Thinking about Advanced Stats in MLB and MiLB
The TinCaps lost both games of a doubleheader Wednesday night at West Michigan, dropping the opener, 5-2, and picking up just four hits in a 2-0 loss in game two. Bryan Rodriguez takes the hill tonight after being reinstated from the disabled list earlier in the day. In a corresponding move, reliever Josh RIchardson was placed on the disabled list.
With just five regular-season games remaining, the TinCaps take the field tonight at 7:10 take square off against West Michigan. The Whitecaps are vying for a playoff spot, so they’ve got to keep winning to try and catch Great Lakes for a wild-card spot.
TINCAPS REPORT PODCAST
Before game one of the doubleheader I chatted with Mallex Smith and found out he’s a big fan of cartoons. However, he thinks that “Spongebob” is an “old” cartoon. That show first aired in 1999. When I think of old cartoons, I think of shows like “Rocky and Bullwinkle” or “George of the Jungle”, the latter airing in 1967.
Here’s my chat with Mallex, in which we also discuss his physical and mental state at this point in the season, among other things:
Between games one and two yesterday, I caught up with hitting coach Morgan Burkhart. He weighed in on the progress of Gabriel Quintana, Reynaldo Bruguera, Alberth Martinez, and Hunter Renfroe. I also asked him how he keeps his teaching approach fresh after 135 games:
AN ANGRY BALLPLAYER
Very interesting situation yesterday in Cincinnati.
Brandon Phillips, the All-Star second baseman for the Cincinnati Reds took issue with Cincinnati Enquirer beat reporter C. Trent Rosecrans’ question to him about his slip in on-base percentage this season. Phillips yelled several expletives directed toward Rosecrans, as outlined in this recap from hardballtalk.nbcsports.com (non-family friendly language included).
One commenter (dangerous territory, I know) made a good point regarding Rosecrans’ question:
Of course there is a little fluctuation year to year in the average, but the league average on base percentage is usually around .330 to .335 percent.
Brandon Phillips career on base percentage is only .321% and so far this season he’s only getting on base at a .311% clip.
He is well below the league average in this respect. This isn’t an opinion. It’s a fact based on numbers and it’s a fact whether one is a fan of Brandon Phillips or not.
The Reds as a team have a .325% on base percentage which isn’t good for a team average and it’s even worse when they have the top two on base percentage leaders in the National league right now in Votto and Choo.
Some players don’t particularly appreciate what they perceive to be a jab at their numbers, in this case Phillips is a prime example. This certainly isn’t the first time this has happened, as it played itself out between now-ESPN broadcaster Jon Sciambi (then with the Atlanta Braves) and Chipper Jones:
“[Sciambi] said the second-highest percent of first-pitch balls thrown to a hitter was me and that I was right behind Albert Pujols,” Jones said. “And you know I’m a notorious first-pitch fastball hitter and I really couldn’t believe that was true. So I took the first pitch I saw that night and it happened to be a fastball down the middle.
“So I looked back up [at Sciambi in the press box] and I just started cussing him so hard. Meanwhile, he’s just laughing his tail off.”
Not that Jones was entirely unappreciative of Sciambi engaging him in a hitting discussion.
“He was just talking about me being overly aggressive, but yet I still drew 100 walks last year. They get mad at me because I don’t take enough pitches. But if I’m drawing 100 walks and hitting .300 … “
That discussion was a bit more lighthearted.
This brings me back to last night’s broadcast, in which I started to talk a little about advanced stats, and why the win assigned to the pitcher probably has a little too much value, an idea that has been pushed heavily by MLB Network broadcaster Brian Kenny. I still am in the nascent stages of starting to grasp advanced baseball stats and how they can be applied to a broadcast in a way that people understand. Sciambi went on Jonah Keri’s podcast recently to talk about how he introduces on-base percentage in a broadcast. Essentially, he gives what OBP means, and then gives the player’s number vs. the league average. If it’s higher, you know the player is good at getting on base. If it’s lower, well, you know what the deal is, too. Why is OBP better than batting average? FanGraphs explains:
OBP is considered more accurate than Batting Average in measuring a player’s offensive value, since it takes into account hits and walks. A player could bat over .300, but if they don’t walk at all, they’re not helping their team as much as a .270 hitter with a .380 OBP.
