2/13/2013 7:34 P.M. ET
New-age statistics just part of evaluation equation
By Tracy Ringolsby / MLB.com
Statistics are a great tool for evaluation.
But that's the key -- they are a tool.
They aren't the answer.
As an old-time baseball stat freak, that's the problem I find with the new-breed overzealous stat gurus.
They are looking for instant answers and there aren't any.
The successful evaluator today is the same as the one 50 years ago. The successful evaluator is the one who is able to use both the gut check and the statistical analysis as components to make a decision on ability and mentality. The difference is with modern technology there are more avenues available for evaluation.
However, there is no "sure thing."
As the Concise Encyclopedia puts it in describing statistics: "The results of all of them serve as predictors of future performance, though reliability varies."
It's like the guy in the office who proclaims that his co-worker should be running a baseball team because he keeps winning the office rotisserie league.
It's not that simple. There is a human element, and that does not fit comfortably into an equation.
It's why there has to be flexibility in evaluations. It's why Bill James stands out from so many others.
James has had theories that have been spot on, but he also has had theories, such as the idea that anyone can pitch the ninth inning, that he has later admitted were erroneous.
When the argument by those in support of the value of evaluating players based off a batting average on balls put in play turns into Adam Dunn being the second most unlucky hitter in baseball it's hard to stomach. Unlucky? He had more than twice as many strikeouts (222) than hits (110). It is difficult to accept the idea that the inability to make contact with a baseball is a matter of luck.
WAR -- Wins Above Replacement -- has deservedly gained the greatest credibility of the new-age stats. It is the stat cited in the so-called arguments between old-school and new-school on the selection of annual awards. It obviously needs to be a consideration, but to say it is an answer is naive.
What needs to be remembered in the world of statistical evaluation is the one stat that rises above all others in baseball is the games won. That's the ultimate judge of champions, and it doesn't matter what the BA or ERA or OPS or WAR or BABIP is.
With all due respect to WAR, consider that only four of the top 12 American League players in terms of WAR and just six of the top 20 even appeared in the postseason. In the National League, 12 of the top 20 players in terms of WAR watched the postseason from home.
And from a team standpoint, the Angels had a 37.9 WAR, according to baseball-reference.com, the tops in baseball, but they finished third in the AL West standings last year. By contrast, Detroit, which won the AL pennant, had a 13.7 WAR, 13th in the AL and 23rd in the Major Leagues. Baltimore, one of the two AL Wild Card teams, checked in at 11.4, last among AL teams and 26th overall.
World Series champion San Francisco, however, did lead the NL with a 28.9 WAR, just ahead of St. Louis, an NL Wild Card, at 27.7. In fact, four of the five NL postseason teams did rank among the top five in the NL in terms of WAR. Atlanta was No. 4 (23.2) and Washington No. 5 (20.6).
Detroit, however, was second in the AL in pitching WAR (23.2), right behind AL Wild Card Texas (23.4). But the Giants had only a 5.5 pitching WAR, 13th in the NL, barely ahead of Houston (5.4), and 22nd in the Major Leagues.
Colorado, meanwhile, which had a Major League-worst 5.22 ERA, had the fourth-best pitching WAR in the NL (14.5). Houston, which had the second-worst NL ERA (4.56) had a 5.4 pitching WAR, 14th in the NL, ahead of San Diego (2.5) and the Chicago Cubs (-0.1).
The statistical evaluation discussions bring back the memory of when Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post beat writer with the Baltimore Orioles in the late 1970s, presented then Orioles manager Earl Weaver with a "total average" statistic that Boswell devised.
"He told me it was interesting, but when Branch Rickey created it he gave a bonus for a grand slam because of the emotional impact," Boswell later related.
It wasn't that Rickey felt the statistical analysis would replace scouts. Rather, with more than 20 farm teams at the time, he had his official statistician, Allan Roth, devise the statistical evaluation as a means of double-checking the talent evaluation.
When Rickey would find a player with a high "total average" who wasn't listed among the better prospects on a team, it would prompt him to contact his talent evaluators and have them review the evaluation process.
Rickey saw the stats not as the answer, but as rather one of the many tools necessary for a successful franchise.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.