D.O.S. (Death of Statistics), Pt. I

Hold up, only writer to rewrite history without a pen
No I.D. on the track, let the story begin, begin, begin

There’s a movement among all sports to find a quantitative way to measure the ins and outs of sports. From DVOA to PER to UZR, there is just a profusion of statistics made to more accurately figure out which players actually are better. But no sport has more of these progressive statistics that baseball, oftentimes called an individual sport disguised as a team sport.

Personally, I’m a big proponent of nearly every aspect of the fast-charging sabermetric movement, and I think it’s about time that these ground-breaking innovations become more mainstream. The back-of-the-baseball-card thinking of batting average, runs, homers, and RBI meaning everything is prehistoric, yet not everyone is willing to let go. But here’s where things change. I’m going to run a four-part series where I debunk out-dated statistics along with their corresponding awards, and finish with introducing a new statistic I’ve recently created.

This is the Death of Statistics, moment of silence.

Defense has always been the toughest aspect of baseball to quantify. Whereas on offense, it’s easy to show runs being scored, driven in, and created offensively, we can’t explicitly see how many runs are being saved defensively. Ultimately, the goal of defense is to make an out, but we’ve still yet to find a numerical way to illustrate split-second instincts or if a player takes the shortest route to the ball. We can barely quantify the strength an accuracy of a throwing arm beyond the scouts 20-80 scale.

I have two main rules of thumb for statistics: if it’s subjective or you can’t explain how you get to the number, it’s not a good statistic. There’s nothing you can learn from analyzing “data” that is all based from opinion. If you’re looking for an opinion on how well Torii Hunter can still cover ground on center field versus right field, I’d suggest talking to a scout.

This brings us to the oldest defensive “metric” in the game: the error. After all, the last thing you want to do is mess up defensively, right? And a team’s attentiveness to details can be easily tracked by their fielding percentage, right? Well, not so much. Simply put, you can listen to any baseball broadcast and hear two to three instances in every game when the announcers squabble over whether a hot shot down the line was an error or a hit. And then if that hitter scores, the scorer’s decision is the difference between an earned and unearned run for the pitcher, one of the reasons people should take ERA with a grain of salt.

I suppose this World Series deciding whiff isn't an error since Nelson Cruz never actually touched the easy pop fly.

But the borderline call on the shot down the line isn’t even the most egregious flaw of the statistic. The worst part of the statistic is the application to fly balls. Take this common situation into consideration: Lance Berkman is manning right field, and an easy fly ball is hit to his right. The only problem is Berkman originally breaks to the left, has to switch directions and relocate the ball. He gets back on track, but realizes he probably won’t get to the ball in time. Lance has two options: a) let the ball bounce and hold the runner to single or b) dive and try to take away the base runner.

If Berkman lets the ball bounce, he doesn’t get an error, despite his poor fielding and lack of  judgement. If he dives and barely gets leather on the ball, he gets an error because he touched the ball and should have made the play. He made the same mistake on the play, but the error doesn’t cover the real problem. How can the difference between a good and bad defensive play be just touching the ball? It doesn’t make sense.

Fine, you say, then we can look at outfield assists to see who’s got a strong arm and doesn’t by looking at how many runners they threw out. Well the assist really isn’t a good measuring stick for how good an arm a player has. Alex Gordon led the league in assists partially because he has a good arm, but players aren’t afraid to take an extra base on him, either. Had the ball been hit to Ichiro, they would have thought two or three more times before taking off for an extra base. Need more proof? Manny Ramirez led the league in assists back in ’05 and the great Pat Burrell was tops in the NL in 2001.

With those prehistoric statistics out of the way, it’s time to focus on what is, in many experts opinions, the best metric for defense: UZR. Ultimate Zone Rating is a very complicated stat, but once you familiarize yourself with it, UZR becomes quite the tool. Basically, the baseball field is split up into 64 zones. For infielders, only ground balls–bunts included–are taken into account (this means no pop ups or line drives). As for outfielders, only fair fly balls and line drives are included. For each zone, the league-wide out-rate for that specific zone at the player’s position is subtracted from the player’s out-rate for a net rate.

Still with me? Next each net out-rate is multiplied by the number of balls hit in that zone, which gives us the total balls saved or lost compared to league average. This value is then multiplied by the run-value for a ball hit in the zone, which finally gives us the runs saved at this zone. Total up all of the zones for the player, and you have UZR, total runs saved.

But not everyone is on board with UZR or newer fielding metrics in general, which is evidenced by the Gold Glove Award winners. Really, these awards are of little consequence, but the way winners have gotten them in the past really bother me.

As you look through past winners, you’ll notice two things: lots of repeat winners and lots of winners on career years. While the best defenders are generally good throughout their career, the method to the madness of voting for Gold Gloves is not great. Analyst Keith Law puts it best when he said, “The two best ways to win a Gold Glove are to hit like crazy or to have won a Gold Glove before. And then once you’re in, you’re like an African dictator for life. It’s yours until you retire or until you’re just so awful that they can’t overlook it anymore.”

It sounds wrong, but it’s all-too-often true: MVP candidates are often handed Gold Gloves because of the attention they receive. Conversely, weak offensive players rarely get consideration because they’re considered less valuable players. It’s wrong, but it happens. Take for example, the NL Gold Glove winners. Matt Kemp pulled home his second trophy in three years, despite a 2011 UZR of -4.6 and a career total of -42.3. But since he was one homer short of become the fifth member of the 40-40 club and nearly posting a .400 OBP, voters look at his athletic frame and highlight catches and hand him the award.

Andre Ethier had to be another questionable winner, despite his error-less season. He, along with Kemp and Clayton Kershaw were the lone bright spots for a terrible Dodger season, and their nice story line commandeering awards from much more deserving teammates Chris Young and Justin Upton of the D-Backs, who combined to save nearly 22 more runs than the Dodger duo. And while on the subject of Dodgers did Clayton Kershaw really have an exceptional fielding year, or did his 22 wins and 2.38 ERA help out a bit?

Former Dodger ace Orel Hershiser can help answer this quandry. In his eighteen year career, he won a Gold Glove once. Coincidentally, it was the same year he won his only Cy Young, went 23-8 and had a 2.26 ERA over 267 innings. On a Sunday Night Baseball broadcast a year ago, he admitted that he didn’t really feel like a better fielding pitcher that year. But he sure did feel like a better pitcher.

The system for picking winners, plainly, is flawed. Even though Brett Gardner was far and away the best fielder in the league with a 25.8 UZR–a slight improvement from last year’s 24.9–he didn’t put up MVP numbers offensively like Jacoby Ellsbury, and runners didn’t try to run on him like they did on Alex Gordon, so he didn’t come home with any hardware. Other players like Ben Revere, Peter Bourjos, and Franklin Gutierrez, who cover the two thirds of the world Fred Smoot doesn’t cover, managed a combined OBP of .305, costing them a shot at awards.

Times are changing, and it’s time to embrace a newer approach to defense. And for the love of Tebow, don’t let offense make or break the candidacy of a potential Gold Glove winner.

This is the Death of Statistics, moment of silence.

La da da da

Hey Hey

Goodbye

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