Baseball stats, like so much else, may need to change with the times

Baseball, probably more than any other sport, uses statistics as the ultimate judge of success and failure. But there are old statistics and new, and some believe it’s time to leave the old ways behind and move on to better analytical tools.

Too many today, especially fans and media, are “mired in the muck of old statistics,” rebelling against “sabermetrics” — newer and smarter baseball stats that have existed and been employed by baseball people for the past 15 years now and are used in Major League Baseball. So argues ESPN Senior Baseball Writer Keith Law.

This essentially has created a culture clash between the “old” way of using stats and “gut instinct” to evaluate players versus using numbers as the best evaluation tool. “Baseball’s most trusted numbers are surprisingly wrong,” claims Law. He will be in town Thursday to discuss his new book Smart Baseball (Morrow Books) at 6:30 pm at Moon Palace Books, 3260 Minnehaha Avenue.

Author Keith Law (Photos courtesy of Morrow Books)

Law described his book as “baseball analytics for the average fan” last week in an MSR phone interview. He begins his treatise by noting that batting averages have “fundamental flaws.” One example he used was the 2015 National League batting race in which Dee Gordon slightly edged out Bryce Harper — the author states that Harper was otherwise the superior batter in nearly every other respect at the plate.

“Batting average isn’t useless,” explained Law, who spent nearly five years as a special assistant to the Toronto Blue Jays general manager, where he handled all statistical analysis, before joining ESPN, where he focuses on all types of baseball analysis. “But it does not do what it has long been supposed to do. It doesn’t tell us how good a hitter is.”

Barry Bonds in 1991 “was the best player in the National League by a wide margin” as he led the league in on-base percentage, second in runs batted in, and fourth in slugging percentage. Yet he was beaten out at the end of that season for MVP by Terry Pendleton. “Had the writers gotten it right, Bonds would have won four straight MVPs from 1990 to 1993,” recalled the author.

(Photos courtesy of Morrow Books)

“OBP Is Life,” a chapter about on-base percentage, is his favorite, said Law: OBP = hits + walks times HBP (hit by pitch) divided by at bats + walks times HBP + sacrifice flies. This formula, he simplified in his book, is to take the number of times the hitter gets on base and divide it by the number of times he came up to the plate, in total.
It “tells us the simplest and yet most important thing of all about a hitter,” he pointed out: “On-base percentage is the best predictor of a team’s run production.”

As a result, Tony Gwynn and not Andre Dawson should have been the NL MVP in 1987, because the former’s .447 on-base percentage was better than Dawson’s .328, Law states. He noted that how often a batter gets on base simply based on making contact with the ball, “plate discipline and pitch recognition,” predicts more than does a batting average.

The “win” stat doesn’t paint an accurate picture of a pitcher’s career. Law points out that Bert Blyleven finally is in the Hall of Fame, but for years his overall win total was held against him rather than judging his actual value on the mound for the teams he pitched for.

In our phone interview, Law talked about many other things, noting that the pushback to his theories mostly comes from media rather than those more connected to baseball. We look forward to his talk Thursday in order to help us do better baseball reporting.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to