to relocate, even to Las Vegas, where the NFL’s Oakland Raiders preceded them. If they move, the A’s would be the first franchise to play in four different cities.

Manfred finished his remarks by revealing that MLB executives were unhappy with the large contigent of players who skipped the All-Star Game.

“We have a Basic Agreement provision that with certain narrow exceptions, participation in the All-Star Game is mandatory,” he insisted. “We will review with the union how all of the people that didn’t come fit within the exception to the rule. We bargained for that and intend to enforce it.”

MLB would also like to enforce mandatory player and staff vaccination for Covid-19, he said, but seven teams remain below the required 85 per cent threshold for loosening restrictions.

HERE’S THE PITCH weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ covered the All-Star Game for Latino Sports. He also writes baseball for forbes.com, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Ball Nine, and other outlets. Contact Dan via e.mail address ballauthor@gmail.com.

Timeless Trivia

Little-known Miami righthander Pablo Lopez carved a niche in the MLB record book by fanning the first nine Braves on July 11 . . .

Milwaukee so desperate for hitting that it took a flyer on Toronto’s Rowdy Tellez, whose name is better than his batting average (.125) . . .

As the game halted for the All-Star break, the Arizona Diamondbacks stood last in the NL West, 32½ games behind and 40 games under .500 (26-66) . . .

For the second time in his career, Don Sutton’s son Darren was fired as a broadcaster in mid-season (first by Arizona, now by Anaheim) . . .

Surprise, surprise: since June 22, the best rotation in baseball has belonged to the Colorado Rockies (2.13 ERA since that date, the lowest in franchise history for any 18-game span) . . .

Softball legend Jennie Finch, a gold medalist for Team USA in the 2004 Olympics, is the best pitcher in her family – her husband is former major-leaguer Casey Daigle.

Who could have guessed that Mark Melancon would be the midseason saves leader (27) after inking a low-cost, one-year San Diego contract for $3 million?


Know Your Editors

HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [bchrom831@gmail.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [nymfan97@gmail.com] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [ballauthor@gmail.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.

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