Sabermetrics: Are New Age Numbers in Baseball Replacing Common Sense?

Lou CappettaAnalyst IIMarch 31, 2012

Saber-metrics gined much notoriety in the book Moneyball
Saber-metrics gined much notoriety in the book Moneyball

I am a life long baseball fan.

I learned the great game of baseball from my father, who learned it from his father, and I have since passed the lessons of the game on to my son.

It's the perfect way to learn America's Pastime, a game that is as much about tradition as it is about balls and strikes.

Unfortunately, baseball is often viewed as a game whose tradition gets in the way of progress. As other sports evolve with the times, some seemingly with ease, baseball begrudgingly makes small advances while keeping one eye on the past at all times.

Within the last 20 years, Major League Baseball has made more changes to the game than almost any other period in it's storied history. There have been four teams added, two divisional realignments that included the Brewers and Astros switching leagues, two expansions to the playoffs, an adjustment to make the All-Star game mean something and instant replay added—all of which coming under commissioner Bud Selig's tenure.

Despite the relative success of each innovation made by commissioner Selig, there was almost always some sort of opposition to each change.

More teams would water down the competition, more playoff spots would make the regular season less meaningful and instant replay will remove the human element from the game are all some of the arguments made against change in baseball. They all seemed valid at one time, yet in hindsight, now seem a bit ridiculous.

Just as the way the game has changed on the field in many aspects over recent years, the way baseball is analyzed has changed as well, as many a baseball historian or statistician have began to look past the traditional "triple crown" numbers in an effort to better analyze a game where, more than any other sport, numbers tell the story.

Starting in th late 1970's, Bill James helped bring a new way to analyze baseball statistics
Starting in th late 1970's, Bill James helped bring a new way to analyze baseball statistics

This is sabermetrics, a system created to better analyze in-game baseball performance through the unbiased evidence of numbers. The term is a word created from the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research, and the suffix metrics, or a standard of measurement.

It sounds like a great way to further analyze a great game, but as useful and as widely used as sabermetrics have become, there is a downside. This vast array of new numbers and statistical categories can sometimes cross the line from being very useful to replacing common sense.


A Brief History

Introduced as far back as the mid-1960's in the book Percentage Baseball by researcher Earnshaw Cook. The book, widely discarded by baseball executives and criticized by many from baseball writers to fans, discussed the value of such things as relief pitchers, the sacrifice bunt and the traditional batting order using mathematical evidence.

Since then, the sabermetrics movement has been brought to the forefront of the analysis of America's Pastime by the likes of baseball historian Bill James and his books The Bill James Baseball Abstracts, David Grabiner's Sabermetric Manifesto, the book and subsequent film Moneyball and MLBnetwork's Clubhouse Confidential, among others.

The once frowned upon form of baseball analysis has become so widely accepted that most teams employ sabermetricians today to offer further analysis to go along with good old-fashioned scouting.


The Good, The Bad and The Confusing

Perhaps no player personifies Billy Beane's Moneyball system more than former A's slugger Jack Cust.
Perhaps no player personifies Billy Beane's Moneyball system more than former A's slugger Jack Cust.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The judgement of the talent of players and teams in baseball has always been about numbers. Be it the most simplified statistics such as the most runs win the game and the most wins win the pennant, to the more intricate, such as the calculation of a pitcher's earned run average or a hitter's slugging percentage, baseball has forever been linked to numerical value, so in essence, the idea of sabermetrics is not all that far-fetched.

The differences between the more traditional statistics and some of the newer ones introduced by sabermetricians can be very slight.

For example, in sabermetrics traditional statistical categories like runs scored and RBI are viewed as less important than categories like runs created, a stat that estimates the number of runs a player contributes to his team. The former benchmark for the prowess of a hitter, batting average, has since been viewed as less important as categories such as on-base percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage.

Statistics such as these have changed the way the game is analyzed forever. Many have been very useful, but as sabermetrics becomes more widely accepted, have these numerical formulas that require a master's degree to figure out totally eliminate the human "eye test," or even worse, common sense?

Take for example the statistic of on-base percentage, which over the years has become one of the most important statistics in baseball, and one which Billy Beane's system in Oakland was based around in terms of evaluating hitters.

Yes, getting on-base is very important, but has the importance of getting on base taken away from traditional wisdom, that putting the ball in play is just as important?

