Baseball Notes: Save Tonight

baseball notes

It is an accepted reality that, in general, baseball players don’t have much time for their sport’s new and advanced statistics and metrics. In many ways, this resistance makes sense. In the moment, when standing on the mound or in the batter’s box, there’s only so much thought and information a player can hold in his mind while trying to accomplish the task– make or avoid contact between bat and ball, for example– at hand. Players, like experts in other fields, also understandably tend to be skeptical of outsiders’ ability to provide baseball analysis or insight superior to their own. This skepticism is fairly well documented, most obviously when it involves changes that might impair or decrease a player’s value or role in the game, and, more surprisingly, even when new statistical revelations work in a player’s favor. (There certainly are some players, like Jake Lamb and Trevor “Drone Finger” Bauer, who have embraced sabermetric thinking, but it’s reasonable to assume they remain in the minority among their colleagues.)

A primary impetus of baseball’s sabermetric movement has been to encourage the abandonment of certain traditional statistics that, while still largely entrenched in the sport, are understood to be incomplete in important ways or much less meaningful than their use might suggest. Batting average, for example, doesn’t include walks. (Cf. On-base percentage.) RBIs require a player’s teammates to reach base ahead of him. ERA depends, to a significant extent, on a pitcher’s defensive teammates and other factors outside a pitcher’s control. (Cf. defensive-independent pitching statistics like FIP and DRA.) Pitcher wins and saves are artificial, highly circumstantial metrics that, at best, indirectly measure pitching talent.

For years, analysts have pushed baseball to rid itself of these traditional performance measures. There’s a comfort in hanging onto the statistical language with which we grew up as we learned and discussed the game, but that comfort should turn cold upon learning the degree to which these familiar stats obscure what’s really happening on the field.

So long as baseball’s current player-compensation structure remains in place, though, players aren’t likely to stop caring about things like saves; after all, that’s how they’re paid:

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In the course of discussing whether departures from conventional reliever usage as particularly exhibited in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs are likely to bleed over into upcoming regular season play, FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards explains one reason players are likely to prefer conventional, save-oriented bullpen strategy:

Saves get paid in a big way during arbitration. Only one player without a save, Jared Hughes, received a free-agent-equivalent salary above $6.5 million in arbitration, while all 16 players who’d recorded more than 10 saves received more than Hughes in equivalent salary. Players are more than happy to make more money, so giving more relievers higher salaries and more multi-year deals is openly welcomed. Taking saves away, however, also takes money away from players with less than six years of service time.

Although there are a number of not-uncompelling reasons why players prefer to steer clear of baseball’s newer metrics, Edwards has fingered one of the most forceful. If fans and analysts want to hear players discuss OBP, DRA, and leverage, they ought to channel their persuasive efforts less toward appeals to players’ logical sensibilities (they get it, no doubt) and more toward the education of the MLB salary arbitrators, to whom the players already listen with great attention.

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Previously
Baseball Notes: Current Issues Roundup
Baseball Notes: The In-Game Half Lives of Professional Pitchers
Baseball Notes: Rule Interpretation Unintentionally Shifts Power to Outfielders?
Baseball Notes: Lineup Protection
Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit
Baseball Notes: Looking Out for Number One
Baseball Notes: Preview

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Baseball Notes: The Crux of the Statistical Biscuit

baseball notes

The purpose of the interrupted Baseball Notes series is to highlight just-below-the-surface baseball topics for the purpose of deepening the enjoyment of the game for casual fans like you and me.

In the interest of achieving that casual purpose, this series generally will avoid advanced statistical concepts. One need not grasp the depths of wRC+ or xFIP to enjoy baseball, of course, or even to think about the give-and-take between baseball traditionalists, who eschew advanced statistics, and the sabermetricians, who live by them.

Moneyball famously highlighted this debate, such as it is, and it arose in the 2012 season around the American League MVP race between Miguel Cabrera (the eventual winner, and the traditional favorite) and Mike Trout, and again last season in the context of commentator Brian Kenny’s “Kill the Win” campaign against ascribing significant meaning to pitchers’ win-loss records.

The reason this “debate”– the “eye test,” wins, and batting average versus WAR et al.– isn’t really a debate is because the two sides have different descriptive goals. In short, the traditional group is concerned with what has happened, while the sabermetric group is concerned with what will happen. The former statically tallies the game’s basic value points, while the latter is out to better understand the past in order to predict the future. The basic stats on the back of a player’s baseball card aim to tell you what he did in prior seasons; the advanced statistics on Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, or in Baseball Prospectus aim to tell you something about what he’ll do next year based on a deeper understanding of what he did in prior seasons.

The previous paragraph represents an oversimplification, and probably a gross one, but I think it accurately highlights the basic, if slight, misalignment of initial points of view from the two main groups of people talking about how we talk about baseball today.

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