Finally joining the revolution
Question: Who's going to have the biggest comeback year in baseball -- Grady Sizemore, David Ortiz, Tim Hudson, Fausto Carmona, Ervin Santana, Rich Harden or Jose Reyes?
Answer: None of the above. The answer is me.
See, I stopped writing about baseball these past two years when the sabermetrics movement became too complicated for my liking. Did I respect the work of Baseball Prospectus, Bill James, Rob Neyer, Joe Posnanski, Jonah Keri and everyone else in that community? Of course. I just hated the finality of it, the concept that numbers could trump anything I was watching with my own two eyes. If numbers always prevailed, what was the point of watching baseball or having arguments about it? I longed for the old days when you could say things like, "I hate watching J.D. Drew -- when is that contract going to end?" and there wasn't some dude lurking behind me with Drew's stellar OPS, VORP and WAR numbers saying, "Well, actually ... "
Look at that last sentence again.
Fundamentally, it's moronic. I just admitted I longed for the old days ... you know, when we were poorly educated about what we were watching. Back in the mid-'70s, when I fell in love with baseball as a kid, we judged players by five offensive stats (batting average, homers, RBIs, steals, runs) and five pitching stats (wins/losses, innings, strikeouts, ERA, saves). You could fit those 10 numbers on the back of a baseball card. Everyone was OK with it. The numbers had simplicity and elegance, mainly because we didn't know any better.
My first favorite player was Freddie Lynn, Boston's unflappable center fielder, the first player to capture the rookie of the year and most valuable player awards in the same season. I still have his beaten-up 1976 Topps card in my wallet -- not because I'm a freak, but because it's been a good-luck charm in every wallet I've owned. (Note: I met Lynn at the 2003 Celebrity All-Star Game, pulled the card out and had him autograph it for me. He wasn't nearly as freaked out as he should have been.) It's one of the few cards that captures him at the peak of his powers: young Freddie finishing off his looping lefty swing, wearing the mid-'70s Red Sox duds, a yellow "Topps All-Star Rookie" trophy hogging the bottom right of the card, the Hall of Fame (presumably) waiting for him. Every time I look at that card, I feel like I'm 6 years old again.
I can rattle off his 1975 stats from the back of that card without looking: 145 games, 528 at-bats, 103 runs, 175 hits, 47 doubles, 7 triples, 21 homers, 105 RBIs, .331 batting average. In 1975, that was all you really needed to know ... and not to sound like Grumpy Old Man, but that was the way we liked it!
Thirty-five years later, those numbers don't tell us nearly enough. What was his OPS? (.401 OBP + .566 slugging = .967 OPS, good for first in the American League). What was his OPS-plus? (161, good for second.) How was his defense? (Won a Gold Glove.) Did he swipe bases? (10 steals, 5 caught.) How many win shares? (33, led the AL.) How 'bout his VORP? (63.2, fifth in the AL.) Or his Wins Above Replacement? (7.1 ... very good, not otherworldly.) Intangibles included a riveting World Series and the simple fact that no baseball player was cooler than Freddie Lynn in 1975. He had the best swing, the best end-of-the-inning jog, the best throw, the best diving catches, the best everything. Even Yankees fans would agree.
Throw everything together (visual and sabermetric), and 1975 Freddie Lynn stands the test of time. But I had to do some work to prove it. And that's what this is all about: work. Not everyone wants to work to follow sports. This isn't school. We don't want to do homework. We don't want to study. We just want to watch games. Hence, my attitude for the past few years could be summed up like this:
"I watch every Red Sox game; I don't need advanced metrics to tell me that Rocco Baldelli sucks."
Things shifted this winter when the Sox executed their pitching-and-defense strategy for 2010. Instinctively, I hated it. I thought the Sox were headed toward 95 wins, a plethora of 3-2 games and an October destiny of one-run losses in which nobody could get The Big Hit. Why build a team around pitching and defense when playing half the games in Fenway Park -- a place with no foul territory and a left field so tiny even Manny Ramirez could handle it? Why emulate the 2009 Mariners, noncontenders who went all defense specifically because of their stadium (Safeco, a notorious pitchers' park) and because it was their best possible way to find value that winter? Why try a *gimmick* when you can simply outspend everyone else?
