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Inside Mr. Met's Head


February 9, 2010 6:18 PM

WAR and Peace (Part Two)

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Last week, I started explaining sabermetrics. It's really an interesting way to look at baseball. It does an excellent job helping to predict future outcomes. It's a shame that more fans don't look at them before dismissing them immediately since they further appreciation of the game and can answer questions like "Will Oliver Perez rebound this year?" (no), "Will David Wright rediscover his power?" (yes) or  "Will Jason Bay suffer in a pitchers park?" (defensively yes, offensively no). All of this answers can be backed up by quickly looking at certain statistics.

 

Things like WAR, VORP, FIP, and wOBA all sound intimidating at first glance but are really easy to understand. WAR and VORP go hand-in-hand. "Wins Above Replacement" and "Value Over Replacement Player" both quantify how much better a certain player is over that nebulous "replacement player" explained in part one. FIP is "Fielding Independent Pitching." This has a complex formula but all you have to remember is that FIP replaces ERA when evaluating the talent level of a pitcher. wOBA is weighted on-base average, which is another complex formula that takes into account the league average as well as taking into account what kind of hits players are getting (doubles, triples, home runs, etc).

 

Those who believe that statistics are useless and don't say anything about a player's real talents or "baseball traditionalists" (who from here on referred to as the "old guard") all have their complaints about sabermetrics. They complain that "computers will replace players" or use other bizarre buzzwords because apparently statistics ruin baseball. I ask how is this the case? There are no "all time great players" who are condemned by sabermetrics. Guys like Babe Ruth or Stan Musial both statistically and traditionally speaking are great players no matter which way you look at them.

 

The problem with the old guard is that they do not understand how to win baseball games. They value things like sacrifice bunting and hitting and running where these rarely work and usually create outs rather than runs. For instance, this past week, during the Caribbean Series, a perfect example of why you don't sacrifice bunt came up. It was the game between Mexico and Venezuela. In the bottom of the 9th with zero outs, Venezuela had runners at first and second. A base hit would score a run and they would obviously win the game. However, the manager decided to sacrifice bunt to put runners at second and third with no outs. Then, Mexico intentionally walked the batter, the bases now loaded. 

 

What did Venezuela gain by sacrificing? Now a sacrifice fly will score the winning run -- but how much does this increase the odds of winning? Not significantly. If the player fails to get a hit, walk, or sacrifice fly, there are now two outs with the bases loaded and they have gained absolutely nothing while Mexico now has a force at any base and the odds of a double play increase.

 

Of course, Mexico ends up getting that double play and in extra innings they end up defeating Venezuela. To me, this just further pointed out how useless traditional wisdom is, strategically speaking. Venezuela's manager failed to take into account the odds of scoring runs (it's easier to score a run with one person in scoring position and zero outs than two people in scoring position and one out) and it could have cost his team a victory. 

 

Stuff like this isn't revolutionary but it's viewed as such. The game has evolved since playing pepper. It's not the same game and any stratigic advantage can be the difference between victory and defeat. Managers like Jerry Manuel, who claim to "go with the gut" simply have zero understanding of correct baseball strategy. People who are willfully ignorant about statistics intentionally handicap their ability to understand the game. 

 

This doesn't mean that traditional wisdom is useless. There are some things I believe in, such as a positive clubhouse atmosphere and other intangible things that aren't based in sabermetircs. Players who are good clubhouse guys can definitely help their team in ways that can't be measured. However, a team should not sacrifice talent for veteran presence. Also, scouts still obviously provide a vital service because statistics don't show poor mechanics or an ugly swing. That's another place where traditional wisdom still has a purpose.

 

Still, when a team is willfully ignorant of the correct way to create runs or evaluate talent, they suffer. If they are aware of it, they have much more success. Look at the money that Billy Beane has worked with to create a team that has finished over .500 8 times in the 11 years he's been there. Although they only made the ALCS once during that time, it's very impressive to have a team with such low funds be so successful.

 

A mix of sabermetric analysis and traditional wisdom is the way to the Promised Land. If more people understood this, that sabermetrics are not "computers replacing players," and that change, for a lack of a better word, is good, awful managers and poor in-game decision-making would be all but eliminated and teams could more easily predict how good the talent is on the field.


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