By Anthony Turgelis
We’ve all seen Moneyball. If you haven’t seen Moneyball, go see Moneyball, it’s on Netflix. The ‘Moneyball Revolution’ within baseball has shaken up the game, and changed the way that executives in baseball are looking at the game.
This will be an intro to some of the stats, metrics, and concepts that these executives are looking at. The goal here isn’t just to define what these things are, but rather to show how they can be used as tools of evaluation, to confirm the eye-test, or to just enhance the experience of the game. You might even end up sounding smart in front of your friends. When writing this article, I tried to include everything I wish I knew when first diving into the world of baseball analytics.
To avoid boring you with the history of how this Moneyball Revolution came to be, I’ll only drop one name that you should be familiar with - Bill James. Bill can be credited for being the pioneer of statistical analysis within baseball, as in the 1970s he was one of the first to publish this type of work that would be seen by a wide audience. Many people found his work fascinating, and attempted to replicate it, and - to make a long story short - after 30 years of this, the MLB finally took notice and the Moneyball Revolution began.
Concepts/Terms to Know:
The majority of these terms and concepts have been taken from Fangraphs, which is a site to find many advanced baseball stats and analysis. Links on where to find these concepts/stats will be provided.
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) - FIP is an adjusted Earned Run Average (ERA, or runs allowed by a pitcher excluding errors) metric that attempts to quantify what a pitcher’s value would be if they stripped out the defense component of the game. FIP assumes that all balls that are hit into play are given league average results on whether they fall for a hit or not. This way, a pitcher is not penalized for having a bad defense behind him, which certainly would affect their pitching results, and their ERA as a result. FIP is considered predictive as it has higher correlations across seasons than ERA, which makes sense considering it measures things that the pitcher can control and not things like defense which can fluctuate by game and by season. It is adjusted so that the league-average FIP is the same as the league-average ERA. This is done so that it can be easily compared to a player’s ERA to see if they are over/under-performing their FIP, and whether there may be any regression available for the player. There are cases of players who can consistently outperform their FIP numbers, such as Marco Estrada who in 2015-16 was elite at inducing weak contact (which can be considered a skill), so FIP assuming league-average results on balls-in-play would likely paint him as less effective than he actually is. On the other hand, his ERA did balloon to 4.98 in 2017 after significantly outperforming his FIP the previous two years, so the regression bug may have actually hit him as well.
FIP can be found on Fangraphs pitcher pages, such as Marco Estrada’s, next to ERA, where you will find his 2017 FIP to be 4.61.
Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) - BABIP is a player’s batting average on only balls that were put into play, and the average is roughly .300 for both hitters and pitchers. The reason why this is a very important stat, is that it tends to stabilize after 800 balls in play. This means that if a player is having a stretch of months (or even a whole year) where they are achieving a much higher/lower BABIP than league average, and their career average, they are likely due for some regression as they have likely been getting lucky/unlucky on the results of the balls they have put into play. It’s worth noting that better hitters will likely have higher BABIPs, and vice-versa, and some players are able to sustain high BABIPs throughout their career without regression. The 2017 Toronto Blue Jays hitters ranked dead last in the entire MLB in BABIP in 2017, which can be seen as a source of optimism that they may achieve better results on their balls in play in 2018.
BABIP can be found on Fangraphs pitcher/batter pages, such as fringe prospect Dwight Smith Jr’s, who rode a .588 BABIP in 2017 to achieve his .370 batting average, which was less impressive and likely luck-driven given his ridiculous BABIP, and so he still earned a demotion and will likely not get an early look to crack the 2018 team.
Hit Probability - To temporarily stray from Fangraphs, Hit Probability is a metric that was introduced by Statcast at the beginning of the 2017 season to estimate the likelihood that a ball-in-play will be a hit, based on its launch angle and exit velocity compared to similarly hit balls in the past. Similarly to FIP, it attempts to negate the effects of defense and the ballpark on players who may have high percentage hits robbed by star outfielders making unlikely plays, or getting credit for many weak hits that likely would not be repeated. I did an analysis on how the 2017 Blue Jays were being affected by luck based on their hit probabilities, and throughout the season I saw players regress to what their averages were expected to be based on their Hit Probability numbers. The most extreme case was Devon Travis who had a cold start but still had high aggregated Hit Probability numbers but who, as the season progressed, positively regressed to the expected level. The quarter season report can be found here, and the mid-season report can be found here.
