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Baseball Stats Aren't What They Used To Be

June 15, 2015

For the purpose of this first semester report, I'm going to assume that everybody has heard the term "figures lie and liars figure." 

Actually, since you're reading this section, I'm relatively certain you all (that's as opposed to y'all for my Texas contingent -- and, yes, there are a few down that way) have seen it here before. You don't necessarily have to believe it (there are even occasions when I wander from that philosophy), but my point is: sometimes the numbers defy explanation. 

That point was driven home, yet again, when I was checking out the baseball section of the June 1 issue of Sports Illustrated -- must reading for me every week. However, when I discovered Washington Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg had merely been unlucky during the season's first two months, it confused me, because looking at his numbers, I just presumed he'd been lousy.

Nationals 2015: Stephen Strasburg (Spring Training, side)
Photo Credit: Ed Sheahin/PressBox

Granted, I was relying on "old-fashioned" statistics, such as wins and losses, ERA, innings pitched -- things that don't seem to matter that much anymore, but surely indicated Strasburg, the perpetual staff-ace-in-waiting, was having a tough spring. The numbers used in Sports Illustrated's assessment that Strasburg was a good bet for a bounce-back second half, before he went on the disabled list May 30, were basically based on one statistic -- BABIP, batting average on balls in play for the uniformed.

Those numbers reflected that when hitters weren't striking out, they were hitting .389 against Strasburg, the highest mark of any pitcher in the major leagues with at least 30 innings. That led to the inevitable conclusion that, despite an average of less than five innings per start, Strasburg hadn't been lousy at all, just unlucky.

At least that's what the new age statistics, such as BABIP, FIP (fielding independent pitching), xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching, based on the average FIP), would have you believe. Don't even get me started on QS (quality start).

I'm not here to preach those numbers are meaningless, or that only the "old-fashioned" ones make any sense,  but I've got a couple others I'd like to throw out there just to balance the equation. Can we work something like HDTTD (how did the team do) or WWTSWYD (what was the score when you departed) into the equation?

Don't tell me wins are insignificant when WAR (wins above replacement) is the gauge by which all players are judged. That seems a tad contradictory, especially given the only statistic of any meaning is the one we look at every day -- the standings, which reflect team wins and losses. Those numbers, in turn, generally reflect the attitude toward performances of the individuals involved, and this is where figures often don't tell the complete story.

If you're not buying into that theory by now, you might as well head to the gaming section, because what I'm about to tell you -- I might as well be honest about it -- seems like a mathematical impossibility. For instance, would you believe the difference in offensive contribution so far this season between Chris Davis and Nelson Cruz is minimal? I didn't think so, but then it's so "old school" who would?

Orioles 2015: Chris Davis (watching hit)
Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox

The only reason this subject has come up, of course, is because Cruz has put up numbers usually seen on pinball machines, and it seems like every Orioles fan has asked, "wouldn't those numbers look good for the O's right now?"

You'd have to say they would, but here's another question: "How good have those numbers from Cruz looked in the Seattle lineup?" As of June 9, Cruz was hitting .329 with 18 home runs and 39 RBIs. Meanwhile, Davis, who in most assessments is having an extension of last year's falloff from his career year in 2013, had 12 home runs and 33 RBIs, despite batting .219.  

This is not a suggestion that Davis has been anywhere near as productive as Cruz -- just that the statistical difference has been minimal, no doubt influenced by second baseman Robinson Cano's alarming drop off from his days with the New York Yankees.  

You could make a similar comparison between Nick Markakis, hitting .294 with no home runs and 16 RBIs for the Braves, and Travis Snider, batting .260 with one home run and 12 RBIs in 91 less plate appearances for the Orioles, as of June 9. The Orioles no doubt would have a better record with Cruz and Markakis still here, but the difference is so marginal that it's doubtful it would be more than a couple of games.

It's easy to forget (though almost impossible to explain) that according to WAR, seemingly baseball's adopted statistic, utility man Steve Pearce -- not Cruz or center fielder Adam Jones -- was the Orioles' best player a year ago, despite having 338 plate appearances. 

Pearce, who hit .293 with 21 homers and 49 RBIs a year ago (I know, so old fashion), has been struggling below .200 this year. When they decided not to go beyond three years for Cruz, the Orioles went all-in with Pearce, counting on him as any everyday player, a gamble that hasn't paid off to this point.

But, hey, if you want to buy into that BABIP theory, the Orioles have a lot to look forward to during the last three months of the season. It does work both ways -- for pitcher and hitters, you understand. 

So, before you write off anybody (pitchers or hitters) as lousy, remember -- maybe they've just been unlucky. It might be a stretch, however, because we know figures can lie, and you get the point.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.

Issue 210: June 2015