Saturday, June 30, 2012

On Stats and Skills

Because I'm cool, I spent tonight texting diatribes to Andy about the common misuse of stats. I tried to describe my feelings of how they ought to be used, especially by fans. This proved to be difficult to capture, even considering how most of the messages were the length of a short-story (Andy can attest). Anyway, I'm going to try to explain myself a little better in this space and won't stop until I'm done: stream-of-consciousness style.

My main gripe is one that I have absolutely no basis to gripe about. I could be completely wrong, but it's worth exploring. It's the idea of what people see when they look at a stat-sheet.

What do you see when I tell you Joe Mauer has a .325 batting average, 13.4% walk rate, 2.4 WAR and 35 RBI? How do you weigh the importance of each stat? Is batting average more important to you than the WAR? There is no right answer.

However, my contention is that statheads try to summarize players to a fault. A couple caveats, first off, I often do this. Secondly, they do a fantastic job of summarizing players.

That said, why should we want to summarize players into one stat? It's immensely valuable for front offices, the great research that is done on the internet and maybe even message board arguments. But it is really boring. WAR doesn't you anything about a player. A 6-win player from last season could be either Jose Reyes or Mike Napoli.

No shit, right? Right. Well because my thesis here is fully half-baked, that's the best I could do there. The basic point is that WAR isn't a beautiful statistic. You can't see WAR on a baseball field.

But on the other hand, you have batting average. Which has almost been marginalized a tiny bit in the post-Moneyball world. This is a beautiful stat. It tells you about a physical ability of the player. It's a numerical manifestation of the 'hit tool' that you'll always hear about with prospects.

Similar thing with walk rate. It's another component that describes what you see on the field. For pitchers strikeout rates, walk rates and ground ball rates are all manifestations of what you see on the field.

Interestingly, the statheads are the ones who advocate such stats. By 'such stats' I mean ones that are direct outcomes of skills (k/9, bb/9 and more abstractly: contact rates and walk rates). And by 'advocate' I mean use as the basis of all analysis. On the other hand traditionalists will advocate for stats that even further removed from the actual physical action: byproducts of the direct outcomes (ERA specifically). Not to say ERA doesn't have it's place. In my case, I may give it even more weight than the average saber-nerd.

Back to what statistics tell us. My overall goal when I set out with this half-baked idea (now leaning towards 2%-baked) was to say each stat has it's own story. Each tells us something unique in the abstract. Each will manifest differently for each player in the specific. They act as component parts to describe a ballplayer.

I'm not going back to read that whole mess, sorry if there were spelling/grammar errors. And honestly, I'm sorry you even read this much. I'm going to try to converge my new "philosophy" with my baseball watching and see if I can work it out a bit. If I was a better writer maybe I could explain better too. Regardless, this won't be the last time this blog sees my rambling, but hopefully next time it will be more interesting.

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