Hit Probability statistics can be found on Baseball-Savant here, where you can select any game and see the hit probabilities for all balls in play for that game.
Weighted Runs Created + (wRC+) - wRC+ is an attempt to quantify a player’s total offensive output into one total stat, based on the value of their contributions, after park adjustments. It uses the concept of Weighted On Base Average (wOBA) which simply gives the run value of each plate outcome. For example, it finds that triples contribute to runs roughly twice as often as a single, so a triple would be worth double the value of a single in this calculation. After doing this, you can find out the value of runs created by each player’s offensive outputs. wRC+ is a rate statistic, so it is very easy to be used even in smaller samples to see how a hitter has been performing. It is one of the best tools to use when evaluating a hitter’s offensive abilities. The league average wRC+ is 100, and each point above 100 is indicative of one percentage above league-average.
It can be found on the batter pages on Fangraphs, such as Mike Trout’s, who was the 2017 leader at 181 wRC+, beating Aaron Judge by 8 points even with 19 less home runs.
Park Adjustments - No Two Parks are The Same:
To state the obvious, no two MLB ballparks are the same. The most noticeable difference is obviously the different dimensions, but additionally there are many other factors at play such as weather and other environmental factors. As a result, there tend to be plenty of differences in player performance at different parks, and adjustments are calculated to reduce the effects of these parks as best as possible. They typically are separated for left and right-handed batters, since parks are not always symmetrical, they may favour one-sided batters over another.
Colorado’s Coors Field is regarded as the extreme case of a ‘Hitter’s Ballpark’ - hitters tend to generally perform well there due to the high altitude and large outfield so batters can expect more balls in the outfield to fall for hits. Conversely, AT&T Park in San Francisco is regarded as the largest case of a ‘Pitcher’s Ballpark’ due to its high walls and damp air. Rogers Center in Toronto is ranked as the 8th best ballpark for hitters. Four out of five ballparks in the AL East are considered to favour the hitter over the pitcher, so that could be one of the reasons why a team based in Toronto fails to attract premium free agent pitchers.
The War on WAR:
If you only have time to learn about one advanced stat in baseball, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is the one to go with. WAR is an attempt to quantify the overall value of a player’s contributions into one easy number. It simply could be put as: The number of wins that you can expect your team to add while employing the player, compared to a different player that would be easily acquired from the minor-leagues or a team’s bench.
WAR is a counting stat and is based on what happened, rather than what will happen in the future. If an MVP-calibre player only played 20 games, they may have a lower WAR than many inferior players, due simply to the fact that they didn’t play enough games to accumulate a high WAR total.
Fangraphs goes into more details of what exactly goes into the WAR stat for hitters, but essentially it is the total value of runs that a batter contributes to the team in the areas of: hitting, baserunning, fielding, divided by how many wins a team can be expected to win with those runs added (Runs/Win generally fluctuates by year but is ~10). It is then adjusted by position (For example: CF is much harder to play than 1B, so they are credited accordingly - more here), adjusted by ballpark, and adjusted to consider the ‘Replacement Level’ player and how much more/less valuable that player is to this imaginary player.
For Pitchers, it is much more complicated, so it’s best to outline the two different WAR stats that are most commonly referenced. First, there’s Fangraphs WAR, commonly referred to as fWAR. fWAR uses Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) during their calculations, instead of ERA. Recall that FIP is generally regarded as a more predictive stat than ERA, so fWAR could be better used as a tool to project future pitching performance. Conversely, Baseball Reference uses ERA when calculating their bWAR stat. ERA is based on what has actually happened, and could be influenced by team defense among other external effects. These effects are variable by game and are out of the pitcher's control, so this should be seen as more of a ‘what happened in the past?’ stat, rather than a ‘what should I expect in the future?’ stat.
I hope that this article has given you an introduction to some tools to enhance your viewership of baseball. These tools were selected as stats that may challenge how the game is traditionally viewed. Player’s are often over/undervalued by fans since traditional metrics such as batting average will never paint the full picture of their contributions. Hopefully the concepts learned today will allow you to form more complete opinions on player’s teams while enjoying the games.
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