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My Statistical Fascination

Ever since I was little, I’ve been really into statistics. When I was younger, I obviously loved batting average because it told me such a great story about the player. I had an idea in my head that a guy who hit .250 was mediocre, .275 was okay, .300 was great and .330+ was amazing. For a lot of players, that actually remains true, and there’s a part of me that still looks at those numbers and has the same thoughts. When I played, I’d always know how many hits I had in how many at bats and when I stood on whatever base I had reached with my hit, I’d calculate my batting average. Statistics were always fun for me, giving me something for which I could quantify my love of baseball and various players.

My love of baseball statistics helped me growing up in school because I was able to think of math in terms of the game I love. As I got older, more and more research became available about advanced statistics and how they were influencing the game. While I didn’t quite understand exactly what they all meant, I was intrigued and began to read as much as I can on these new statistics such as OPS and others that seem pretty basic to me now.

Now, within baseball, there is an interesting divide that grows between those who review and rely on statistics and those who look at the “eye test” as the be all, end all. This is more a topic for another post, but these arguments just make me laugh. Why does it have to be one against the other? Why can’t both be used to the benefit of analysis? A player like Mike Aviles is someone who can really divide the stats people vs. the scouting people. To watch him is infuriating. His swing is uncomfortable, he swings at tons of pitches and his defense just looks awkward. The numbers indicate that he’s a good hitter and before 2010 was pretty darn good defensively. So what’s to believe? Numbers don’t lie, right? I guess on the stats vs. scouting issue, I lean toward stats, but would never discount someone’s opinion of what they see.

Anyway, back to the original topic, my fascination with statistics is probably as great as it ever has been because I’ve learned a way to use them to help predict the future. Well, maybe not quite so impressive, but it’s amazing what you can learn from looking at a player’s statistical line on a website like baseball-reference.com. Don’t stop there, though. Fangraphs is a great site to look even farther into the statistics (plus has all the projections for the next season). One statistic that is a great predictor is batting average on balls in play (BABIP). This stat works well for both pitchers and batters, but is a little easier to see where the number “should” be on batters.

A great example of this is Wilson Betemit. We all know about his great 2010 season, but a couple of things jump out at me that may not allow him to repeat the numbers he put up last season. The first is BABIP. Last year, he hit an astounding .361 on balls in play. I believe I’ve mentioned this before in this blog, but a good rule of thumb for figuring out where the BABIP should be is to add .120 to the player’s line drive percentage. Betemit’s last year was 14.8% which means his BABIP should have been about .270. A 90 point difference makes all the difference in the world. Had he hit where expected, his .297/.379/.511 line would have decreased significantly.

The other thing that concerns me about Betemit repeating his great 2010 is the sheer number of strikeouts. This is much less of a concern to me than the BABIP because of two things. The first is that he walks a lot to counteract the strikeouts. The second is that most of the time, a strikeout is just another out and with the way Betemit works the count, he’s probably forcing a pitcher to throw more pitches during a strikeout than a lot of Royals hitters would force during a groundout at bat. Still, though, Betemit struck out about 27% of the time in 2010, and that number is right in line with his career totals.

For both hitters and pitchers, the things to look at are the things they can control. Strikeouts and walks are the two biggest things that can be controlled by both. Things out of their control are things like BABIP, defense behind pitchers, percentage of fly balls that become home runs, etc. When I look at a minor leaguer, I only look at the things they can control when I’m trying to analyze them statistically to try to get an idea of how successful they’ll be in the majors. The minors are so strange sometimes that it’s difficult to trust anything after the ball is hit.

One thing I know for sure is that the debate between which is more beneficial to study between scouts and stats will never die. My theory is that both are right and when used together could make a front office very difficult to beat.

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