Those who know me personally are aware that I am inclined to rant from time to time. Often, the subject is baseball. I am also capable of getting started on the south, suburbia, and the Knicks. As my good friend Alex recently told me, “I never know precisely what will irritate you, but it’s a given that something will happen over the course of nine innings that will completely set you off.”
With that in mind, I’m hoping that this post comes across as less of a rant and more of a plea. Over the course of the last several weeks, I have participated in a particularly sizable amount of group baseball-watching. At school, I usually watch the Yankees by myself on MLBtv. Keesup will occasionally and graciously watch them with me, as will my girlfriend if Neptune is in line with Sirius. I’ve gone to tons of games with friends and family recently, and watched a bunch on my friend’s gigantic flatscreen HDTV (thanks Albie!). And during each and every viewing, I’ve had someone turn to me and off-handedly say one of the following:
- “Look, he’s got his average all the way up to ____.”
- “___ RBI in July – that’s amazing.”
- “He’s on pace for ____ RBI.”
- “I’d rather ____ play over ____ because he hits for a higher average.”
As you have noticed, each statement involves batting average or RBI. Do you know what I do each and every time I hear an evaluation, observation, or remark using those stats as measurements? I stop listening to you. It’s not because I don’t like you – we are, after all, watching the game together. But I stop listening to you because what you’re saying is not useful information, because the tools you’re using aren’t useful tools. Those stats are not good criteria by which to judge a player.
I have more sympathy for the use of RBI because, despite my best efforts, I still find myself drawn to them. I (like pretty much everyone) grew up with RBI. They’re flashy and pretty to look at. Their allure rests in their ostensible certainty – “this is exactly how many runs this player is responsible for plating.” My heart sees RBI totals in the 120-140 range and instinctively goes “ooooooooh.” They are big numbers, and I understand their appeal. But it has been well-documented, in this space and in far more reputable ones, that RBI are a dependent (as opposed to independent) measurement of ability. RBI don’t happen unless someone is on base. RBI are products of circumstance. Sure, it might be marginally harder to get a hit with a runner on 3rd because of the pressure. But this theoretical increase in difficulty is not drastic enough to distinctly separate the good players from the bad players. In other words, players who feel that pressure are nevertheless perfectly capable of driving a run in. Weak ground balls score runs. A 36 hopper up the middle scores a run. A high, lazy fly ball scores a run. Two players – one good and one bad – can have the same number of RBI. Therefore, RBI totals should not be used as measurements of ability.
I have less sympathy for batting average because it is so obviously a poor and incomplete way of evaluating a player. I realize that this is a somewhat irrational justification, because RBI are just as poor or incomplete. But I struggle to understand why on-base percentage (OBP) has not fully replaced batting average (BA) has the primary means of quickly evaluating a player. Certainly, stats like VORP or EqA do a better job than OBP, but I understand why those have not entrenched themselves quite yet. The resistance to OBP, however, continues to elude me. Here’s why:
Let’s say an alien descended from Mercury (I don’t know what it is with me and planets today). Let’s also say that this alien wanted to learn about baseball. After teaching this alien the rules, goals, and history of the game, the alien asks how Earthlings decide who is good at baseball and who is bad at baseball. Presumably at this point, the alien knows that the goal of the game is to get on base, which, if done enough times, scores runs. So, the best players are the ones who get on base. Players who get on base = good, players who do not get on base = bad. The alien knows this.
In response to his question, the Earthling mulls his options. He runs through all the statistics he knows and decides BA is how most people decide who is good and who is bad. Because of its simplicity and widespread comprehension, it seems like a good answer. The Earthling explains to the alien that BA is the percentage of the time that a player’s at-bat results in a hit.
The alien’s eyes narrow with suspicion. He knows the rules of the game, and he remembers that there is more than one way to get on base, which is the thing that good baseball players do. The alien knows that hits aren’t the only way to get on base, and therefore be good at baseball. He remembers the “walk”, and asks why this is not included in BA. After all, walks get players on base just like hits do. Furthermore, the alien concludes that this is a separate skill from being able to hit. He humbly posits that Earthlings’ primary and shorthand evaluative statistic (currently BA) should account for another skill that is important for a baseball player to have (which OBP does).
The bottom line is this: BA is an incomplete, misleading, inconclusive, and unforgiving measurement. You know this intuitively, which is my reason for using the alien example. If re-taught from scratch, each and every one of us would decide that BA is an inferior statistic to OBP. Why on earth would you profess loyalty to a faulty means of evaluation? In what other aspect of your life would this be acceptable? This is like Vanderbilt University only counting my math and science grades (subjects at which I am horrendous) and ignoring my English and history results (subjects at which I am skilled). If Vanderbilt arbitrarily decided that math and science are what count and denied linguistic proficiency as a viable skill, my GPA would be 1.8 and everyone would think I were a dumbass. 1.8 is my “batting average.” If English and history are factored in (i.e. other skills), my GPA would jump to a 3.0 and suddenly I am a solid student. 3.0 is my “on-base percentage.” It is a quick way to measure everything, not just one thing.
Same with baseball. We – the fans, the media, the players – have decided that the only thing that matters is the raw percentage of the time that a player gets a hit. We have decided that getting on base via the “hit” is the only means of success worth tracking. There are two main skills that batters should have: the ability to hit and the ability to tell balls from strikes. BA counts the former, and not the latter. Yet both lead to getting on base. Like I said, this should intuitively seem wrong to you.
I understand why BA and RBI are appealing, and sports networks are largely to blame. Before each at-bat during every game, the player’s current BA, HR, and RBI are emblazoned across the screen (some stations, thankfully, tack on OBP at the end). I understand that they are easy to read and memorize for future citation during conversation or debate. Nevertheless, BA and RBI are dumb. After paragraphs of diplomacy, I am allowing myself one moment to say outright that they are dumb.
So this is my plea: please stop using them to measure a player. This post will probably explain why my eyes glaze over after you say one of the aforementioned four comments to me during a game. If you BA or RBI to evaluate a player, I stop listening and think slightly less of your intellect. It’s nothing personal; I still like you. But more importantly, you shortchange yourself by resorting to these (non) tools. They insult your intelligence. They are either incomplete measurements or products of circumstance.
That’s it. That’s my plea.