UZR, FIP, BABIP: Stats give baseball new language
UZR. FIP. BABIP.
From the fringes of fantasyland to the highest ranks of the front office and the front rows of the press box, the revolution is almost complete. Baseball is now obsessed with an alphabet set of stats, the new language of the sport.
A process that started more than a half-century ago with Branch Rickey, gained traction in the 1980s with devotees of Bill James, and was elevated seven years ago in the book "Moneyball'' is now so prevalent that it no longer is considered cutting edge.
Acronyms such as OPS and WARP are becoming part of the sport's lexicon, statistics like Fielding Independent Pitching are playing a bigger role in choosing Cy Young winners than the old staples of wins and losses, and numbers like Ultimate Zone Rating and Batting Average on Balls in Play are influencing personnel decisions.
Nearly every team relies on sabermetrics analysis to some degree. The debate no longer centers on whether there is a place for statistical analysis in the game. Instead, it's how prevalent it should be.
"The shift has been monumental,'' said John Perrotto, the editor in chief BaseballProspectus.com. "Some teams were into it in the late '80s, but you could count them on one hand. I think when Theo Epstein and the Red Sox won the World Series, it gave credence that you can analyze statistics and use that with your scouts' eyes and win a championship.''
For those who ignored "Moneyball,'' stay away from Web sites such as Baseball Prospectus and Hardball Times and still rely on the holy trinity of statistics - batting average, home runs and RBIs for hitters; wins, losses and ERA for pitchers - the sign of the transformation may have come in last season's awards voting.
Two days after Zack Greinke tied the record for fewest wins in a full season by a Cy Young-winning starting pitcher with 16, Tim Lincecum won the award in the National League with only 15 victories in voting by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
That introduced many fans to stats like Fielding Independent Pitching, which tries to separate a pitcher's performance from his team's fielding ability by measuring factors that are only in his control - home runs allowed, strikeouts, walks and hit batsmen - or BABIP, which measures an opponent's batting average on balls in play to determine which pitchers get the most help from their defenders.
While Lincecum benefited from that analysis, he isn't quite a believer in the modern stats.
"They say: 'What would his true ERA be like? What would his fielding independent percentages be?' All these stupid things,'' Lincecum said. "I don't know if they're stupid, I just don't quite understand them all yet. They're there and we're going to become more aware of them as the years come. I think I'll become more educated on it because they are becoming more and more important.''
While the use of statistics has played a role in baseball ever since Henry Chadwick invented the box score more than 150 years ago, the field of sabermetrics was not always embraced.
Some of the findings made by James in his "Baseball Abstracts'' of the 1980s were summarily dismissed by baseball's old guard.
As recently as the mid-1990s, then Red Sox general manager Don Duquette was widely mocked for his use of stats guru Mike Gimbel. It didn't help that Gimbel bragged about his influence and kept pet alligators and other reptiles in his New York City apartment.
As eccentric as Gimbel was, the idea of relying on a numbers cruncher to make decisions instead of old-time scouts was seen as equally unusual. The dichotomy of stats versus scouts only grew with the publication of Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball,'' which detailed the Oakland Athletics' reliance on hard numbers over subjective scouting to fuel their success in the early 2000s.
"I think it's overblown, the scouts vs. stats thing,'' Mariners assistant general manager Tony Blengino said. "It's been going on a lot longer than people might realize, the marriage of numbers with scouting information. It just became a little more public and mainstream after 'Moneyball.' I think every club to some degree has a balance. Some organizations are much more scouting oriented and some organizations are much more numbers oriented than we are.''
Blengino's mere presence in a major league front office speaks to the growing influence on statistical analysis in the game. The CPA and former financial executive used his numerical expertise to write the acclaimed annual "Future Stars'' before joining the Milwaukee front office in 2003.
After six seasons with the Brewers, Blengino followed newly hired Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik to Seattle and helped put his imprint on the team.
After a disastrous first season when the Mariners became the first team to lose at least 100 games with a payroll of at least $100 million, the changes soon followed.
Seeing the success Tampa Bay had by acquiring undervalued defensive players, the Mariners added center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and then made a midseason trade to bring in the top-fielding shortstop in Jack Wilson.