According to FanGraph's formula for WAR, a declining Chipper Jones has been more valuable the last three seasons than Ryan Howard, a slugger in his prime.
According to FanGraph's formula for WAR, a declining Chipper Jones has been more valuable the last three seasons than Ryan Howard, a slugger in his prime.J. Meric/Getty Images

Is getting on-base as important for players in the middle of the lineup as it is for player closer to the top of the order? Conventional wisdom says no, but there are plenty of people who would consider Jack Cust, a player who personifies the Moneyball system made famous by A's general manager Billy Beane, more valuable than a player like Mark Reynolds.

Both players are big power guys with low batting averages who strikeout a ton. Both guys are going to bat closer to the heart of the lineup than at the top with the tabel setters. So why would Cust's .374 career OBP overshadow the fact that the man has never driven in more than 82 runs in any year he was a full-time player.

Reynolds strikes out more than Cust, and walks much less, as evidenced by his career .331 OBP, but also has more than 100 more career RBI than Cust since 2007, and has hit no fewer than 28 home runs while driving no fewer than 85 runs since 2008. Over the same span, Cust's bests are 33 home runs and 77 RBI. Are we really to believe that on-base percentage is more important than the more traditional power stats for hitters who bat closer to the middle of the lineup?

Some stats are downright confusing, while giving some questionable results.

Take the stats WAR and VORP or wins above replacement and value above replacement player. The WAR stat is used to show how many more wins a player provides his team over a replacement player. VORP shows how much a player or pitcher to his team overall compared to a replacement player. The replacement player is based on the league average bench player for each position.

Both stats are figured out through a rather lengthy algebraic formula. Sometimes the results go against conventional wisdom. To further complicate matters, there are different versions of the formula for a whole slew of variables.

For example, without doing any research, who has been the more valuable player over the past three seasons, Braves third baseman Chipper Jones or Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard?

Chipper Jones is winding down his career, is about nine years older than Howard, is now injury prone at this stage of his career, and has averaged only 121 games played, 15 home runs, 62 RBI and a .269 batting average the past three seasons. Howard is in his prime and has three-year averages of 152 games played, 36 home runs, 122 RBI and a .270 average.

Conventional wisdom alone would say that just the fact that Howard can stay on the field an average of 30 more games per year makes him much more valuable than Jones over the last three years. However, to my surprise, after reading a very well-written piece on Bleacher Report by Shaun Payne, I was wrong.

You can check out Shaun's piece here, which reports that according to the WAR formula used by FanGraphs, Jones was actually more valuable than Howard, with WAR ratings of 7.8 and 7.6, respectively. Shaun then goes on to point out that the formula used by is more reasonable, but still very close, as Howard's 9.1 WAR is less than one win better than Jones' 8.2.

That is just one example (one that also lead to this article), but after looking at Baseball Reference's yearly WAR top 10, every season there are questionable results.

For example, according to WAR, in 2010 Sin Shoo Choo (6.5) was more valuable than Robinson Cano (6.3) and Adam Wainwright (6.2), and in 2009 Ben Zobrist (7.0) was more valuable than Roy Halladay (6.8) and Chone Figgins (6.6) was more valuable than Dan Haren (6.5).

While there are some seasons where the rankings seem reasonable, like in 2011, looking at the list of top 10's over the years, there are at least as many seasons with questionable rankings as there are where everything seems to shake out appropriately.


The Verdict

There are so many statistics out there now, some of them very complicated that it's simply not fair to just totally disregard the validity of sabermetrics as a whole. On the contrary, many of these stats have changed the way players are evaluated for the better and the way the game as a whole is evaluated as well.

While sabermetrics have become a vital part of the game, it also can never totally take the place of the good old-fashioned ways of evaluating talent. The "eye test" is and always will be just as important as any numbers in baseball and needs to be coupled with the mathematical data provided by sabermetrics. It's why good front offices employ both old-fashioned scouts as well as new-aged sabermetricians.

In other words, anyone who has ever taken a college statistics class knows that numbers can be manipulated almost at will, so it's important to be responsible with them. It may make traditionalists cringe, but sabermetrics is here to stay. As long as baseball evaluators don't replace these new mathematical equations with common sense, it should continue to be a useful tool in the evaluation of baseball talent.

Begrudgingly or not, baseball does evolve, and every time it does, it survives.