Baseball friends I trusted kept telling me, "It was the right move. The Red Sox made themselves better in the short term without tying up their long term. Win-win. They're going to be really good."
I didn't want to believe it. Cautiously, nervously, I started researching the advanced stats, begrudgingly coming to one conclusion: The baseball friends were right. Baseball is an individual sport disguised as a team sport. The players are Strat-O-Matic cards with arms and legs. Like Strat-O-Matic, there's more than a little luck involved, but other than that, you are who you are. The numbers don't lie. Coming up with the right numbers ... that's the trick. And the numbers indicated the 2010 Red Sox would get on base, get quality starts and catch the ball much better than in 2009.
Little did I know, the ball was rolling for me. I spent March reading and surfing sabermetrics for mostly selfish reasons ("I want this column to be better," "I want an edge for fantasy purposes," "I'm bored"), but also because the advanced formulas weren't nearly as intimidating as I had expected. Full disclosure: I, um ... I-I kinda like them. I even understand why stat junkies take it so personally whenever a mainstream guy spouts out an uninformed baseball opinion. It's too easy to be informed these days. Takes a lot less time than you might think.
Without further ado, here are seven statistics that -- assuming you aren't already saber-obsessed -- will help you understand baseball better without cluttering your mind, breaking your brain or causing you to feel like you're trapped in an AP calculus exam from hell. These stats make understanding baseball more fun. At least for me.
FUN STAT NO. 1: OPS
The formula: on-base percentage plus slugging percentage.
The goal: 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.
Translation: "Let's stop relying on batting average, homers and RBIs; we're embarrassing ourselves."
The flaws: Besides weighing on-base and slugging the same (as Keri points out, "OBP [the ability of a hitter not to make outs] is far more important than SLG, since baseball is completely governed by outs"), there are times when the results just look dead wrong. Like Milton Bradley leading the AL in OPS in 2008, or Ichiro ranking 45th that season (one spot behind Ryan Garko) even though he had 213 hits and stole 43 of 47 bases (so clearly, he had SOME offensive value). Then again, is any stat perfect? Zack Greinke finished with one fewer win than Scott Feldman last season ... that's not a flawed stat?
My take: I know, we started off with a layup. But OPS was brilliantly simple 10 years ago and remains brilliantly simple today: a quick, easy, succinct way to determine whether someone is great, good, average, below-average or Varitekian on offense. Peter Gammons and Rob Neyer were the mainstream writers who helped popularize OPS. At the time, it felt like Gammons had started wearing leather pants or perming his hair Jack Sikma-style. Whoa, Peter! Settle down! We know you want to keep up with the young kids, but not like this! No longer. Ignore OPS at your own peril. I love it for its simplicity and accuracy. Crack .900, and there's a phenomenal chance you're a really good offensive player. Drop below .700, and there's a phenomenal chance you suck, unless you're stealing a ton of bases (and even then, you still kinda suck).
Why include it in this column? Because I'm still not convinced all fans understand it, nor am I convinced it's gone mainstream. Even today, right now, ESPN.com's main baseball statistics page includes only three offensive leaderboards: batting average, homers and RBIs. (Note: That's doubly insulting -- not just leaving out OPS, but leaving out OPS at the expense of RBIs, a stat so flawed it's going to cause a riot at MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference one of these years.) That tells me we need to keep spreading the gospel. It's my favorite baseball formula.
Of course, like with all roaring successes, they had to spin it off ...
FUN STAT NO. 2: Adjusted OPS (OPS-plus)
The formula: 100 x (OBP / park-adjusted league OBP + slugging / park-adjusted league slugging - 1).
