Judgmental Baseball Stats

Here’s something kind of funny: Few people seem to talk more about baseball statistics than people who are anti-baseball statistics. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed before, but it really struck me the other day when I got back-to-back emails from Brilliant Readers about Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. One was making the point that Cabrera’s greatness simply cannot be captured by statistics. “With Cabrera, you don’t need numbers,” he wrote. “I mean the guy’s hitting .360 with 120 RBI!”

The second wondered why I said that Trout is a better base runner than Cabrera. He was saying that numbers cannot measure that. while, two sentences later, pointing out that if Trout is really a better base runner than Cabrera, why is it that Cabrera has scored more runs this year? Huh? Explain that? “The idea is to score runs, right?” he wrote.

*Today’s post is not about Trout and Cabrera, so I don’t really want to get into this. But OBVIOUSLY the reason Cabrera has scored one more run than Trout this year is because he has 19 more home runs. That’s 19 more runs, and baserunning is not really a big factor in the home run -- basically you just have to not pass any other runners, something that I don’t think is a problem for Miggy.

Discounting home runs, Trout has gotten on base 220 times and scored 67 runs -- scoring about 30.5% of the time.

Discounting home runs, Cabrera has gotten on base 196 times and scored 49 runs -- scoring exactly 25% of the time.

Anyway, all of this made me realize something in way I never had before: No other sport has statistics that are so JUDGMENTAL as baseball. In other sports, we just kind of count things. That seems to be the point of sports stats, no? To count things. We count touchdowns, free throws, goals, catches. Some rely on a small bit of ruling -- assists, blocked shots, tackles, sacks, these are not always entirely clear -- but for the most part we count acts.

In baseball, the most statistical sport on earth, we don’t just count acts. We put our own morality and justice on the numbers. It’s actually quite ridiculous when you think about it.

Here are a bunch of examples:

-- In baseball, when someone steals a base late in the game and the other team doesn’t try to throw him out because his run is meaningless, the player does not get credit for the stolen base. We know he stole the base. We saw him do it. But, no, it doesn’t get marked down. It’s called “defensive indifference.” I always liked defensive indifference because it’s an awesome name for a band and a cool sounding term and it SOUNDS like a good thing. Why, after all, should a guy get credit for a stolen base when the other team didn’t even try to stop him?

But the more I think about it, the more I think this is actually ludicrous. He should get credit for the stolen base because, you know, he STOLE THE BASE. If someone scores a meaningless and undefended basket at the end of a basketball game, he still gets credit for it. That’s because, you know, IT HAPPENED. If a running back runs for some meaningless yardage at the end of the half when the clock is running out, he still gets credit for it. If someone scores an empty net goal just before time expires and with the team having given up on the play, he still gets credit for it.

But this is what I mean about baseball being judgmental. Someone sits on high and says: “No! No stolen base for that man! The defense did not make a proper attempt to throw him out! That base shall forever be known as DEFENSIVE INDIFFERENCE.”

-- In baseball, when someone hits into a double play and a run scores, the batter does not get credit for the RBI. Why? What valid statistical model is this using? Again, it SOUNDS vaguely right -- hey, the guy hit into a double play, don’t give him an RBI for that. But then, it actually sounds like something an eight-year-old would do in some made up game. RBI stands for “Run Batted In” and, unless my English is off here, that run was batted in.

-- In baseball, when you move a runner from first to second on a bunt, it’s called a “sacrifice” and it does not count as an at-bat. But if you move a runner from first to second on a ground ball, it not called a sacrifice and it does count as an at-bat. Why? They are EXACTLY the same thing -- well, not exactly. The difference seems to be “intent.”

And that’s what I mean by baseball statistics being judgmental. The stat is to reward someone for INTENDING to help the team, not for ACTUALLY helping the team. You can’t get more judgmental than that. If someone banks a free-throw in when he was intending to make it straight, guess what, he still gets the point. His INTENT is irrelevant. The basket is what matters.

Think about this: If you bunt the ball and the runner moves, it is marked as sac, no at-bat, it’s all good for your batting average. If you check your swing and hit the ball at exactly the same speed and trajectory as a bunt, it goes as an out in your record.

-- In baseball, when you hit a fly ball, and a runner tags up and scores from third, it is called a “sacrifice” and it does not count as an -bat. But if you hit a ground ball and the runner scores, it does count as an at-bat and an out. Wait, that’s true unless that ground ball is a bunt and the runner scores, then it is called a “sacrifice” and not counted as an at-bat. So, remember: Fly ball to score the run -- sacrifice. Ground ball to score the run -- out. Double play ground to score the run -- two outs and no RBI. Bunt to score the run -- sacrifice.

-- And then there’s the error. Man oh man. The error. The older I get the more I hate the error in baseball. I think I’m now at the point where I’m pretty sure the error is is the single worst statistic in sports, and there are some BAD statistics in sports.

I mentioned something about this the other day and someone wrote in on Twitter in a rage, wondering why a hitter should get CREDIT for getting on base because of a defensive miscue.

Again: Sounds good. Why should a hitter get credit for a defensive miscue? It sounds good until you start thinking about how unbelievably vapid it would sound if you said it for any other sport. Could you imagine someone at a football game taking a catch away from a receiver because the defender fell down? Could you imagine someone taking away a basket from a player because the defender covered the wrong man? Could you imagine someone taking away a goal from a player because the goalie should have stopped the puck? I’m just imagining that, an official scorer at a hockey rink, saying: “Um, no, that’s an unearned goal, from my vantage point that CLEARLY should have been stopped.”

But this is precisely what we do with errors. This isn’t record-keeping. This is sermonizing on some 1910s idea of the “right” way to the play the game. Someone sits in a press box and determines if the fielder SHOULD have caught the ball? And this will not only decide whether the batter gets credit for a hit, but if the pitcher will have to take responsibility for the run? People talk about the craziness of advanced stats, but could you even IMAGINE someone coming up with this system in 2013?

Anyway, the whole idea of “errors” is rife with inconsistencies and absurdities and stupidities -- here’s just one. If a fly ball is hit in the air and the outfielder loses it in the sun and doesn’t touch it, it’s almost always called a hit. But if a fly ball is hit in the air, and the outfielder loses it in the sun but, at the last second, regains site of it, and it hits his glove and drops, it’s almost always called an error. It’s EXACTLY THE SAME THING. But one is a hit and the other is an error.

Plus, a hit in Cleveland might be an error in Seattle. An error in Kansas City might be a hit in Atlanta. No, more than that, a hit one night in Chicago might be an error the next night because there’s a different official scorer.

Judgmental record keeping. That’s baseball.

And so, yes, there are excellent arguments against WAR and other advanced statistics, and some people make those arguments. I hope they keep making the arguments, keep making these stats baseball. Because it seems to me that what baseball needs are statistics that simply count things, without prejudice … stats that provide context without making verdicts about how baseball SHOULD be played … stats that don’t see baseball actions as “good” or “bad” but simply as actions … these might help us shed the blinders that the traditions stats have been for all these years.

And don’t even get me started on the pitcher win. Not today.