Adieu Ancient Statistics Pt.1
Come Into The Light
As we gallop, tassels gleaming, into a new era of intelligently designed baseball statistics, many old ways will fall out of favor. This is as it should be. Peel the leaches from the afflicted’s body and check out the future, where you can buy medicine at a gas station. Do not live in darkness my friends.
For the uninitiated, just know there has been a lot of discussion as to how to measure defensive value properly, and some very impressive solutions have been devised. Though it is widely acknowledged that there are still many things defensive stats cannot do, they continue to leap forward, while broadcasters and talk show hosts continue to laud high fielding percentages. As the first installment of the four part ‘Adieu Ancient Statistics’ series, this article will cover old defensive statistics and their pitfalls.
What Are Defensive Statistics For?
Let’s just start by deciding what it is that we want to know about a fielder. Five is a nice round number, lets pick five questions defensive stats should answer.
- What balls can he get to? (Range)
- Does he make the plays he can get to? (Fielding Ability)
- What throws can he make? (Arm Strength)
- Can he throw it where he’s supposed to? (Arm Accuracy)
- Does he know what to do when he has the ball (Baseball IQ)
Of the five questions we need answers for, in order to properly assess a fielder’s quality, the Errors stat attempts to address only two of them: Fielding Ability and Arm Accuracy. If he boots it: Error. If he throws it away: Error. But what about the balls a fielder can’t get to? He can’t make an error on the play, but he isn’t doing his job as effectively as a fielder who can get to that ball. What about the guy who can get to balls nobody else can? When a ball goes off the fingers of his glove at a spot on the field that most fielders can’t even get to, he is charged with an error. You can see how the Error falls short in assessing range.
The Assist has it’s shortcomings as well. A player records an assist by throwing a baserunner out. But the Assist treats a pitcher’s ten foot underhand toss to first base as an equal to Dave Parker’s famous laser beam from the 1979 All-Star Game. It does not measure arm strength because it has nothing to do with how difficult the throw is. The Assist also fails to measure the dozens of runners that elect not to take a chance against a right fielder with a cannon. We need a stat that can give us an idea of Arm Strength.
The Putout is even more pathetic. A Putout is recorded when you catch a batted ball on the fly, or when you tag a base or baserunner for an out (this includes catching a throw with a foot on the bag for a force out). As a means of measuring defensive ability at the Major League level I think it is hardly of any value to ask ourselves whether a player is capable of touching someone while a ball is in his glove, stepping on a base, or catching a throw. It screams even louder that catching a third strike is worth the same Putout as Mike Trout robbing a home run.
To get fielding percentage we add stupid “Putouts” and worthless “Assists.” Then we divide that number by the sum of Putouts, Assists and useless “Errors.”
To summarize: we start with something as silly as allowing gravity to pull your foot down onto a white pillow, sometime after you somehow managed to gain possession of a ball, but before a runner arrives at said pillow. We then add the amount of times you may have either thrown a ball from Jupiter to Mars or just rolled it across 7 inches of grass to the first basemen. Then we divide that by those two things plus the amount of times you made the awful mistake of covering twice as much ground as Matt Holliday only to have the baseball hit the heel of your outstretched glove as you save a run by keeping a ball from going into the gap.
So it begins to make sense that old magistrates in powdered wigs decided Andre Ethier is a Gold Glover, because this is the method they tried to use to figure it out.
And this says nothing of comparison. What about catchers? Is the way they play defense even remotely akin to the way a centerfielder must play defense. A catcher has to frame pitches, call a game and he occasionally gets run over by Mike Trout going full speed while he is standing still. What about the fact that there are actually nine, totally different positions on the diamond, each demanding a unique skill set?
To be continued…