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Come to Think of It: Cubs Slow to Adopt Metrics as an Evaluation Tool

Bob Warja@@bobwarjaSenior Writer IAugust 6, 2009

MILWAUKEE - JUNE 4: General Manager Jim Hendry of the Chicago Cubs talks with reporters before a game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park June 4, 2007 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

If you are familiar with the excellent work done by The Hardball Times’ Chris Dutton and Peter Bendix,  you are likely familiar with their creation of an expected Batting Average on Balls in Play metric (xBABIP).

BABIP—Batting average on balls in play: the rate at which batted balls other than home runs become hits has been mainly used to judge pitchers. That is, until the metric was improved by the creation of xBABIP, which has turned out to be a very strong predictor of future performance.

The idea is to separate skill from variance. They’ve isolated a batter’s skill at getting hits on balls in play; therefore, they can uncover players’ performances which are unlikely to be repeated.

Imagine how the Cubs GM, Jim Hendry, could use this information.

Consider a fine recent article by my B/R colleague, Tab Bamford. He rightly points out that signing Aaron Miles was a mistake.

Hendry was apparently blinded by Miles’ .317 BA and his switch-hitting ability (keep in mind that everything Hendry did this past offseason was predicated on the false assumption that we lost in the playoffs because we were too right-hand dominant).

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But, if he or his staff of front office dinosaurs had bothered to check xBABIP, they would have found that Miles was among the luckiest hitters in baseball in 2008, and was very likely to regress in 2009.

Everyone made a huge deal last year over the Cubs suddenly new-found emphasis on on-base percentage. As well they should have, since OBP is such a vital statistic when measuring the offensive value of a baseball player.

Yet this emphasis has not seemed to have been fully adopted as an organizational strategy throughout the Cubs system. They continue to draft hitters with a poor batting eye, and are not focusing their efforts on developing this skill at the minor league level.

How many players like Corey Patterson and Felix Pie do we need to see before we recognize the importance of solid strike zone judgment?

It is one of the reasons that Tyler Colvin remains stuck in the minors, with a projection no greater than a fourth outfielder in the bigs. This, despite being a first round draft choice.

Even their top prospect, Josh Vitters, does not take a lot of pitches. He has a nice swing, and I like his potential, but don’t be fooled by his success at Peoria.

Vitters should have been moved up to Daytona at the start of this season. That way, he would have been playing against pitchers more his peer and his results would have been more meaningful.

This year’s first round pick, Brett Jackson, is another guy who is known for very poor strike zone judgment.

Of course, advanced metrics aren’t limited to hitting. Perhaps if Hendry had considered the available data, he would have noticed that Ryan Dempster was likely to regress to the mean of his career level, rather than continue the success he enjoyed in 2008.

Just as it is laughable to use traditional measures such as batting average and RBI as the primary determinant of a hitter’s value, it is equally moronic to gauge a pitcher’s value based on simple wins and losses.

RBI is a stat of opportunity; it measures the ability of the table setters in your lineup to get on base more than it measures an ability to drive in runs.

And, a pitchers wins and losses are highly dependent on run support.

But the Cubs under Jim Hendry’s watch have not been proponents of using sabermetrics in the way that a lot of clubs have. Heck, the Red Sox even hired the guru himself, Bill James.

Consider some of the following quotes from Hendry over the years, courtesy of Fire Joe Morgan.com:

“Nobody sets out to ignore it. Guys don’t try to have lower on-base percentages. Certain guys in our game are still great players who don’t have high, high on-base percentages.”

 

On-base percentage is overrated, according to Hendry. The year after he made this comment, the Cubs led the NL in OBP and won 97 games.

 

“Still, more importantly, you have to knock people in, knock the runs in the right way with two outs in the seventh, eighth and ninth inning."

 

So, getting on base is less important than driving in runs “the right way?"

“It goes hand in hand with your experience level as much as looking at the back of a baseball card or a STATS, Inc., book on certain numbers.”

 

Hey, don’t be bothering Hendry with numbers.

“The game’s all about two things: scoring runs and knocking in runs, and you have to have a balance of all of it.”

 

Oh really, Jim, no pitching? What about run prevention; i.e., defense? Doesn’t ring a bell?

Okay, enough Hendry bashing. Those of you who read my stuff already know my feelings on the Cubs GM.

But it’s not even so much that he’s a bad GM, it’s just that it’s frustrating to hear such antiquated talk in an information age.

Numbers lie, right? Well, not if you interpret them properly and follow a balanced approach.

We’re not saying to remove the human element of the game, or to totally eliminate your gut instincts.

Just use the data, Jim. That’s all we’re asking, use the data.  

Who knows, it just might save you $5 million next time, come to think of it.

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