Lies, Damn Lies, and Sabremetrics

Very few know that Mark Twain was a baseball fan, but it was the great 1905 fiasco – which foreshadowed Dave Littlefield’s tenure – in which the Pirates traded Ed Phelps to his beloved Cincinnati Red Stockings for Heinie Peitz (sometimes misidentified as Heinie Beiytz) that prompted Twain’s famous oath, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and Sabremetrics!"

Older Bucs Dugout members may remember me, attentive ones may have noted that I’m posting less, and most probably don’t, and shouldn’t, give a damn one way or t’uther. But I decided to post less after seeing, months ago, an exchange similar to this one:

Casual Fan: I don’t like Pitcher X – 7 million dollars seems like a lot for a guy with a losing record the last two seasons. His ERA was good last year, but it’s usually higher.

Sabre-jihadist: INFIDEL!!! You’re looking at possibly the most useless stats in baseball!!! I WILL KEEEEL YOU!!!! (Jeff Dunham is coming to Penn State!)

Yeah. Sabremetrics. God knows how baseball players, managers, fans, and writers got along without them in the 100 or so years the game was played before Sabremetrics. They’re so important that Nolan Ryan’s bio for the Hall of Fame website reads:

“With a blazing fastball that approached 100 mph and a work ethic like none other, Nolan Ryan dominated hitters for 27 seasons on his way to a 3.25 xFIP, an all-time record. During four decades of prominence, he totaled 324 BABIP and set a single season record of WAR.”

What’s that? That’s not how his bio reads?? You mean those dumb hicks in Cooperstown relied upon his strikeouts and wins? And Bob Gibson’s notable accomplishments (other than playing for the Harlem Globetrotters) include his 1.12 ERA? Heathens! Don’t they know that ERA is one of the most useless stats in baseball? Surely Casey Stengel was elected due to his use of Sabremetrics to guide the Yankees to all those World Series, right? What?! And there is no mention of Josh Gibson’s wRAA whilst he played for the Negro Leagues – those ninnies.....

As far as I know, less than 10 Bucs Dugout members actually depend on an intensive knowledge of baseball (or sports) to put food on the table. A few others should, because they have consistently good posts. Maybe some are trying to break into sports management. But I don’t recall anyone ever saying, “Oh, and by the way, I work in the Pirates’ player acquisition department and here’s why we traded for “x.” So, most of us casual fans who realize that our opinion on the Pirates are unlikely to cause the Front Office to go out and up their offer to Derek Lee or trade Brad Lincoln and parts for (Rizzo, Trumbo, take your pick). (Short version). So, if you see a string of “casual fan” comments that don’t meet your standards of statistical excellence, don’t feel compelled to proselytize us. Just keep walkin’, sabre-preacher man. Or add your Sabremetrics insights, but please don’t get too upset if us casual fans keep rambling on about the lesser stats. Just don’t damn us as heretics or tell us (implicitly or explicitly) how stupid we are for enjoying the game with a little less detail.

(Longer version for those not already organizing a posse to string up ol’ Trogluddite)

But I’m not here to apologize for being an “old stats” guy – I’m here to defend ‘em and argue that the average baseball fan didn’t (and still doesn’t) need Sabremetrics. The old stats, combined with an understanding of the game, are enough, even now. Here’s why I still think the only pitching stats you need are K’s, ERA, and Win/Loss record.

Pitchers can control how they throw the ball – if the batter makes contact, the pitcher is at the mercy of the batter, his teammates, and the park. Want to keep control? Strike out the batter. Control and “missability” = fewer runners on base = fewer chances to score. (“The enemy cannot push a button if he cannot move his hand! Medic!”) Given a choice, do you take the top-10 career leaders in strikeouts or in “Pitcher WAR?” I’m sure that Pete Alexander and Kid Nichols are nice guys, but I’d rather have Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson – two pitchers who aren’t “Top 10” based on WAR. (The two lists, from, are at the end of this rant post.)

Of course, even Nolan Ryan didn’t strike out every batter. WHIP is nice, but knowing only how many hits and walks a pitcher gives up isn’t enough, as walks and hits don’t matter if they don’t cross the plate. So even though ERA will be influenced by a pitcher’s home park and supporting defense, knowing where that ERA stands (relative to era and league) is sufficient for measuring a pitcher’s effectiveness for most purposes.

“But what about although these new stats, like FIP, xFIP, tERA, SIERRA, BABIP?” I contend that these stats only capture objectively what a good manager or front office knew, subjectively, from studying the game. “This guy gives up too many homers – do we really want to bring him to Wrigley?” (GB/LD/FB ratios) “That guy gets hit a lot, but he scatters them well. And Ozzie at short will save him a run a game.” (FIP) “That guy carried the Phillies last year – he’ll put us in the playoffs.” (WAR)

Just for one example, what does FIP tell me about Justin Verlander that I can’t get from “old” stats? I didn’t follow the Tigers closely, but I heard that Verlander was a pretty good pitcher having a good year. The “old” stats bear this out – he racked up 250 strikeouts and a 2.40 ERA en route to 24 wins. Also, subjectively, he doesn’t walk a lot of guys or hit them. And he’s durable, with 251 innings pitched. And Jim Leyland must trust him, because he didn’t have a single intentional walk, which I find incredible for a starting pitcher. So what do I learn from calculating his FIP?

FIP Formula: (13 x HR + 3 x ((BB + HBP) - IBB) – 2 x K)/IP + 3.20

Verlander: (13 x 24 + 3 x ((57+3) – 0) – 2 x 250)/251 + 3.20

(312 + 180 – 500)/251 + 3.20

492 – 500/251 + 3.20

-8/251 + 3.20

-0.0318 + 3.20

Verlander's FIB: 3.16

I don’t know that I learn a darn thing other than that I can still do basic math (knock-on-wood). Some websites claim that “FIP is a much better predictor of future performance than ERA.” But I’m pretty sure that I can figure out that Justin Verlander is a pretty good pitcher by looking at the number of his K’s and his ERA without breaking out the slide rule.

NOTE: Because this got so long, I’m not even going to try to go through each advanced stat in detail or talk about hitting stats – my defense of RBIs as a valid statistic will have to wait for another day. But I found it interesting that many substitute league averages, or some other value, “because an individual’s performance (in a given statistical area) varies so much from year to year.” Well, yeah – that’s the point of relying on experience, not just stats.

Top Ten Pitchers WAR: 1) Cy Young 2) Roger Clemens 3) Walter Johnson 4) Tom Seaver 5) Pete Alexander 6) Kid Nichols 7) Lefty Grove 8-Tie) Greg Maddux and Phil Niekro 10) Gaylord Perry

Top Ten Pitchers Strikeouts: 1) Nolan Ryan 2) Randy Johnson 3) Roger Clemens 4) Steve Carlton 5) Bert Blyleven 6) Tom Seaver 7) Don Sutton 8) Gaylord Perry 9) Walter Johnson 10) Greg Maddux

NOTE: This Fanpost is NOT intended to insult, harass, demean, demonize, or otherwise persecute any other member or group of members. Nor am I trying to argue that Sabremetrics are useless, just that they're not essential for a good discussion about baseball. Nor have are they the sole stats that can/should be used for a good discussion.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of the managing editor (Charlie) or SB Nation. FanPosts are written by Bucs Dugout readers.

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