While neither player has ever won a Gold Glove, they are both considered at the top of the game in the modern metrics that try to quantify how many runs a given player saves defensively. That played a big role in Seattle going from 61 to 85 wins.
There are many new stats that have taken the place of fielding percentage or subjective scouting to measure defense, such as Ultimate Zone Rating or plus-minus. Some teams also have their own formulas that might differ slightly but come up with similar results.
While stats like OPS are gaining wider acceptance, the new fielding metrics are still in their early stages. Suffice to say, the people who trust those defensive numbers don't exactly agree with all of Derek Jeter's Gold Gloves.
"Offense is more a science and defense is more of an art,'' Blengino said. "With defense, we're a little earlier in the learning curve in terms of developing the metrics while for offense the metrics are pretty mature.
"I don't know if defensive metrics are ever going to get as granular and specific as offensive metrics are. I don't think there's a heck of a lot of difference from method to method as to whom the best defenders are. I do think there is a fairly big divergence from club to club in terms of how much they trust these numbers,'' he said.
While defensive metrics are gaining wide play in the sabermetric community in terms of valuing current fielders, there are limitations because the detailed tracking system necessary for these statistics has only recently been available.
"Very few people really understand how much of sabermetrics is inherently historical,'' said James, who has been a senior adviser to the Red Sox since 2003. "No matter what question it is you're asking, in a practical context you have to look at historical comparisons to study it. Since we don't have the same data that we have now even for Ken Griffey Jr. when he was a young player, there's really no history to this data. That quite severely limits its use.''
Even Major League Baseball is getting into the fielding analysis. MLB Advanced Media, which already tracks the speed and movement of every pitch, will install cameras in at least two parks this season to record how much ground fielders cover to make plays and what kind of route each player takes to a ball.
The cameras were used on a trial basis in the Arizona Fall League and eventually could be in every ballpark, although there are questions as to how valuable it will be.
"We've had these cameras pointed at pitchers for several years now and we haven't really learned a damn thing that is useful,'' James said. "We have tons of data but in terms of comparing one pitcher to another we've learned nothing. I'd suspect the same thing would be true with respect to fielding. We have accurate measures of fielders now. I don't think they will be significantly more accurate by increasing the cameras, frankly.''
Not every team buys into the new fielding stats, with many decision makers preferring to trust their own eyes over the numbers.
"I haven't seen any stats defensively that really trigger anything that I go, 'Wow, that's exciting,''' Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "I know they're trying to do the range factors. I haven't found any way to do that other than good old-fashioned, eyes-on scouting, looking at hands, range, prep step, first step to balls, things that every coach on an infield pays attention to, positioning.''
The three-time AL West champion Angels have been a notable holdout in the statistical revolution, using more traditional methods to make decisions. They have had plenty success doing things their way, making the playoffs six times in the past eight years.
Minnesota has also found success without relying heavily on numbers, with five division titles in eight years under general managers Terry Ryan and Bill Smith.
Twins assistant GM Rob Antony says the field is changing so much that the stats teams are criticized for not paying attention to one year are considered out of date the next. And there is still plenty that sabermetricians haven't figured out how to measure.
"Sabermetrics has picked us to finish like fourth or fifth three years in a row. So you figure their numbers out,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Numbers are good bases to go off things and try to figure things out, but for every number you throw out there that's not supposed to work, the human element's always coming. Bad pitch, guy gets a hit. But he's not supposed to, still rips a pitch in the gap. Those are all great things and, over the course of time probably prove out pretty good. But I like the human element and I like the heart way better than I like their numbers. And that's what I'll always stay with.''
While there are still holdouts, more teams each year rely more on the numbers, an inevitability considering the investments teams make into players.
With so much money and prestige at stake, it's only natural that teams will continue to look for whatever kind of edge they can find. While some speculate that the advantage teams gain by using modern statistical analysis is decreasing as more teams get on board, James believes there will always be a new front that will benefit the most forward-thinking teams.
"I know things that I didn't know three years ago that are not insignificant,'' James said. "I think there's still progress to be made but not at the same level as the strides of the past but there's still progress to be made ... If people like me were working on it for a thousand years, we'd make a little bit of progress but not much. What we don't know is so much larger than what we do know, so you can never exhaust what you don't know.''
AP Sports Writers Jon Krawczynski, Janie McCauley and Howie Rumberg contributed to this report.
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