I’d like to introduce more advanced numbers on the air, but Sciambi, in his Baseball Prosepctus piece, explains why that’s a challenge:
Let’s not forget “it’s the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” The goal is not unveiling newfangled stats; it’s about getting people to understand basic ideas and concepts. To achieve that, we can’t just slap stats up on the screen and explain them. Understanding has to come in the form of analysis. We have to use the stat and explain it. Sometimes it needs to be the PBP guy playing analyst and getting the color guy to react:
If Ryan Howard is up, I can talk about RBI and why dependent stats don’t evaluate individual performance well; RBI aren’t what reflects Howard’s greatness, his SLG does. I can mention that Howard’s massive RBI totals may be due to the fact that no player has hit with more total men on base than Howard since 1492 (I believe this is a fact but didn’t feel like looking it up). Point is, there are dead people who could knock in 80 runs hitting fourth in that Phillies lineup. (OK, I probably wouldn’t say that on-air.)
The metrics are getting so advanced that we’re in danger of getting further away from the masses instead of closer. We, as broadcasters, have to find better and entertaining ways of explaining the math in bite-sized terms. Simplified, we need to explain that one of the problems with batting average, as opposed to slugging percentage, is that batting average values a single and a home run equally. We can’t assume that’s understood just because we understand it. And the only way it gets embedded is to keep beating the audience with it so that it becomes ingrained the way ERA eventually did, even though that once passed for advanced math. That, and we should all wear blue blazers with an emblem that reads, “OBPis life.”
I also believe, as it relates to the masses, the PBP guys can’t move the analysis needle much. The masses will always find former players more credible, period, and the BP base needs to be more open to that-if the goal is indeed to inform the masses and not be “right.”
And just look at the battle Kenny went through against Billy Ripken with the infamous 2012 AL MVP debate between MIke Trout and Miguel Cabrera (via Grantland):
Since Kenny joined MLB Network, in 2011, his anger has flashed in the service of advanced stats. Since the publication of Moneyball, sabermetrics has colonized large tracts of the print media. Even an idiot can write OPS into his copy instead of batting average. But TV guys — particularly color analysts — have held out. There are a few reasons for this. Former athletes aren’t interested in advanced stats; they don’t want their careers reevaluated with new metrics; they don’t like the idea of the strongbox of baseball wisdom passing from their hands into Dave Cameron’s.
Kenny is a post-Moneyball announcer. He thinks Rock Raines should be a Hall of Famer and that Mike Trout was the rightful 2012 American League MVP. “Bill James,” he has said, “was the first person I saw who opened my eyes to logical thinking.” Kenny welcomed statheads like Rob Neyer and Joe Sheehan onto his show, Clubhouse Confidential, and gave the opening address at the 2013 SABR Analytics Conference.
MLB Network deputized Kenny to pin down ex-jocks on stats the way he’d once pinned down Mayweather on Pacquiao. Last November, the network put Kenny and Keith Olbermann against Billy Ripken. Kenny and Olbermann supported Trout for AL MVP. Ripken admitted Trout was the best player in the league but thought the MVP should go to Miguel Cabrera because of, among other factors, his clubhouse “presence.” “His presence in the locker room allows somebody …” Ripken must have seen Kenny raise his eyebrows, because he stopped short. “Oh, yeah,” Ripken said. “Presence.”
“Presence!” Kenny moaned. It’s telling that Olbermann was the calm one.
So, it’s an on-going effort to try and make those numbers and ideas mainstream. Where it’s more difficult for Minor League Baseball is that sites like FanGraphs don’t provide those numbers for MiLB and the rate of turnover in addition to the lack of experience in playing time can be a hindering factor in trying to mathematically or statistically analyze a player. How can I tell you much about anyone in Fort Wayne’s starting rotation when a majority of those pitchers haven’t played one full professional season? It wouldn’t be a fair analysis. But in the meantime, trying to understand the numbers that are applicable at this level is a worthy cause.
And now, to play us out, here’s John Mayer with a cut off his new album.