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Baseball by the numbers: Which statistics are the most telling?

Consensus on which stats — WHIP, WAR, OPS and more — are the best indicators of success is hard to find.

August 20, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • Clockwise, from left: Hiroki Kuroda has one of the best ERAs in the National League but a 9-14 record; Jered Weaver is tied for second in baseball with a 0.97 WHIP; Juan Uribe has a career low OPS this season; Justin Verlander is having a dominant season, but his AL Central-leading Tigers have a negative run differential.
Clockwise, from left: Hiroki Kuroda has one of the best ERAs in the National… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

BS is put up with here, WAR happily obliged.

It's a place where gobbledygook acronyms such as PVORP and BABIP hold sway, and the more easily digestible BS (blown save) and WAR (wins above replacement) do not automatically raise blood pressures.

In this realm, it's often H_IP to be square.

The search for the most telling baseball statistics can lead to some strange places, the least peculiar of which is the Dodgers' clubhouse.

As he swiveled ever so slightly in the leather chair in front of his locker, right-hander Chad Billingsley wore a quizzical expression when asked whether there was one stat that definitively told whether a pitcher was good.

"There are so many variables that can come into statistics and different ways you want to look at it," Billingsley said. "You could say, 'This one thing could offset this.'"

Take earned-run average. A starting pitcher would be charged with a run if he walked a batter with two outs but a reliever then came in and gave up a two-run homer.

Wins and losses? They can hinge on run support as much as a pitcher's prowess. Just ask the Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda, whose record is 8-14 through Thursday despite a 2.88 ERA that ranks in the top 10 in the National League.

Billingsley said he liked WHIP — walks plus hits allowed per inning pitched — to gauge a starting pitcher's success because it indicates how many baserunners they allow and whether they typically work clean innings. What it doesn't do is reward a pitcher who consistently pitches out of trouble.

For relievers, Billingsley singled out the number of inherited baserunners who scored. Of course, that doesn't indicate much about a reliever who suffers a four-run meltdown in a subsequent inning.

"It's just an opinion," Billingsley said of his preferences.

Baseball stats — and the debates they spark — originated with the advent of the game, courtesy of early observers who attempted to quantify its nuances.

"There were stat-heads dating back to the Civil War," said Alan Schwarz, author of "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics."

The first box scores tallied players' exploits in two columns: "hands lost" — or outs made — and runs scored.

Modern box scores are vastly more detailed. In addition to hits, runs and batting averages, they include pitch counts and the tally of how many inherited runners score for each reliever.

Such minutiae are devoured by those who use sabermetrics, a term coined in 1980 by Bill James to describe the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records to determine the relative value of players and teams. This is where relatively conventional statistics such as H_IP (hits per inning pitched) are used in more intricate computations, including PVORP (pitcher's value over replacement player) and BABIP (batting average on balls in play).

Sabermetricians hold dear things such as OPS, a tabulation of on-base plus slugging percentages, and WAR, wins above replacement. The latter metric measures, through a series of intricate calculations, how many wins a player is worth to his team above a replacement-level player who is significantly less heralded. (Think of the difference between Angels first baseman Kendrys Morales and, say, minor leaguer Paul McAnulty.)

Dismissed as junk science by many major league executives in its early days, sabermetrics eventually became embedded in mainstream baseball culture. The flashpoint came in 2002 when the Boston Red Sox hired James, a former boiler-room attendant in a pork-and-beans plant, as a senior baseball operations adviser.

But just as general managers often disagree on the best way to build teams, sabermetricians can differ on what they consider the most precise statistical calculations.

Pete Palmer prefers his formula for measuring a player's value — wins above average, a figure that assesses how many wins a player is worth to his team above another average major league player. In Palmer's latest tabulations earlier this week, Toronto's Jose Bautista led the major leagues with a value of six.

"Bautista, if you added him to an average team, the team would win six more games up to this point," said Palmer, who also devised OPS about 25 years ago.

Statistical debates can make otherwise like-minded men — including three who Think Blue — pull in opposite directions.

Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti endorsed OPS as a worthy tool for gauging offense because it takes into consideration power as well as the ability to reach base.

Don Mattingly, the Dodgers' manager and a former American League batting champion, said he preferred runs scored.

"Think about it," Mattingly said. "You have to be on base to do it; you have to be getting yourself in position [to score]. If you're scoring 100 runs, you're out there a lot, so it means your on-base [percentage] is up there, it probably means you have some extra-base hits or been a guy that can steal a bag."

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