The goal: Adjust a player's OPS, including the effects of his home ballpark, so it makes sense in the context of that specific season/era.
Translation: "We need to figure out an effective way to throw some water on the steroid era hitters historically; otherwise, people will think Todd Helton was one of the 15 greatest hitters of all time."
THE LEGEND OF RICHIE/DICK
Wherever you stand on OPS-plus, it's the best thing that ever happened to Richie/Dick Allen. (I call him Richie/Dick because he went by both.) Slugger in the low-offense '60s and early '70s. Head case. Raked it. Finished with a career OPS of .911, ranking him 56th all time, right between Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Schmidt (a little higher than a non-stat junkie might have expected). His career OPS-plus? 156. Good enough for 19th all time, tying him with Willie Mays and Frank Thomas and ranking him just ahead of Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Mel Ott, Manny Ramirez and Frank Robinson.
Nineteenth all time! Richie/Dick Allen!
His career stats: 15 seasons, .292 BA, .378 OBP, .534 SLG, 351 HRs, 1,749 games, two home run titles, led his league in OBP two times, slugging three times and OPS four times, seven All-Star appearances, rookie of the year, one MVP (1972). Allen also was a head case (traded five times), didn't have any postseason success (three losses with the '76 Phillies, that's it) and played in the worst possible era (nobody valued OBP or OPS, and on top of that, his peak of 1964-74 just couldn't have been a worse time for sluggers). Adjusted OPS-plus covers much of that and makes you wonder, "Wait a second, is it a travesty that Richie/Dick Allen (156) isn't in the Hall of Fame, but Jim Rice (128) just made it?" It's fun to argue about crap like that. It just is.
The flaws: More complicated than it lets on; rates OBP and slugging the same; gets into murky territory with the whole "adjusting for parks" thing.
Update: Apparently OPS+ does weigh OBP more heavily than slugging, but Baseball-Reference hasn't updated its formula on its glossary page.
My take: Love the concept, don't love the execution. Right now, everything plays off the number 100. If you have a 100 OPS-plus, you're average. From there, your OPS-plus increases by two points for every percentage point you're better than everyone else that season. When Albert Pujols led the National League in 2009 with a 188 OPS-plus, that meant he was 44 percent better than average (100 + 88 / 2) before correcting for park factors. That's already too complicated for someone like my father. He's out right there. If your stat is complicated AND hard to relate to, that's a deadly combo.
In fact, let's use my father as the s--- detector for whether a statistic is too complicated or not. Dad is an extremely intelligent (law degree, master's, Ph.D.), die-hard sports fan who watches every Red Sox game ... or at least, the first six innings of every game before he falls asleep, then calls me three hours after the final out to ask me what happened. I called him this week to ask whether he knew what OPS was. We had this exchange:
Dad: "I think so. It's two stats combined to make a better stat."
Me: "But you don't know which ones?"
Dad: "No. But I know it's good if you have a high OPS."
It took me five seconds to explain the formula. He understood immediately. OPS-plus didn't go over so well. It took me a minute to explain it. So we start at 100, and then every point you're better than 100 equals half a percentage point that you're better than everyone else ... By the time I was finished, he admitted he had listened only to the first sentence, then started thinking about taking his dogs for a walk. That's a problem. He did understand the point of the stat: to prove things like "Albert Pujols was 44 percent better than everyone else as a combination power/on-base guy in 2009." So if the goal of OPS-plus is to account for a player's performance over the norm for a specific season ... why not just make that the stat? What's easier to understand?
Door No. 1: Albert Pujols led the NL with a 188 OPS-plus in 2009.
Door No. 2: Albert Pujols' OPS-plus was 44 percent better than that of the average 2009 National Leaguer (first in the NL).
We lose my dad with Door No. 1. We keep him with Door No. 2.
That brings up something I first mentioned at last month's Sloan Conference: In my opinion, the biggest challenge for sabermetricians (not just in baseball, but in every sport) is making their numbers more accessable to all types of sports fans.
