Holding Court: An Ode To Sabermetrics

Welcome to “Holding Court.”  Written by Court Swift (@RCourtSwift) one of the most knowledgeable Nationals (and everything) fans I know.  He’ll be writing a columns for us that not only get you up to speed on some baseball things, but also offering his sage like opinion on those same topics.

“…There’s no singular way to watch and analyze baseball, and far too many people want to treat the sport like one giant math equation.” – Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

“Fight it if you like, but baseball has become too complicated to solve without science. … WAR represents a chance to respond to the complexity of baseball with something more than ideology or despair.” – Sam Miller, ESPN

Back in February, These two competing articles got Court thinking about his baseball fandom and how he went from an Old School to a Newer School baseball fan. 

When the Montreal Expos relocated to the District, I was single, living in Cleveland Park, and a Reds fan. I was a baseball purist who hated the DH, loved stolen bases and loathed strikeouts. The Moneyball phenomenon, to me, glorified the American League game – the Earl Weaver game of waiting for a big homer while emphasizing walks and ignoring strikeouts.

By the time Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off home run won the first Opening Night in Nats Park in 2008, I had left the Reds behind, moved to Columbia Heights, and engaged to the love of my life (who I met at a Nats game). I was also a convert to the world of sabermetrics.

Like Hurley (above), I used to believe there was more to a player than the back of his baseball card.  Only a trained eye could truly know a player’s potential or measure his intangibles. Maybe your ‘moneyball’ slugger gets walks and hits homers, but he kills rallies because he strikes out too much and, oh yeah, he’s a butcher in the field. Instead, give me the guy that puts the ball in play, beats out grounders, steals a base and gets across the plate because he went first-to-third on a single. That shows me he has heart and puts winning above his personal stats. I believed On Base Percentage was all well and good but a hit was still better than a walk, and thus I ended my investigation into the subject of sabermetrics there.

But as I got more and more into the Nats, I thought more and more of the future-largely because there’s only so much of Carlos Baerga one person can take. I became much more interested in really finding out what it takes to be a successful player and thus produce a successful team. Curiosity got the better of me so I started playing around on Fangraphs.com. I learned more about the wide range of advanced stats, the thinking behind them and I began to form my own conclusions.

Much to my surprise, I found that a lot of the traits I valued in a player – like defense, base running, and putting the ball in play versus swinging for the fences or drawing a walk – were also valued and measured by mathematicians. My eyes were opened and  my overall baseball philosophy began to change after looking closely into wOBA.

wOBA stands for ‘weighted On Base plus Average’ and attempts to weigh different outcomes by putting a number to just how much better a hit is than a walk, how much better a home run is than a double and so on and so forth (I’ll let Frank explain the math – thanks homie! ED: We’ll be doing a wOBA post soon). To me, this lined up with my belief that while a walk is a base, a hit can give any runners on base a chance to advance in ways a walk cannot. However, putting a ball in play could also result in a double play… but that is also figured into the equation. I now use this stat instead of OBP or AVG because I think wOBA allows you to compare a high-AVG/low-OBP like Ian Desmond to a low-AVG/high-OBP guy like Adam Dunn to see who was actually more productive.

But more important than one stat was the fundamental shift in my thinking. The more I looked into stats, the more I found stats that measured parts of the game that were important to me like base running and defense. Sabermetrics was really just a way to quantify all aspects of game to figure out what an individual player had control over and how good he was at those things.

Traditional stats like RBIs and pitcher Wins become less important because they depend so heavily on the performance of teammates while new stats attempt to isolate a player’s performance to better judge his individual ability.  With these new #fancystats, all aspects of the game are measured, as opposed to the stats we grew up with.

I realized that sabermetrics weren’t ignoring intangibles; They were converting some of these intangibles into tangibles. Instead of arguing about whether an all-hit/no-glove player is better than a more complete player with less power, stats like WAR allow us to look and see who really had the better year by compiling data from all facets of the game and reducing them into one number.

These new school stats don’t sap the fun out of baseball for me, they help me enjoy the game more by giving me a better understanding of what’s really happening out there. The formulas used for all advanced stats are constantly being updated and refined as more and more information becomes available. As we speak, sabermetricans are measuring a catcher’s ability to get called strikes for his pitcher by how well he frames borderline pitches.

Advanced stats have helped me understand the game better and thus enjoy the game more. The uniqueness and complexity of baseball has always been what I loved and sabermetrics allows me to get a better handle on a game that never ceases to surprise. Stats will never tell the complete story of what a player is capable of, but they can better explain what he did and how he did it. You can see the holes in a player’s game but you can also see slight improvement in the finer points that may not translate into a stat as clumsy as RBIs.

In an argument between new stats versus old stats I say, why pick? This is all just different ways of looking at information, and I prefer to expose myself to as much information as I can. Baseball, more than any other sport, has always been about stats. Why not open your heart (and your mind) to a few more?

2 thoughts on “Holding Court: An Ode To Sabermetrics

  1. Pingback: Get To Know a Stat: wOBA and wRC (aka Lombo vs. Danny Part 567) | Nationals 101

  2. Pingback: More to Learn in the School of Sabermetrics | GET REAL BASEBALLGET REAL BASEBALL

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