MLB: The Problem With Relying Solely on Sabermetrics

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MLB: The Problem With Relying Solely on Sabermetrics

Much to the chagrin of baseball purists, sabermetrics are here to stay.


Many baseball fans are well-aware of the new brand of statistics, but even the casual fan has started to be introduced to the emerging new style of keeping track of how well a player performs.

Sabermetrics are a very useful tool. They dig far deeper into the actual game than traditional stats do. For instance, one of the stats that has long-determined how well a pitcher performs is his win total. Sabermatricians rightfully argue that a win does not necessarily tell the whole story of how well a pitcher pitched in a particular game.

For instance, a pitcher could conceivably throw a complete-game, one-hitter, and lose 1-0, picking up the loss. On his very next outing, he could give up five runs on 10 hits in five innings, and pick up the win because his team scored 10 runs in the first three innings.

Clearly, a win doesn't tell the whole story about whether or not a pitcher performed well on a given day.

However, the problem with sabermetrics is that while they attempt to dig deeper than traditional stats, they often simply trade one flawed stat for another.

An example of this is BABIP (Batting Average for Balls In Play). What this statistic measures is what a hitters batting average is for everything that was not a home run, a strike out or a foul out. It essentially attempts to measure how lucky a hitter gets. Statistics would say that regardless of how good or bad a player is, 30% of all balls put into play should fall for a base hit.

So when a player has a .212 BABIP, as Chris Iannetta had in 2010, it is easy for fans to suggest that he simply was a victim of bad luck.

On the other hand, Jonathan Herrera, a guy firmly in the mix for the second base job, logged a .330 BABIP in 2010. According to sabermetrics, Herrera was lucky, and Iannetta was extremely unlucky.

The problem with this stat? It assumes that all balls put into play are equal. It doesn't take into account the pitches that a player chooses to swing at, or any flaws in his swing. For instance, Iannetta, who struggles with a loopy swing, found himself consistently popping up. Instead of squaring balls up, he was constantly working underneath pitches, lifting them high in the air,  which were then easy for the defense to catch.

Herrera, on the other hand, is a hitter who has a plan at the plate. When he doesn't get the pitch that he wants, he simply fouls off the pitch and waits until he gets the one that he likes.

While Herrera is by no means the definition of a great Major League hitter, his .330 BABIP should not simply be excused as luck. Same goes for Iannetta, as his low BABIP was not simply line drives finding gloves, it was pop flies waiting for a defender to camp underneath the ball.

Another beef I have with sabermetrics is their favoritism towards power. One of the statistics that has widely been accepted by even the purists is OPS. That statistic measures on base percentage, plus slugging percentage. Anyone with a .900 OPS or above is an amazing player, but average is around .750 or so. Anything lower than .700 is bad.

On Monday, respected Rockies blogger Andrew Fisher of Purple Row tweeted "I wonder how many Rockies fans know that Chris Iannetta had a better OPS in 2010 than Jonathan Herrera. Perception is reality."

While I respect Fisher and his writing, I strongly disagree with the correlation. OPS strongly favors a player who can hit for power. It is a great statistic, but when a power-hitting catcher and a singles hitting second baseman are put side-by-side, the stat favors the guy who can hit the ball out of the yard.

Obviously home runs are an important part of baseball, but suggesting that in Iannetta's worst season, he was still better than Herrera in his best season is not doing justice to either of the two players. Herrera has an instant obstacle in his way on the slugging percentage side because he isn't really a power hitter. But just because he doesn't trot around the bases often, does that mean he's not as good of a hitter as Iannetta?

Take a step back and look at the roles that both players are supposed to fill. The Rockies don't need Herrera, presumably a two-hole hitter, to be hitting doubles, triples and home runs. He is supposed to be a table-setter, a guy who can get on base and be on the pitcher's mind as he deals with the middle of the lineup.

Iannetta, however, is expected to hit for a few more home runs than others. He is not a guy who is going to foul off a bunch of pitches and steal the occasional base. While he does walk quite a bit, he is going to have an advantage in the OPS category because of his power.

Of course sabermetrics help. They dive deeper than the traditional stats. However, when they are relied upon as gospel, the fan has simply traded one flawed statistic for another. They should be used to find out certain statistics, but not used as a complete replacement for the stats that have been relied upon for over a century.

Disagree? Tell me why.

This article is also featured on INDenverTimes.com

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