The 1980s were about introducing sabermetrics (with Bill James leading the way). The 1990s were about working out the kinks. The 2000s were about three things: a generation weaned on the James era creating its own formulas and pushing things to another level; front offices incorporating advanced metrics into their own evaluations; and the mainstream media begrudgingly accepting that there were new ways to look at the sport (although there's a ton of work left, obviously). Now we're here. We have so many precise ways to break down baseball players that you could skip watching an entire season and still know exactly what happened, and yet, a disconnect between sabermetricians and regular fans remains. Why? Because regular fans don't want to clutter their brains with things like, So we start at 100, and then every point you're better than 100 equals half a percentage point that you're better than everyone else ...
Important note: I'm not absolving regular fans, although you can't put a gun to their heads and force them to care about this stuff. Nor should media members be absolved. (For example, any mainstream writer, announcer or talking head who discusses someone's 2010 power credentials solely by referring to homers and RBIs needs to hop in the Hot Tub Time Machine and go back to 1986.) But we don't want sabermetrics to be exclusionary, either. What good does that do? A stat like OPS-plus just seems stubborn to me: Its appeal could be broadened with a simple tweak, only nobody wants to make it. Why not? I like being bothered by it. That's what makes OPS-plus fun for me. So there.
FUN STAT NO. 3: UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating)
The formula: Just split a baseball field into 64 zones, then do about 255 more things, and you're done. It's that easy.
(Just kidding. It's really, really complicated. The "How to calculate UZR" section of this post by Alex Remington breaks it down nicely. And even that took several paragraphs and a special grid.)
The goal: To calculate the batted balls cost or saved in each of those 64 zones during the course of the season, then determine each fielder's efficiency from his cost/saved total versus what it should have been. As creator Mitchel Lichtman says, UZR is "the number of runs above or below average a fielder is in both range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined."
Translation: "If a fielder stinks, we will know. If a fielder is mediocre, we will know. If a fielder is great, we will know. Just trust us."
The flaw: A tendency for wild fluctations in the year-to-year data. Like Carl Crawford's UZRs since 2003: 14.7, 23.3, 15.5, 9.4, minus-1.2, 19.1, 17.6. So, um ... what happened in 2007? Was he playing with a fake leg? Was he doing heroin? You're better off taking three-year samples with UZR over grabbing one season.
(Is this going to stop me from spinning solely 2009 UZR numbers to make me feel better as a Red Sox fan over the next two paragraphs? Of course not.)
My take: I'm one of those "I don't care how you killed the cow; just serve me a great steak" guys. If the results are logical and easy to understand, I'm pouring some A1 sauce on that formula and eating it. UZR qualifies. I mentioned earlier how defensive stats made me reconsider Boston's 2010 game plan. An excellent Web site called fangraphs.com helped me see the light. According to 2009 UZR/150 (UZR prorated to 150 games), the 2010 Red Sox have the AL's best incumbent defensive third baseman (Adrian Beltre), second baseman (Dustin Pedroia), right fielder (Drew) and first baseman (Kevin Youkilis), as well as its third-best center fielder (Mike Cameron). I explained this to my confused father, who understood enough to point out, "Wait, that's more than half the guys on the field."
Exactly! It's the best defensive team in Red Sox history, which is like saying, "The sexiest women's Final Four in NCAA history," but still. Throw in three top-shelf starters, a solid bullpen, a lineup that works pitchers and gets on base ... I mean, it's definitely a team built for the grind of the regular season. Play the percentages, get as many guys on base as possible offensively, save as many outs as possible defensively, let the odds fall in their favor. I can sign off on that.
The more I played around with fangraphs.com, the more I realized, "Hey, there's really something here." The numbers for Boston players jibed with what I had been watching all last season. For instance, Jacoby Ellsbury had lousy instincts in center, his jumps were routinely late, he took bad angles on balls, he drove me crazy week after week ... and yet, he is fast and committed only two errors all season. How bad could he have been? Well, UZR wasn't fooled. Ellsbury finished fifth-worst out of any AL starter with an awful minus-18.3 UZR/150 ranking. Now we have Cameron patrolling center: 15.6 UZR/150 in 2008, 10.3 in 2009. Upgrade. Whether he will negate that upgrade by striking out in big spots again and again remains to be seen.
