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New stats versus old stats: Lost in translation

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Statistical analysis is useful, but often cannot predict the future.

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Baseball is a very statistically oriented sport. I suppose most sports are now, but baseball seems to be very numbers-based. Not only numbers-based, but “my” numbers based. As much as things advance, the same realities recur. Numbers serve a purpose. However, the purpose people ought to be looking at aren’t well-served by baseball’s stats.

Somewhere between 2003 and 2007 is where I have it pegged that the “new numbers” for baseball became “in vogue”. Before then, RBI were “generally” considered valid. Possibly even pitching wins. However, by 2007, the older numbers were considered passe. And, of course, humans being humans, the transition was seamless and with the utmost of respect. “Moneyball,” y’all.

With the subtlety of a lead pipe to the skull. People had a new set of tools. They considered their tools better than the prior tools. Lines were drawn in the sand. Family members were set against family members, with all the class and aplomb of any culture change. Because of new numbers, that the people causing the culture clash didn’t even invent.

***

Life, in general, tends to prefer stasis. We want today to be generally like yesterday was. Upheavals are disconcerting. For many, throwing out RBI, and replacing them with OPS+ is disconcerting. However, many from the newer generation have little or no interest in “the past”.

For instance, awhile back, someone on Twitter had noted that they’d never seen a walk-off homer without a home plate-celebration. I linked them a YouTube link of a homer from 1970, where John Boccabella hit one, without a celebration. Instead of an acknowledgment that baseball had once underplayed walkoff homers, my history lesson was ignored.

People have a tendency to think their way is best, and any other ways are to be ignored as fake news, or somesuch. No, I didn’t expect a retweet, but if someone says “Never has this happened,” and I point out a case where it did, a minor acknowledgment would seem appropriate. Instead, it might have been taken as a personal affront.

Baseball is different than it used to be. Statistically. Who gets to play is different. What they get paid is different. How many days off a player gets is different. And, from both sides, “my way” is better. Veteran fans get livid at how much players make. Younger fans tend to be more: “It isn’t your money.” With all the style, class, and subtlety of a Molotov cocktail throwing session. From both sides.

***

The reality with baseball stats are that they are trailing indicators. Just like they were years ago. When a player had an 85 RBI season, it meant something to the people who ascribed to the old-school numbers. Newer school numbers might indicate that the 85 RBI season was good, or bad, based on how many runners were left uncashed.

The new age number crunchers have their own figures they like to toss off, whether they are talking about pitchers or hitters. And which statistics they choose have a degree of value. Probably the newer numbers tell a bit more accurate story. However, the most useful tool for statistics in a baseball sense aren’t so much about last year, or the year before.

What would be most useful, regarding numbers, are what is going to specifically happen in the future.

“A ha. That’s where the new numbers help. They are better at telling you what’s going to happen in the future than the older numbers do. Gotcha.”

Trevor Williams.

***

I’ve been tracking the teams in the National League race this month. Listening to Cubs games has been rather unsettling. Instead, I’ve been listening to other games. Radio announcers, as they are required to be your eyes and ears on the field, tend to be fairly adequate at telling you what happened. The grounder to third. Was the play routine, or difficult? Did the defender make the play with ease, or was he borderline incompetent.

Some radio announcers are better at painting a picture than others. Pat Hughes is a gem, but others across the league are fairly accurate, as well. Tracking the “tragic numbers” in regards to the Cubs, I’ve been listening to the Pirates, Nationals, Reds, Phillies, Braves, and Rockies announcing teams recently. I pick up information I wouldn’t have otherwise.

I hear descriptions of pitchers from announcers I wouldn’t usually hear. Some descriptions are rather amusing. For instance, one of the pitchers getting the ball very five days “throws 75 percent fastballs” and “those fastballs range between 88 and 92 miles per hour.” If that’s accurate, the Cubs have quite a few pitchers who might be able to pitch every five days. Most of the Cubs starting pitching options upcoming throw secondaries well over one-quarter of the time, and max out at well over 92 miles per hour.

