If you did, then you’re a normal sports fan. If you didn’t, then you’re most likely a SABR nerd living in a faux-reality that completely ignores all human existence.
I’ve had enough of them.
I appreciate advanced stats in sports. In baseball, they’re called sabermetrics. No, children, that’s not a dirty word. It’s not what daddy does to mommy when you sleep. It’s not a sexual maneuver that requires three fingers, two easels, and a yam. No, they're the advanced metrics with which we track baseball performance. You can say it: Say-burrr-met-tricks. SABR for short.
Without going into too much detail, the stats arguably begin somewhere around percentage of ground balls hit and end precisely with the WAR metric, a mythical number that combines several other advanced stats to come up with a player’s true worth in comparison to a “replacement level player.”
Some of the stats provide us with great tools to further understand, and perhaps even predict, the sport of baseball. I’ve used them in posts like this- where I used BABIP (batting average on all balls put into play) to describe why Vance Worley might not be as good as you think. And here- where I used BABIP, ground and fly balls rates, and other performance-based metrics to tell you Cliff Lee would be OK. He wound up giving up only one run in his next five starts. They work.
Some fans, writers, and other pundits fall into traps when they start using SABR stats to not only explain the game, but also define it. And that’s exactly what often happens with Ryan Howard. And that’s exactly what happened this weekend when Baseball Reference czar Sean Forman, a Philly native, said Howard was the seventh best player… on the Phillies.
In fact, if we look at a wide array of sabermetric measures, Howard never cracks the top 10 and is typically well down in the pack. And this is just considering hitting. If we combine hitting, defense and base running, WAR (wins above replacement) rated him as the seventh-best player on the Phillies this year.
Entering the weekend, Howard’s on-base percentage was seventh best and his slugging percentage was sixth best among the 10 most common cleanup hitters in the majors. Howard has significantly more outs made than his counterparts because of his low on-base percentage and because he is consistently in the lineup.
It gets worse. Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk (who I like) called Howard the most overrated player in baseball. Ugh.
Let’s get back to Forman for a second… Like other out-of-touch stat heads, he significantly downplays RBIs, saying specifically, in Howard’s case, that he has many more opportunities (therefore more RBIs) because he plays for the Phillies.
Well, that is true. But he’s as good as – if not better than – his counterparts at making the most of those opportunities.
Using Forman’s own site to look this up, I took Howard’s ability to drive runners in and compared it against the nine National League first basemen with a higher WARs. You’ll see that Howard drives in 19% of all inherited base runners. League average is 15%.
Really, Forman would have only needed to look one column over for this fascinating info. These nerds really do slice stats any way they want:
- Ryan Howard (1.5 WAR) has seen 375 base runners this year. 70 (19%) of them have scored on his plays (not necessarily RBIs).
- Joey Votto (5.7 WAR), the SABR nerds’ masturbatory fantasy: 295 base runners, with 57 (19%) of them scoring.
- Prince Fielder (4.3 WAR): 346 base runners, with 66 (19%) of them scoring.
- Albert Pujols (3.8 WAR): 287 base runners (injury), with 46 (16%) of them scoring.
- Daniel Murphy (3.1 WAR): 342 base runners this year, with 43 (16%) of them scoring.
- Michael Morse (3.0 WAR): He’s having a pretty respectable season: only 247 base runners, with 50 (20%) of them scoring.
[That’s right, to give you an idea of how fucked up the WAR stat is, it ranks Daniel Murphy, Michael Morse (he plays for the Nationals), and Freddie Freeman over Ryan Howard. Murphy and Morse have WARs more than double Howard’s. Nice stat, fucks.]
- Todd Helton (2.8 WAR): 268 base runners, with 50 (15%) scoring.
- Gaby Sanchez (2.5 WAR): 324 base runners, with 49 (15%) scoring.
- Carlos Lee (2.1 WAR): 351 base runners, with 59 (17%) scoring.
- Freddie Freeman (1.7 WAR): 288 base runners, with 44 (15%) scoring.
[AL: Adrain Gonzalez, the Mexican Jesus: 381 base runners, with 77 of them scoring (20%)]
Out of the nine players supposedly better than Howard in the National League, only one (Morse) is more effective at driving in runners this season. Howard is just as effective as both Fielder and Votto at converting RBI opportunities. Of course, none of this factors in other stats like on-base percentage, fielding, baserunning, etc. But the fact of the matter is, this season and for the last five years, Howard has consistently done his job, which is to produce runs when given the chance. Further, he’s durable, a proven winner (7 HR, 27 RBI, .899 OPS in postseason), and one of the leaders of the Phillies during the greatest era in their history.
What in the world is overrated about that?
This is what drives me crazy about SABR folks. They'll take their favorite metrics and knock players who don't excel in them. They'll ignore most all common sense.
Need another example? Take a look at this paragraph from the always insufferable Michael Baumann on Phillies Nation (I hate to even give this kid attention):
You’ve no doubt been wondering why I haven’t mentioned Jair Jurrjens Ryan Vogelsong yet. The reason for that is that they have been riding unsustainable waves of batted ball luck and defensive help. These factors are, for all intents and purposes, the reason that Cole Hamels went from toast of the town in 2008 to petulant surfer weirdo in 2009 and back in 2010, then to “My name Ozymandias, King of Kings: look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” in 2011. They are what differentiates a pitcher’s results (as expressed by ERA) from what results he deserves (FIP and other ERA estimators).
Fuck. I want to harm myself… and it's my birthday.
What Baumann's referring to is the below average BABIP (average of balls put in play) for Jurrjens and Vogelsong. He thinks their luck will run out and the average of balls put in play will trend toward .300. That's a completely reasonable assumption… but what he says about Hamels is just flat out wrong. The reason Hamels sucked in 2009 wasn't just because he was unlucky (.321 BABIP). He was admittedly out-of-shape coming into the season, had trouble locating his fastball, and had yet to develop his cutter and curve. That's why he wasn't good in 2009. It wasn't because he was unlucky, it was because he had two pitches, everyone in the league knew it, and his body was in no shape (literally) to pitch for nine months. But that's all human stuff which SABR folks don't understand. Fuck.