Last thought: I was furious all winter that Boston jumped the gun by signing Cameron over pursuing Johnny Damon, a durable, playoff-proven offensive player who already showed he could handle Boston. But after researching Damon's defensive stats (2009: minus-12.1 UZR/150), if we stuck Damon next to Ellsbury in Boston's 2010 outfield, we should have just signed Ted Williams' head to play right. It would have been a defensive apocalypse. Thank you, fangraphs.com, for making me smarter. I think.
FUN STAT NO. 4: VORP (Value Over Replacement Player)
The formula: Not nearly as complex as UZR, but complicated nontheless. Neyer does a good job of explaining it here (the stat was created by Baseball Prospectus).
The goal: Figure out someone'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).
The flaw: Doesn't incorporate defense.
My take: I love four things about VORP:
1. It's not easy to figure out, but it's easy to understand. Pujols led baseball with a 98.3 VORP last season; that means he created 98.3 more runs than a generically sucky replacement-level first baseman. Ronny Cedeno finished last with a minus-15.4 VORP, meaning he created 15.4 fewer runs than a generally sucky replacement-level shortstop ... so he really, really, REALLY sucks. And sure, a sarcastic anti-sabermetrics guy could joke, "Great, we needed a stat that proved Albert Pujols was great and Ronny Cedeno sucked." But it's the guys between them who make VORP work.
2. It incorporates durability. You can't miss 100 games and have a great VORP.
3. Not only is VORP fun to say and it makes you sound informed, but it's a hammer when used in the right hands. This winter, a friend dropped VORP on me during an argument on why Anaheim's 2010 offense wasn't nearly as bad as I was claiming; it was like bringing an Uzi to a streetfight. The 2009 AL rankings: Torii Hunter, 20th; Kendry Morales, 22nd; Bobby Abreu, 30th; Hideki Matsui, 35th; Erick Aybar, 39th; Mike Napoli, 47th; Juan Rivera, 58th; Maicer Izturis, 59th. If Izturis beats out Brandon Wood for the third-base job, Anaheim's only 2010 starter who didn't crack last year's top 60 will be Howie Kendrick ... who struggled early but batted .358 after the All-Star break with a .949 OPS. I lost that one. Handily. I don't like losing.
4. I've written this before, but it's a fun phrase for everyday life and I'm glad the Baseball Prospectus guys came up with it. You could say someone who completely sucks in your office, dorm or family has negative VORP. "John From Cincinnati" was a negative-VORP cable show, but "Californication" has a surprisingly good VORP because you can always count on it for nudity. Ellen DeGeneres has negative VORP on "American Idol" this season; in fact, she's been so bad that Paula Abdul's career VORP is better than we thought. And to continue that analogy, Simon is Pujols, or maybe even Barry Bonds during the HGH era. You get the idea.
Again, I am pro-VORP despite the fact that only the robo-nerds know exactly how to calculate it. (Note: I'm fine with this. The cow/steak analogy again.) Still, I like the following stat a little better.
FUN STAT NO. 5: WAR (Wins Above Replacement)
The formula: Even more complicated than VORP. Jeff Aberle did an admirable job of breaking down the nuances last summer.
The goal: Take VORP to the next level by incorporating defense, then figure out exactly how many wins someone is worth (his WAR value).
Translation: "VORP on steroids and greenies if you also ate a lot of candy and had a 40-ounce coffee."
The flaws: Assumes talent between the leagues is always equal. And it would be ... if the National League didn't suck. Also, WAR doesn't work nearly as well for pitchers (the AL/NL issue again), and the corresponding WAR/salary values are just plain goofy ... unless you think Zack Greinke should make $42 million a year.
