Batting Average: Throwing Out the Baby with the Bath Water

 

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Once upon a time, back in the way back, batting average was all we cared about — it was the primary statistic we memorized about players, how we measured their ability, the quickest down-and-dirty answer to the basic question: “Can the guy hit?

Obviously, there’s been a statistical revolution in sports, driven in large part by the billion-dollar fantasy market. Nowadays, students of the game are exploring the “numbers within the numbers,” and coming away with a more nuanced understanding of a player’s overall production.

86+topps+backWe have even witnessed the rise of proprietary stats, complex statistical formulas that are devised and “owned” by the, er, maker-upper. Any fan of a certain age might recognize this as fairly dubious. Owning and selling stats? Please. Statistics are a record of what happens in a game. Joe walked. Tommy struck out three times. Billy homered. The folks who are inventing new mathematical measurements, in many cases, are just trying to sell fans something they don’t need. It comes back to the Fantasy industry, promising customers the “magic stat” that will help them (finally) win the league.

Decades ago, it wasn’t that we didn’t know some of the advanced stuff, it just wasn’t measured as accurately. If a guy had power, we were aware of it. If he was one of those pesky players who was “always on base,” we heard opposing managers complain about it. We knew who walked a lot and who was a free swinger. The roles of table setters and RBI men told that story, too, though not with the detail of today.

In our headlong rush to embrace “advanced statistics,” many of the more common statistics have been disparaged, pushed aside, ignored. And I contend that some basic information has been lost, or badly devalued, in the process.

Runs Scored is a statistic that I still like, for instance. Sure, yes, I know. That makes me a buffoon. Runs are contingent, dependent upon the actions of others. And because of that, a lot of folks no longer look at “Runs” as a telling or worthwhile statistic of an individual’s ability. If you hit in front of Babe Ruth you’ll score a lot more than if you bat 7th for the NY Mets. But that’s understood — everybody gets it — and it does not negate the value of the basic information. Runs are important, and they are a team statistic, which has meaning, since it’s a team game.

throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater1Every day I come across insightful analysis. There’s also a lot of lazy thinking out there. And I can’t quite shake the suspicion that some folks are too willing to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Case in point, let’s look at the Mets offense (all numbers as of 6/18). We can see by the team numbers that it’s not as bad as it might seem to casual fans. The Mets currently rank 9th in the NL in Runs, though they hold a slight Games Played advantage over Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. Still, facts are facts: The NY Mets are not the Absolute Worst Scoring Team in the history of baseball. Which is why, in a nutshell, stats are valuable. Our impressions (most boring team ever) collide with facts (hard data) and fictional narratives (they’re “close,” as Sandy might proclaim).

Just for fun, here’s how the team ranks in the NL in various categories:

  • R: 9th
  • BA: 14th
  • OBP: 9th
  • SLG: 14th
  • HR: 14th
  • SO: 4th (most)
  • BB: 1st
  • SB: 3rd
  • PH/BA: 14th (.168)
  • G/F: 15th (Mets hit higher % of FB than any team in the NL)
  • XBH: 14th

I don’t know. We can look at those numbers and formulate any number of theories. I suspect it might be telling that the Mets lead the NL in FB % while nearly last in power departments — a disastrous combination, especially in Citi Field. We bring in pitchers with FB tendencies because we know it will work in our park. What about on offense?

Otherwise, it’s the stuff you’d intuit. They are working a lot of deep counts, attested by the high showing in both BB and SO categories. (Aside: there’s surely a team swing rate statistic out there on Fangraphs, and I’d be willing to bet that, per pitch, nothing happens the most with this Mets team. [Note: Yep, first in NL anyway.] Hey, there’s a new (albeit long) slogan for you: METS 2014: MORE “NON-EVENTS” PER PITCH THAN ANY TEAM IN THE NL — GO TO THE RESTROOM ANY TIME, YOU WON’T MISS ANYTHING!”). Also, it’s possible that linked to those deep counts is the fact that the Mets have had a very poor power showing. The two-strike swing is not the same as the mighty rip taken in a hitter’s count.

MLB: New York Mets at St. Louis Cardinals

The walks have helped, but at what cost the approach?

We continue to hear about the Mets poor performance hitting with RISP. We see it, game after game. Let’s keep things simple and look at Tuesday night’s lineup in terms of BA only:

  • .227 * Granderson
  • .295 * Murphy
  • .266 * Wright
  • .286 * Abreu
  • .246 * Duda
  • .194 * Recker
  • .221 * Tejada
  • .043 * Niese (batting 8th, clever!)
  • .221 * E. Young
  • Pinch Hitters:
  • .294 * Campbell
  • .200 * C. Young
  • .156 * Den Dekker
  • Bench:
  • .125 * Teagarden
  • .232 * Flores

Not to sound too much like an unenlightened nitwit, but: No wonder why the Mets don’t do great with RISP. Just look at those batting averages.

They can’t hit!

It’s amazing they ever score.

Someone could make the argument that if the Mets didn’t walk so much, they’d really be in trouble. But personally, I flip that. I believe that the organization-wide focus on walking and taking pitches — all this staring at the “numbers within the numbers” — has led them to devalue the most obvious measurement of every batter, i.e., getting hits.

52703069These past two days we’ve heard and read a lot of stories about Tony Gwynn. For a moment, at least, batting average has once again entered the conversation. There it is, flickering briefly. We remember the great hitter.

 

 

 

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8 comments

  1. If Colon doesn’t hit a double yesterday, are they still playing now?

  2. Collins on Flores: “We’ve got to start winning. We don’t have time to develop players right at the moment.”

  3. Eraff says:

    We’ve always had commentary regarding “light 280 hitters”…likewise, for 250 hitters that were “heavier” than their average— however, a 190 hitter is a 190 hitter!!!

    I avoid playing batting coach, but the best hitting is always in Hitter’s Counts. A batter looking for, SEEING, and swinging at a fastball is in optimum position. I see a lot of 1-0, 2-0 and 2-1 and 3-1 fastball TAKES—I suppose they’re Hunting Perfect Pitches as much as they are hunting strikes. The lack/loss of aggression in HITTERS COUNTS—SEE BALL HIT BALL COUNTS— hurts most hitters.

  4. Reese Kaplan says:

    Ruben Tejada for his 1388 AB career:

    .254 hitter (surprised me!)
    4 HRs
    101 RBIs
    14 SBs (with 9 CS)

    That averages out over 162 games to:

    .254
    2 HRs
    41 RBIs
    6 SBs (with 4 CS)

    I’ve got 100 bucks to bet that Wilmer Flores can easily beat those numbers IF THEY WOULD ONLY INSERT HIM INTO THE LINEUP.

    • Eraff says:

      Yes…1338 ab’s that prove what he is. He’s a backup Middle infielder. That’s not a Shot–it’s a fact.

    • Patrick Boegel says:

      I don’t even care if Flores can’t, I want to see that he can’t vs seeing more of Tejada whom I really liked, but him squarely in the life raft of lost souls under this clueless crew: Ike Davis, Lucas Duda, Travis d’Arnaud, etc

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