Monday, August 4th, 2014

Sabermetrics are here to stay. It’s time to get on the bus.

VORP? UZR? BABIP? No doubt you have seen some recent articles, including on this website, using terms that sound like they could come directly from NASA or the CIA.  These terms actually are part of an emerging lexicon that is revolutionizing baseball circles called Sabermetrics.

Sabermetrics is the term given by baseball folks to the practice of churning and analyzing player data and is derived from the acronym SABR–The Society for American Baseball Research.  The industry got its start in the late 1970s from Bill James and his aptly named Bill James Baseball Abstract.  Nowadays, James produced an annual book called Bill James Player Handbook.

Traditionalists may ask what is wrong with statistics such as batting average, RBIs, and ERAs as they have served us well since the days of Henry Chadwick, the father of the boxscore. Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with those statistics.  They effectively tell the reader What happened.  Sabermetrics, on the other hand, use other measures to give you insight as to Why things happened and, as as the techniques mature, give it practioners insight as to What is likely to happen in the future. 

This latter capability is called Predictive Analytics.  Predictive Analytics encompass a variety of techniques from Statistics, Data Mining and Game Theory that analyze current and historical facts to make predictions about future events.  Originally used in industries such as Finance ( to determine which customer is likely to default) and Retail (to determine which customer is like to make a catalog purchase), Predictive Analytics is the Holy Grail for baseball sabermatricians.  Without all the fancy words or ballyhoo, sabermetrics was also at the core of Moneyball, that is, mining data to find undervalued players.

As a starting place, I want to define a few of the terms most often used in this new field of baseball jargon.  To do this, I will borrow liberally from a recent article by ESPN’s Bill Simmons.  Simmons, a long time sabermetrics naysayer, is now a full convert.–Here is the full article by Bill Simmons appearing in ESPN.com.  I encourage you to read it in its entirety as it is very good at explaining a complicated subject in a light-hearted and engaging manner.

Here is a primer to these new baseball metrics:

Batting

  • OPS (On base percentage + slugging percentage) - Capture a player’s ability to get on base and hit for power in a simple way so he can be compared to every other player.
  • Adjusted OPS — Adjust a player’s OPS, including the effects of his home ballpark, so it makes sense in the context of that specific season/era

Fielding

  • UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) – By dividing the field into 64 zones, UZR calculates the batted balls cost or saved by each player during the course of the season, then determine each fielder’s efficiency from his cost/saved total by comparing it to the average 

Pitching

  • BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) -  to determine whether a pitcher or hitter had good luck or bad luck. In 2009, the major league BABIP average was .299. If a pitcher’s BABIP dipped well below that number, he might have had good luck. If it rose well above that number, he likely had terrible luck. The reverse goes for hitters.
  • FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) - Eliminate everything a pitcher can’t control (defense, park effects, bloop singles, etc.) and concentrate on the stuff he can control (strikeouts, walks, home runs, etc.).

Overall Player Value

  • VORP (Value over Replacement Player) -  Figure out a player’s “value over replacement player” by weighing his ability to create runs (for hitters) or create outs (for pitchers) against the worst possible player who conceivably could have played the position (the replacement player, defined as someone who’s 75-85 percent as good as the most average player in the league depending on position).
  • WAR (Wins above Replacement) - Take VORP to the next level by incorporating defense, then figure out exactly how many wins someone is worth (his WAR value). 

I hope all of this hasn’t left you dazed and confused.  Sabermetrics is in its nascent stage relative to the mainstream fan.  However, the more about it you know, the better you will appreciate the inner workings of baseball strategy, from in-game management to the moves made by the GM.   You will be able to tell if Tim McCarver is correct when he says it was the right strategy to bunt the runner over to second base.

Look for more articles in Books on Baseball to include reviews of several very influential books in this genre including The Book and Beyond Batting Average.

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