My take: I stayed away from WAR (too intimidated) until Keri explained it easily on a B.S. Report last week. The rest was history. Here's what won me over: According to the 2009 leaders, Ben Zobrist was worth 8.6 wins. Led both leagues. Even more valuable than Pujols (8.5) and Joe Mauer (8.1). Sounds a little ridiculous ... and yet, the dude single-handedly won my AL keeper league. (My buddy Mike got him for $1 in last year's auction. This year's keeper price? One dollar. If Mike ever wins the lottery, he's opening a sports bar called One Dollar Zobrist. Which I will immediately set on fire.) Nobody knows the power of Zobrist better than me. I spent all of last season saying, "OK, seriously, WHAT THE F--- IS GOING ON WITH BEN ZOBRIST???????"
He had 599 plate appearances in 152 games, played seven positions and played frequently at two (second base and right field, where he had an outstanding 16.0 UZR and 11.5 UZR, respectively). So he was something of a Swiss army knife -- if somebody was injured or needed rest, the team just threw Zobrist there and kept rolling. He also crushed it offensively: .948 OPS, 27 HRs, 17 steals and a .405 OBP. The point is, it makes perfect sense that Zobrist led the league in WAR value. It's not a fluke. It's not stupid. Had Tampa been a playoff team, "The Zorilla" would have been an MVP candidate.
One other thing to remember: WAR is just another way to think about what you're seeing. That's it. Maybe Franklin Gutierrez wasn't the sixth-best American Leaguer (WAR rating: 5.9 wins), but his sublime defense had a profound effect on the 2009 Seattle team and his (maybe a little too high) ranking reinforces that. Shin-Soo Choo didn't exactly have me chewing my nails when he played Boston, but seeing his WAR rating (5.0 wins) made me say, "Maybe I underestimated him; I'm gonna spend the next 10 minutes looking at that dude's stats." I didn't do backflips when Boston signed Marco Scutaro -- coming off a career year at age 35 -- to play shortstop, but WAR had him ranked as the fifth-best shortstop in baseball (4.5 wins), so I felt better about it ... especially when WAR had him one spot ahead of A-Rod on the overall list. Woohoo! Suck it, A-Rod!
Of course, what's fun about complicated stats if they can't help us for fantasy? That brings us to my final two favorites.
FUN STAT NO. 6: BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play)
The formula: (hits - homers) / (at-bats - K's - HR + sac-flies).
The goal: Measure BABIP 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.
Translation: Six words ... FANTASY! GAMBLING! FANTASY! GAMBLING! FANTASY! GAMBLING!
The flaw: I hate this stat for hitters -- too many variables can swing it, as Tristan Cockcroft pointed out on ESPN.com earlier this month. But the pitchers ... oh, yes, the pitchers.
My take: It's a disadvantage if you play fantasy without checking BABIP. For example, we were offered Scott Feldman in my AL league last month. Five-dollar keeper, 17 wins in 2009, Opening Day starter ... a lot to like. When I crunched his advanced metrics (I know, I know, what happened to me?), his BABIP stood out worse than Martha Plimpton's mugging in "How To Make It In America." According to this list (scroll down halfway), Feldman was the second-luckiest pitcher in the league. His BABIP was 34 points lower than it should have been. Terrifying. Co-owner Hench and I made the trade anyway. We had to. We needed pitching. I'm fully prepared for him to screw us. If it happens, at least we'll be ready. I already bought the red ball to shove in my mouth.
On the flip side, Jon Lester's over/under for wins this season is just 14.5. He won 16 in 2008 and 15 in 2009. His 2010 defense is SIGNIFICANTLY better (as covered earlier), and if that's not enough, his 2009 BABIP (.314) was 11 points higher than expected. Doesn't 15 wins seem like a lock? And what about a flier on Lester at 9-to-1 to win the Cy Young Award? You know, if gambling were legal?
