Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sabermetrics Q&A

I'm happy to welcome another guest to the site, as 1500 ESPN's Phil Mackey checks in from a dugout in sunny South Florida to help bridge the gap between traditional statistics and sabermetrics for the casual fan.

OML: Which do you consider the most overrated traditional statistic for both hitters and pitchers?

PM: For hitters, it’s definitely batting average. For pitchers, wins are mostly irrelevant in today’s game.

Batting average doesn’t take into account walks or power, which are two huge ingredients in run creation. The goal in baseball, at least offensively, is to generate as many runs as possible. Runs are created by A.) getting on base, and B.) moving those guys around. That’s why on-base percentage (which includes walks) and slugging percentage (power, moving guys around) are far more relevant than batting average.

The Royals (.272) had the second-highest team batting average in baseball last season, yet they scored the 20th-most runs. The Phillies hit just .260 last season, but they scored 100 more runs than
Kansas City. Why? On-base percentage and slugging percentage.

As for pitcher wins, they obviously favor pitchers who have better run support. It just doesn’t make sense to keep track of a stat that is so heavily influence by run support and bullpen support. In the days where pitchers threw 8-9 innings every night, wins were slightly more relevant.

OML: OPS (on-base plus slugging) and WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) have trickled into mainstream statistical analysis. Which sabermetric measurement should be next?

PM: I think you’ll definitely see BABIP (batting average on balls in play) become more relevant, in analyzing both pitchers and hitters. It tells you a lot about how lucky or unlucky players are. Hitters can have higher or lower BABIPs depending on how fast they are, or how many fly balls vs. groundballs a player hits. For pitchers, because they all face the same pool of hitters (for the most part), their BABIP against will almost always be between .280 and .310. Anything above or below (Liriano’s .335 mark last year, for example) will almost always come back to the middle.

OML: How is WAR (Wins Above Replacement) tabulated, and why/how does it matter?

PM: WAR is basically a one-stop value stat, because it includes a player’s offense, defense, baserunning, everything. “Replacement level” is defined as “widely available talent,” meaning guys you can pull off the scrap heap from AAA -- think Matt Tolbert, Willie Bloomquist, Jeff Francoeur, Mark Teahen, etc. Based on years of data, a team full of “replacement-level” players would win approximately 40 games (see: 2003 Tigers).

To put WAR into context, playoff teams generally need to win at least 90 games. Since a team of replacement players would likely win 40 games, GMs need to find 50 extra Wins Above Replacement. Take that 50 WAR and divide it by 25 (number of players on a roster) and each player is worth an average of two wins above replacement.

The best players in baseball are usually worth 7-10 WAR in any given MVP season. In other words, not even Albert Pujols is worth 20 extra wins to the Cardinals.

OML: So PECOTA isn't about saving dolphins?

PM: PECOTA is a complicated set of formulas created by the guys at Baseball Prospectus to project future performance. PECOTA is also used to compare current players to the career paths of former players.

Interesting stuff for geeks like me.

OML: Can you explain UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) in 140 characters or less?

PM: Hmm… I’ll try.

UZR basically tells you how many plays a fielder made compared to the average baseline. It then converts that number to "runs saved.”

If I had more than 140 characters, I’d tell you that UZR is much more important than errors and fielding percentage, because it accounts for everything. If an outfielder lets a fly ball fall in front of him for a hit, he obviously isn’t charged with an error (if a tree falls in the forest…). But he would be “charged” with not making the play, according to UZR, because a ball fell into his zone that another player may have caught.

OML: Billy Beane is considered one of the pioneers of sabermetrics. Outside of the obvious (Joe Mauer), which Twins would he covet?

PM: Actually, Beane isn’t necessarily a pioneer of sabermetrics. He’s the pioneer of Moneyball -- a theory that revolves around capitalizing on the market. Ten years ago, Beane noticed that on-base percentage was cheap to acquire, so he loaded up. Over the last five years, defense has been the new Moneyball (see: Red Sox, Rays, others).

Outside of Mauer, I’m not sure there are any sabermetric sleepers in the Twins’ lineup. Guys like Jason Kubel and Delmon Young are probably overvalued because they don’t play very good defense.

OML: Off the top of your head, which players would you consider the most overrated and underrated in the league, according to sabermetrics?

PM: Off the top of my head, Chase Utley, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria might be slightly underrated, because people don’t realize how highly they rate defensively. Anyone with a high OBP that doesn’t get much recognition is probably underrated.

Alfonso Soriano is overrated, because of his lower OBP, and Jermaine Dye was one of the most overrated players in baseball during his last few seasons because he was a statue in right field.

OML: The Athletics, Rays, and Red Sox have obviously done it -- do most Major League teams have sabermetrics consultants? Does Bill Smith have anyone in his back pocket?

PM: I would estimate most teams at this point have engaged in some type of stat work. Even if teams don’t use it much for their own player evaluations, they should be aware of what other teams are doing.

As far as I know, the Twins don’t have any significant sabermetric influence. They may or may not have a guy crunching numbers somewhere, but the Twins rely almost entirely on traditional scouting. And until they suffer through a 90-loss season, it probably won’t change much.

OML: Do sabermetrics carry much weight at the negotiation table?

PM: That’s a great question. I’ve always wondered that, especially in arbitration cases. I’m guessing it’s just like any other negotiation or argument -- if one of the parties can use sabermetrics to their advantage, they probably do.

OML: At the end of the day, how should the casual fan balance traditional statistics and sabermetrics?

PM: Some people say they don’t pay attention to sabermetrics because they enjoy watching games too much -- they don’t want to be so caught up in numbers.

As a guy who covers the Twins on a daily basis, talks to people in the organization every day, and watches live games every day -- but who also has a very rich sabermetric background -- I find baseball a lot more interesting when I have information from both sides; traditional and saber.

If it was possible to evaluate players with ONLY the naked eye, we wouldn’t have invented batting average. Sabermetrics are just the next evolution, and they are far less complicated than people think.

Follow Phil Mackey's Spring Training updates on Twitter at @PMac21.

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