Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Murder By Numbers

The Red Sox did me a favor last night. I really didn't want to watch them play the Tigers, but I've gotten more excited about the wildcard race the last couple of days with the Sox gaining a split against Toronto, and the A's being swept by the Twins. Once the score was 6-0, I felt it was safe to switch to Oakland at KC. The game had appeal on several levels, the most obvious being that the Royals are in first place, and the A's are, well, the A's. But it was also the major league debut of Rich Harden, the young flamethrower who has blown his way through the Oakland minor league system. Last, it was a matchup of two teams playing distinctly different styles, with the A's being the darlings of the patient hitter advocates, and the Royals having success with "little ball", third in the league in stolen base attempts.

The competing philosophies were of special interest to me because I've been thinking a lot about things that were neglected in the SABR world's new 'traditional" numbers. On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage are definitely better than Batting Average. But OPS? Anyone who has looked at it has figured out that a point in OBP is worth 1.5 to 3 times as much as a point in Slugging, yet a player's OPS (which for those of you who don't know, just adds the two together) is becoming an increasingly more common term, used by even sportswriters and announcers. OPS should have come and gone, just like 8-track tapes, quickly outdated. But it seems as though it's going to be around a while.

This brings me to Ralph Wiley's column, in which he suggests that SABR folk are using stats to discredit statistics that are now being controlled by American-born Blacks, specifically Rickey Henderson's stolen base record. While everyone knows this is garbage, it is not incorrect to say that no one these days talks about the importance of speed. And I don't mean stolen bases, I mean all speed.

How come, with all of the records being kept out there, no one is putting any real importance on a player's ability to go from first to third on a single, to score from second on a single, to go from second to third on a ground ball to the right, etc.? All of this information is available, all of it could be quantified, but it isn't.

And the numbers have to be relevant. Take two completely opposite teammates, Ichiro Suzuki and Edgar Martinez. How many more bases is Ichiro's speed worth in a season? 20? 50? 100? 150? Wouldn't this be important to know before you could evaluate the two players? But no one knows.

So anyway, getting back to the A's-Royals games, Harden and the other young pitcher Cory Snyder, didn't disappoint. Between them, they threw so many groundball outs that I half expected someone to pull a Satchel Paige and sit his outfielders down. On top of that, Harden hit 101 on the gun in the fourth inning. Not bad for a debut, and I would say that if he builds on this outing everyone ahead of the A's is in trouble, again.

At the end of eight innings the score was tied at 1, and these were the "important" stats for each team:

Oakland - OBP .154, SLG .160
Kansas City - OBP .260, SLG .167

Clearly, neither team was lighting it up. While KC has better numbers, its such a small sample that it would be hard to say who was ahead just from looking at them. Tied at 1 seems perfectly reasonable. But here's the kicker:

In every single half inning that someone reached base, someone is either advancing bases or making outs in a way that is not reflected in either OBP or Slugging.

That's right, every single time. There were eight such occurrences. Here they are:

1st KC - Beltran stole second.
2nd Oakland - Tejada goes from 2nd to 3rd on a grounder to the right, then scores on a sacrifice fly by Hernandez.
3rd Oak - Long hits into a doubleplay.
3rd KC - Febles advances from first to third on a single by Guiel, but Guiel is thrown out trying to stretch the single into a double.
4th KC - Ibanez hits into a doubleplay. Harvey is safe at third on an outfielder's error.
6th KC - Guiel gets to third on a fielder's choice where they don't get the lead runner, then scores on a sacrifice fly by Ibanez. Beltran is picked off first.
7th Oak - Tejada to 2nd on a wild pitch.
8th KC - Febles is caught stealing.

That's quite a bit of information that isn't used in OBP and SLG. I assume that no one thinks it's irrelevant. How can we accurately evaluate any player when none of these acts are built into our major percentages?

So the question becomes, "What do we do about it?". The answer returns, "Solve it another day." But at least, let the conversation start. There is still a lot of work to do.


In other news, nobody won the Paul DePodesta Medal of Honor, and all of the NBA players made it safely home to their very large beds.

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