As Cockcroft mentioned in his piece, BABIP isn't a slam dunk every time -- too much hinges on a pitcher's defense, ballpark or style (ground ball versus fly ball, etc.) -- but it's just another way to evaluate someone. I like checking it with line-drive percentage, which measures the percentage of line drives a pitcher gives up per season (if it's a low rate, there's a good chance he has excellent stuff and hitters have trouble getting good wood off him). And why? Because occasionally, you'll notice things like this:
Brett Anderson's 2009 BABIP (.312) versus expected BABIP (.291): plus-21 (second-unluckiest in AL)
Brett Anderson's 2009 line-drive percentage: 15.1 percent (second-lowest in AL).
Does this mean you should ...
(A) Immediately start buying Brett Anderson's rookie cards
(B) Take Brett Anderson two rounds earlier than you wanted in fantasy
(C) Wager on Anderson as a long-shot Cy Young pick at 30-to-1
(D) All of the above
(E) None of the above
The answer: Just B if you don't have any more information than what I just gave you.
But let's say you already liked Anderson. (And why wouldn't you? He's a much-ballyhooed Oakland prospect who submitted a sneaky-great rookie season: 4:06 ERA, 175 innings, 150 K's, 45 walks, 1.28 WHIP). And let's say you watched him pitch and liked the way he carried himself. (In July, I watched him throw a mega-gem against my Sox: complete game, two hits, no walks, 9 K's, 111 pitches. Super impressive.) And let's say you noticed Anderson has Coco Crisp (2009 UZR: 19.6/150 games) playing center now. And on top of everything else, he's a year older and wiser. Incorporating that BABIP/line-drive information, are you feeling better about "(D) All of the above"? Absolutely.
But still, you need to bring in the hammer ...
FUN STAT NO. 7: FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching)
The formula: (HR x 13 + (BB + HBP - IBB) x 3 - K x 2) / IP, plus a league-specific factor (usually around 3.2).
The goal: 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.).
MEMORIES OF HANK
I have two Hank Gathers memories and only two. The first happened in the Bahamas, spring break, 1990. We were drinking cheap hurricanes at some dive bar with music blaring. A television in the corner was running ESPN. We weren't paying attention to it. When it started running replays of Hank Gathers dunking an alley-oop, running back up the court, then collapsing, we started paying attention. I remember moving toward the television in disbelief, trying to figure out what was happening, only there was no sound.
Did he ... wait a second ... come on ... he didn't ... he's gonna get up, right?
The most fun player on the most fun college team of my college years. He never got up.
We stayed in that bar for a couple more hours. Every so often, Hank Gathers would appear on that television, dunk a basketball, then run a few steps and drop dead. No sound.
We finally left.
The second memory happened two weeks later. Thursday or Friday night. Loyola Marymount's first tournament game. To say America had hopped on the bandwagon was an understatement. I remember watching this one alone in my dorm room for some reason. Bo Kimble got his fourth foul in the first half. Paul Westhead brazenly kept him in. He had no choice. Somehow, it all worked out. In the second half, Loyola blew the game open.
As that was happening, Kimble got fouled and went to the free-throw line for the first time. He had promised to shoot his first one left-handed. Noble gesture, seemed crazy. He wasn't REALLY going to do this, right? He lined up, and I remember thinking, "I hope it hits the rim." Nope. Swish. I remember my scream, and I remember the screams scattered throughout my dorm. We all screamed. My single favorite sports moment from college. I will never forget watching Bo Kimble make that free throw.
The moment is captured in "Guru of Go," our new 30 for 30 documentary that runs on ABC this Saturday (4 p.m. ET). I hadn't thought about Gathers and Kimble in a long time. Years and years. We created this series mainly to get people thinking about moments like that again. In this case, it worked. You should watch this one.
Translation: "Even though the formula looks confusing as all hell, trust us, this is gonna work."
