Offering a new perspective on baseball
Get ready to be WHIPed and slashed.
No, those aren't fighting words. But in the end, this does mean WAR.
In the coming days, we'll roll out our around-the-horn spring series on the Cubs and the White Sox, taking a look at each position around the diamond.
In doing so, we'll toss out some terms like WHIP and WAR and OPS and OPS-plus and BABIP. Those terms have been in vogue in recent years as the statistical or "sabermetrics" revolution has taken hold among many baseball observers and now in most team front offices.
The trick for us is not to overwhelm the casual reader. For example, I had a gentleman once ask me, "What is slugging percentage?"
Most of us of a certain age grew up with the "baseball-card" stats of batting average, home runs and RBI. Some national baseball broadcasters still haven't moved past those three and those three alone, and that's too bad.
I've always maintained that if a fan can get a grasp of just a few of the more advanced stats, the game becomes easier, not harder, to understand and enjoy.
Of course, baseball is such a great game that it can be enjoyed on any level.
The number cruncher may be able to tell you that a pitcher's BABIP was too low in the first half and that's why he's getting knocked around in the second.
But Granny in Grand Rapids can be just as right when she says she "just knew" Anthony Rizzo would come through in the clutch.
So let's get started, and I'll always remember the quote attributed to the great Vin Scully and others that "statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support and not illumination."
Slash and grab:
In stories I write, you might see a batter's statistics presented as such: .300/.341/.480. Because of the slashes in between the averages, this is called a slash line. The components are batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. And to answer the aforementioned gentleman's question, you figure slugging percentage by diving total bases by at-bats.
If you add the last two components, you get what's called OPS, or on-base plus slugging. In the example, the player's OPS would be .821.
Sometimes, you'll see a figure called OPS-plus. It might read 120. OPS-plus takes into account ballpark factors and league average. A guy with an OPS of 120 is 20 percent better than league average. If a guy is below 100, you might want to look for a better hitter.
On the WAR path:
In new-age baseball parlance, WAR stands for wins above replacement player.
The figure, calculated in a couple of different ways by different sites aims to show how many more wins a player gives a team as opposed to a "replacement-level player," who might be a bench guy or a call-up from the minor leagues.
According to fangraphs.com, the major-league leader in WAR last year was the Angels' Mike Trout, at a whopping 10.0. He was followed by Buster Posey (8.0), Ryan Braun (7.9), Robinson Cano (7.8) and David Wright (7.8).
The top Chicago player on the list was the White Sox' Alex Rios (4.3) at 35th. The Cubs' Alfonso Soriano checked in 40th, at 4.0. You can see why Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer don't just want to give Soriano away.
Sometimes you'll see WAR given as fWAR or rWAR. The "f" is for fangraphs, and the "r" is for Baseball Reference, with each calculating WAR differently.
WHIP it good:
The quickest way to get into trouble with a stat-head is to tell him or her your favorite pitcher is the best because he has more wins than their guy.
As we've seen over the years, so many things go into a pitcher getting a win, such as offensive support and defense.
Fortunately, there are a lot of good statistical tools to measure pitchers. The win-loss record and ERA are the traditional measures, and a pitcher still has to go at least 5 innings to get a win, so the stat still means something.
I like to look at WHIP, which is walks plus hits per 1 inning pitched. That tells you how many baserunners per inning a pitcher allows.
For me, it's much more valuable than ERA for relief pitchers. A reliever can come in and let two inherited runners score and not have his ERA affected.
Last year the Angels' Jered Weaver and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw led the majors in WHIP, at 1.02. They were followed by Matt Cain (1.04), R.A. Dickey (1.05) and Justin Verlander (1.06).
The White Sox' Jake Peavy was seventh, at 1.10. Chris Sale of the White Sox (1.14) was 13th in the majors, and the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija (1.22) was 31st.
Put BABIP into play:
Here's one you can use to amaze your friends.
BABIP means batting average on balls in play, and it's used for both hitters and pitchers. Simply put, you take walks, strikeouts and home runs out of the equation because the ball isn't put in play those results. With home runs, it's put far out of play.
In trying to understand BABIP, think of it this way: Once the ball leaves the pitcher's hand and is hit, neither he nor the batter has complete control of where it goes from there.
For example, the hitter can hit a line-drive smash, only to have the shortstop leap and rob him of a hit. That's bad luck for the hitter.
Or the pitcher can jam the hitter only to see the ball parachute into right field for a 2-run double. Bad luck for the pitcher.
So BABIP can reflect good luck or bad luck, and it also can be a function of a team's defense, good or poor.
The nice thing about BABIP is that "average" is usually about .300 for both pitchers and hitters. So if you see a hitter who's BABIP in July stands at .230, rest easy. Maybe he's lined into a lot of tough outs. His BABIP and the rest of his numbers should begin to rise toward .300 in the second half.
It works the same way for pitchers. If a starter's BABIP is at .230 for much of the first half, look out. Those same line drives that have been caught are going to fall sooner or later.
For now, that's a good primer. You can peruse sites such as Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Baseball Reference for things such as FIP (fielding independent pitching), wOBA (weighted on-base average) and true average.
Have at it.