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updated: 3/25/2014 12:08 AM

Miles: Sabermetrics changing baseball's numbers game

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  • When Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award in 2010 with just 13 victories, it was a watershed moment for modern baseball analytics.

      When Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award in 2010 with just 13 victories, it was a watershed moment for modern baseball analytics.
    Associated Press

  • Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera proved that old-time stats still draw big-time attention ... when you win a Triple Crown, as AL MVP Cabrera did in 2012.

      Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera proved that old-time stats still draw big-time attention ... when you win a Triple Crown, as AL MVP Cabrera did in 2012.
    Associated Press

 
 

Choose whichever water analogy you like: the dam breaking or the tide turning.

The watershed moment in the battle of those advocating old-school baseball statistics and those favoring today's sabermetric numbers may have come in 2010.

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That year the Seattle Mariners' Felix Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award. His won-loss record: 13-12.

Among the contenders were CC Sabathia (21-7), David Price (19-6) and Jon Lester (19-9).

Not too many years ago, Sabathia probably would have been a shoo-in for the Cy Young because he crossed the 20-win threshold.

But in recent seasons, advanced baseball analytics have shown that wins by a pitcher, while nice, can be misleading.

Hernandez in 2010 was a good example. In 10 of his starts, his offensive mates scored only 1 run or were shut out. Hard to get a win when that happens.

The Baseball Writers Association of America, which gets a somewhat unfair rap when it comes to voting for such things as the Hall of Fame and which has been accused of being slow on the sabermetrics uptake, appeared to listen to the new-schoolers when it came to the 2010 Cy Young.

Voters apparently took into account Hernandez's 2.27 ERA, his 1.06 WHIP (walks plus hits per 1 inning pitched), his 7.1 wins above replacement (WAR) for pitchers, and his 174 ERA plus, which is scaled to league average and takes into account ballpark effects. A 100 ERA-plus is average, and numbers above 100 are better.

So it now appears that pitcher wins no longer are what they used to be, and that's not the only stat that has come under closer scrutiny in recent years. You're liable to take a good ribbing today if you call somebody "an RBI guy," and the blown save has come under much-deserved criticism when it applies to anyone other than a closer.

At the time he won the Cy Young, Hernandez was appreciative that voters looked beyond the win-loss record.

"This confirms the Cy Young is an award not only for the pitcher with the most wins, but the most dominant," he said.

Even Price agreed.

"I feel like they got it right," he said. "Felix, I thought he deserved it, even though he didn't have a lot of wins. You can't really control all that. You can't control the offense and the hitters and stuff like that."

Not everybody felt the same way, though.

One coach I spoke with in the final weeks of the 2010 season said wins should not be overlooked and that he would have had a hard time voting for Hernandez because of the lack of W's next to his name in the box score.

Pitcher Roy Halladay also seemed to have trouble with giving Hernandez the award.

"Obviously, Felix's numbers are very, very impressive," Halladay said. "But I think, ultimately, you look at how guys are able to win games. Sometimes the run support isn't there, but you sometimes just find ways to win games."

The stats revolution began taking hold about a decade ago. That time coincided with Greg Maddux' return to the Cubs. I remember chatting with Maddux in spring training and asking him what he thought the most important stat for a pitcher was. He replied: "Wins."

Maddux quickly added that he understood stats such as WHIP and ERA, but he felt the pitcher had to do all he could to win the game for his team.

His teammates no doubt felt the same way. I was in the clubhouse in San Francisco when Maddux got his 300th career win, and I had to dodge the spray of liquids being washed over Maddux in celebration. This summer, he'll head to Cooperstown on the strength of his wins total and his magnificent stats overall.

Speaking of Cooperstown, talk the last few years ran rampant over the candidacy of pitcher Jack Morris, who is off the BBWAA ballot after his allotted 15 years, having failed to get enough votes for the Hall of Fame. (It's a fair bet the Veterans Committee will put Morris in at some point when he goes onto that ballot.)