When you listen to learn things, you can sometimes learn quite a bit. Quite a bit more than when you rely aggressively on stats that aren’t especially predictive. Or aiming to justify your current biases, whatever they are.

***

I mentioned the Pirates starting pitcher Williams before abruptly changing topics. A second-round pick of the Marlins in 2013, Williams was drafted from Arizona State. The Pirates added him in a 2015 trade for pitcher Richard Mitchell, who never pitched a game for the Marlins system. Whoopsies. (The acquisition of current Cubs instructor Jim Benedict precipitated the trade.)

Williams had good, though not sensational, numbers through the Marlins pipeline. He spent most of 2016 in the Pirates upper minors before an unsuccessful debut with the Pirates that season. 2017 saw him as a 2.0 WAR performer. This year, he has parlayed to a bit over 3 bWAR.

And here is where the downfall of stats, past or present, play in. They tell us what he has done. They may even hint at what he will do in the future. However, very few of you will lay much of value on a prediction of how he will do in the future. And, those that might, won’t likely do so on his box-score statistics.

Williams, who has started twice against the Cubs this season, is a good MLB pitcher. His hits against have dropped from 8.7 per nine in 2017, to 7.7 per nine this season. His walks were a bit over three in 2017. Now, they’re a bit under three in 2018. However, for a various number of reasons, many likely consider Williams rather dismissively, even though he is a good pitcher. After a shut-down outing against the Brewers on Sunday, his H/9 and BB/9 are down to 7.6 and 2.9. Nonetheless, if he stifles the Cubs next week, many fans would grumble about getting shut down by a nobody.

Baseball statistics for 2018 won’t tell how good Williams will be next season. Baseball statistics are really poor at that. The numbers don’t tell how well a player will do into the future. The player’s performance in the future will, most likely, combine with health and luck. Which is the downfall of “Fan A’s stats” or “Fan B’s stats.” “Next year’s numbers” tell who a team should acquire next season, not last year’s.

“But, executives have better stats than you know about. They are more predictive than what we know about.”

And, still, the free-agent contracts offered next offseason will likely completely whiff on the statistical expectations of quite a few free agents. Both ways. Which will continue to bristle rather poorly with many of the older baseball fans, who think players shouldn’t get paid that much. Especially when they don’t perform well.

Miles Mikolas was grossly underpaid. A few others, less so.

As much as you think the different assessments of statlines don’t strike up animosity between fans, they do. They will continue to. Because fans believe what they believe, and dismiss non-believers as fools. On both sides.

Each side prioritizes the numbers they prefer, and can be belligerent with “non-believers.” They think their numbers tell them something. Whereas, in reality, most of the numbers either sides rely on are a bit of rubbish for the future. Every year, people are scratching their heads on why this guy is doing so well, and that guy isn’t.

It’s because baseball numbers continue to lie just regularly enough to be of very limited value. If you guess numbers for players into the future, you’ll get a few correct, and quite a few wrong. Because numbers in baseball don’t work that way, and rarely have.

The sooner we realize that stats shouldn’t be used to alienate people from the sport, whether they’re older or younger fans, the better off we’ll be. Numbers lie, like always. Not always, but often enough. Which is why people are always trying to discover new numbers that will better encapsulate baseball, And they won’t be very good at predicting, either. If someone values wins or OPS+, let them. That falls under being civil.

Some player traits, like zone command, or committing themselves to improving, are quite predictive. Sometimes, some of these can be located statistically. However, such to the extent that those numbers are pointed out in an inconvenient situation to a statistical aficionado, will they back the numbers? Or their own pre-conceived notions? (Mikolas.)

Whereas, if you want to tell me how well Trevor Williams will perform in 2019, and have reasons to back it up, I’d very much enjoy learning the predictive nature of baseball. Yes, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is better than ERA at predicting the future. However, if teams are good at predicting the future, why didn’t Williams get traded for a whole lot more than the Marlins received? Because baseball numbers lie, and information is often incomplete.