By Steven Urena —
I am still getting a lot of feedback on Small Ball. Honestly, I love it. I love discussing baseball strategies, philosophies, and scenarios.
I am firm on my stance. Small Ball in Major League Baseball will continue to decline. The system of manufacturing runs is not as effective as trying to knock the ball out of the yard.
Today, I want to talk about sabermetrics, which intertwines with Small Ball.
If you have not read Moneyball, you should. Let me rephrase that. Any true baseball fan needs to read Moneyball. This is what put sabermetrics on the map.
There is a wealth of applicable data available to MLB teams nowadays. Because of this, the baseball nerds are very effective at predicting stats, predicting wins/loses and finding a player’s true value. People who disregard sabermetrics are usually the old schoolers that refuse to listen to tangible data offered by someone who did not play baseball.
Bill James was the first nerd to use statistical data in baseball. He wrote dozens of books that scientifically analyzed and studied baseball. Naturally, he was the first monkey shot into space and was rejected by the baseball world. The first reason was that he didn’t play baseball. The second was because he was a security guard at a pork and beans cannery.
The nerds could never get jobs in baseball in the old days. It was a club. If you did not play ball, you were not allowed in the club. You hear about baseball clubhouses all the time. The “code,” the unwritten rules, how to act, etiquette can only be acquired by actually playing professional baseball. It is a very tight-knit fraternity.
The nerds did not play, but they loved baseball, and since they did not play at a high level, they were not allowed to partake in the running of a Major League club.
Moneyball changed all that. Now the nerds are allowed to work in baseball, and now they are running the show. Brilliant kids who would typically choose to work on Wall Street or for Fortune 500 companies are currently working in baseball.
Moral of the story…if you are a young athlete, be nice to the really smart kids that ride the pine. They might be your boss one day.
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
Sabermetrics is the statistical analysis of baseball data. Science, observation, and statistics are used to analyze the game. This is not limited to a player’s statistics, how often a bunt works or when to leave a pitcher in the game or yank him out.
Why should baseball value sabermetrics? Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs, 1991) quoted Marcus Aurelius when he said, “Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?” Simple, you win games when you score more runs than the other team. Thus, sabermetrics exists for the sole purpose of helping ball clubs win games.
The importance of runs is one of the most significant themes in Moneyball. There is no other statistic in baseball more critical than the ability to score runs and prevent runs. So, don’t buy players, buy wins. Get players that fit your model. Hitters that do not make outs and get on base means more runs are likely to score. Pitchers just need to get outs. Velocity and strikeouts are the most overrated of a pitcher’s assets (not very accurate in today’s game).
Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s were on to something. If you’ve seen the movie Moneyball, you might remember quotes such as “No more bunts. Bunts are out” or “I pay you to get on first, not get thrown out at second,” and my favorite “If your enemies are making mistakes, don’t interrupt them.”
The name of the game is to score runs. Executing a sacrifice bunt to move a runner to scoring position decreases a team’s chances of scoring versus having runners on first and second. If a hitter sacrifice bunts, he will most certainly be out. If the hitter gets on first, the team’s chances for scoring with runners on first and second or first and third skyrocket. If a base runner does not have a success rate of over 70% when stealing bases, he will not even bother. Again, why risk being thrown out at second? The more runners on, the more likelihood of runs being scored, especially if a home run is hit. Finally, playing the enemy. The A’s knew they were on to something and enjoyed watching other clubs beat themselves. Unfortunately, the A’s have not won the last game of the season since 1989. So they are forgotten, but they undoubtedly left their mark behind.
Numbers will not work in a team’s favor unless they can use them to their advantage. Teams caught on very quickly, and sabermetrics changed the game forever. Statcast changed the way a Major League Baseball game is watched and analyzed. Statcast uses cameras and radar systems to detect and track every movement on the field. The machines collect the data, accumulate statistics, and create a record of movements for players and teams.
Statistics such as batting average, ERA, and saves are considered a thing of the past. Although most stats provide a pretty good idea about how good a player is, they can be misleading when you peel every layer back and get to the core. How can Team A score more runs than Team B?
One statistic that measures a player more accurately is Wins Above Replacement (WAR). WAR measures a player’s value by taking into account every single facet of his game. Fielding, base running, and hitting. Based on their strengths, they figure out how many more wins this player would generate compared to a minor league replacement or bench player in the Major Leagues. This is why Mike Trout is often referred to as “WAR machine” or “God or WAR.” Great nicknames.
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is overtaking ERA as the new method of evaluation. This stat focuses solely on the pitcher’s performance and not on the many factors he can’t control. Unfortunately, many stats used to measure a pitcher’s success do not accurately reflect how good the pitcher performs. Not to be confused with WHIP (walks and hits over 9 innings), FIP takes into account home runs, BB, HBP, Ks, and quality of defensive play. Statisticians feel that, along with other more complex factors, a pitcher has control over these outcomes and should be measured by the previous terms.
On-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS) is another statistic that has grown in popularity. Remember the joke in Moneyball? “Because he gets on base!” Well, there’s more to it than that. If a hitter wants to generate runs, then getting on base is not the only factor. Hitters also need to tally a large number of total bases (TB). Doubles and triples count as power numbers, not just home runs. A hitter that hits for power (lots of TB) and takes his walks is the ideal hitter in today’s game. The more a hitter gets on base and the more power he supplies (extra bases), the bigger his team’s chances are of scoring.
Sabermetrics counts not only numbers but also movement. Many statisticians feel that the best way to measure a pitcher is to chart their pitches—velocity, movement, late break, location, spin rate, trajectory, etc. The goal is to understand why charting the movement and placement of pitches can be a valuable measure of success. The answer to why a pitcher is dominant and why a pitcher is not dominant lies in his pitches’ velocity and movement. The record of a pitcher’s graphs can potentially provide more data than their statistics.
Measuring a ball’s movement also applies to hitting. Hitting home runs and walking is the money maker in today’s game. Home runs can be consistently measured with exit velocity and launch angle. The average home run leaves the yard with an exit velocity of 103 mph. The average home run’s launch angle is 30 degrees. So that you know, every time you hit a ball, there is some degree of launch angle. There is no such thing as zero launch angle. Why is this useful? It is actual data. Teams collect the data and figure out who they want to move up to the majors, who they want to acquire in trades, and who deserves the big salaries. The ability to hit the ball hard and have launch angles of 30 degrees can ultimately be just as desirable as a high batting average.
Strike zones are also measured. Hot and cold charts are calculated for hitters, pitchers, and even umpires. Strike zone measurements can play a role in strategy. Who plays and sits based on the thousands of pitches hit, thrown, and called (by the umpire)? Gone are the days of hunches or righty/lefty matchups. Look at the data!
Next up is fielding percentage. The problem with fielding percentage is it penalizes and does not reward. Fielding percentage also ignores several other factors. Keeping runs in mind, sabermetrics measures a defender’s ability to prevent runs. The analytics used to measure defense include the player’s arm, range, infield double plays, and errors. Similar to war, the defensive metrics evaluate a player’s ability to create outs versus the average MLB player. The higher the rating, the better the defender.
Sports people do not like being criticized. Their egos are too big, and frankly, most of them cannot handle the heat. It is mind-boggling that so many people accepted baseball for what it was and did not care to think outside the box.
The use of sabermetrics took decades to come full circle. Sabermetrics challenged the “status quo” and went against the boys club that was Major League Baseball. The game will never be the same. Truly, revenge of the nerds.
The Urena Express appears every Wednesday at JoeTorosian.com
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