Morris had a won-loss record of 254-186. His 254 victories are tied for 43rd all-time and put him ahead of such Hall of Famers as Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Whitey Ford, Don Drysdale and others.

However, Morris had vociferous opponents in the sabermetrics community who argued that his 3.90 ERA was not Hall-of-Fame worthy. They also pointed out he never won a Cy Young Award and that some of his peripheral numbers should keep him out of Cooperstown.

The ribbie rhubarb:

Back when Dusty Baker was manager of the Cubs, he'd go up and down the lineup and say things like Aramis Ramirez was "my RBI guy" and Moises Alou was "my clutch man."

The whole "clutch hitter" debate is one for another day, but the RBI debate is a fun one to watch today.

Years ago, voters for the Most Valuable Player often tended favor the leader in runs batted in.

Today, thanks again to advanced analytics, the RBI has taken a back seat to stats such as on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, which combines on-base and slugging. OPS-plus, which is scaled to 100 like ERA-plus, is another measure that researchers say gives a clearer picture of offensive prowess.

Other terms, such as "true average," used by Baseball Prospectus, and "weighted on-base average" (wOBA), used extensively by FanGraphs, now are in vogue.

The problem with relying too heavily on RBI is that the stat depends on the "RBI guy's" teammates. In other words, if nobody's on base ahead of a batter who hits a home run, it's hard for him to rake in the ribbies. But if a cleanup hitter has a couple of .340 or .350 OBP guys batting ahead of him, he's going to, well, clean up in the RBI department.

In 2005, Cubs No. 3 hitter Derrek Lee had a hitting line of .335/.418/.662 for an OPS of 1.080 and an OPS-plus of 174. He had 199 hits, 50 doubles and 46 home runs.

However, Lee had "only" 107 RBI. You might have figured a guy with Lee's stats would have been good for 125-130 RBI, but with players such as Neifi Perez (.298 OBP) and Corey Patterson (.254 OBP) hitting ahead of him on many days, it was difficult for Lee to drive up the RBI total.

"This does not make RBIs meaningless, only incomplete," wrote researcher David Grabiner. "But the real problem with RBIs is ... they measure a lot of things which are not the player's own contribution. You cannot drive in runners who are not on base (except with home runs), but your own batting doesn't put them there; if you bat behind good players, you will get a lot of chances."

A blown stat:

Quick, who was the Cubs' leader in blown saves last year? Carlos Marmol? Kevin Gregg? Not even close. Heck, not even a closer. It was left-handed setup man James Russell.

Russell went 0-for-8 in "save" opportunities, but know this: A reliever can get a blown save as early as the sixth inning. A starter can get a win by pitching 5 innings with his team in the lead, but if that lead is relinquished, the pitcher on the mound when that happens gets tagged with a blown save.

That's unfair to middle relievers. They often come in during difficult situations, with men on base, while closers most often start a clean ninth inning.

It might be better if the blown save was reserved for pitchers who work the ninth inning or maybe even the eighth and ninth. Pitchers who give up the lead earlier than that ought to be charged with a "blown hold."

Revenge of the non-nerds?

So what to do if you're whipped by WHIP or at war with WAR?

The beauty of baseball is that it can be enjoyed on any level, and if the stats on the back of the baseball card are enough for you, more power to you. And more RBI, too.

So take heart, you old-schoolers. You have one important recent victory in your own personal win column.

In 2012, the MVP race in the American League came down to a debate between those who favored Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and those who touted the Angels' Mike Trout.

Many felt Trout was the better overall player and based it on his 10.9 WAR overall and his 8.8 offensive WAR.

But Cabrera won the MVP because he pulled off something very rare: He won the Triple Crown, leading the AL in batting average, home runs and RBI. That hadn't been done since Carl Yastrzemski won it in 1967, when the only WAR that was being talked about was the one in Vietnam.

Here's to you, traditionalists: Your stats might not be what they used to be, but they ain't dead yet.

• Follow Bruce's baseball and Cubs reports on Twitter at @BruceMiles2112.

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