The flaw: This might not even be the best FIP stat. Expected FIP (or xFIP) corrects HR/fly ball rate to the expected level, covering any pitcher who had bad luck with a couple of wind-blown homers or wall-scrapers. A little too fancy for me; I'm old-school with FIP, a stat Keri introduced to me 10 whole days ago.
My take: In Keri's explanation, here's the part that won me over: "FIP can serve as a good indicator of a pitcher's true worth -- and better yet, can be an excellent predictor of what he'll do in the future. Best/easiest of all, FIP runs on the same scale as ERA. So 3.00 is great, 4.00 is decent, 5.00+ sucks."
Hmmmmm. At that point of the e-mail, I felt like someone being wooed by an infomercial. Wait a second, so I can get the abdominal cruncher, the pizza cutter AND the nose-hair clipper for only $19.95? What's the catch? Then Keri laid down the hammer. We had already been exchanging e-mails about how much we both liked Anderson this season. Keri explained the following:
-- Anderson's 2009 ERA was 4.06 (20th among AL starters).
-- Anderson's 2009 FIP was 3.69 (ninth among AL starters).
-- Anderson's ERA/FIP difference was plus-0.36 (third among AL starters).
So basically, every conceivable variable was pointing to the same thing: Brett Anderson will be better in 2010 than he was in 2009. I believed this anyway. Now the metrics were backing it up. Just for kicks, I checked the Red Sox guys -- from watching them all season, I would have bet that Lester and Beckett had a better FIP than ERA, and that Papelbon (total smoke and mirrors season, lots of luck, nearly gave me 20 heart attacks) would have a significantly better ERA than FIP. Lester was plus-0.26. Beckett was plus-0.23.
Papelbon? Minus-1.20. Eighth-worst of any AL reliever, worst of any AL closer.
And on that note, I was hooked on FIP. The next day, someone offered us $18 Bobby Jenks in our keeper league. I never played the FIP card with the Feldman trade; now I had extra ammo. And according to ERA/FIP differential, Jenks was even worse than I thought in 2009: 3.71 ERA, 4.47 FIP, minus-0.75 difference. Translation? PASS! I already thought Jenks looked like crap last season; now I felt doubly sure. Gotta love FIP.
The only thing I'd change about it: They should have picked a better acronym. I would have gone with FLIP ("Fielding Less Independent Pitching"), PAFFY ("Pitching After Fixed Fielding Yearly") or PUFFDADDY ("Pitching Under Fielding Fixes Done Awesomely Dude Daily Yearly"). In fact, I'd like to volunteer to be the VP of Common Sense for all sabermetric acronyms starting today. Even something as simple as an acronym should have a catchy hook coming out of the gate. Here's a formula I just made up: Fan-friendly = good.
Even if I can't be the Acronym VP, please count me in (a few years too late, admittedly) to the saber party. Right now, I have seven favorite advanced stats. In two months, it might be 10. In a year, it might be 12. The days of judging Freddie Lynn by .331/21/105 are long gone. You can't write about baseball in 2010 (or play serious fantasy or gamble or have an educated conversation) without embracing sabermetrics. Fight it, and you're just being stubborn.
You know who's really scared? Mike of One Dollar Zobrist fame. He won our keeper league the past two years. I thought he was the luckiest bastard on the planet. Now I know better. Mike had been quietly using sabermetrics all along; One Dollar Zobrist was no accident. His 2008 numbers: 227 at-bats, 12 HRs, .505 slugging and just a .252 BABIP (low for a hitter). Translation: He hit for power, had bad luck, played multiple positions and happened to be hitting his late 20s. Mike sniffed him out like the sleeper he was. The question wasn't "Why was Mike so lucky with One Dollar Zobrist?" but "Why did we allow Mike to pay only $1 for Zobrist?"
Nothing like that will ever happen again. Not on my watch. When I mentioned that to Mike this week -- part boast, part threat -- he laughed and said, "Uh-oh, Billy's catching on. The genie is out of the bottle!"
Damn right it is. Too bad I didn't let the genie out sooner.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.
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