Measuring the value of a player used to be as easy as reading his numbers on the scoreboard, in the Sunday morning paper or on the back of a baseball card. The information age, however, has revealed the limitations in such traditional stats. Without venturing into the dizzying acronymic labyrinth of VORP (value over replacement player), BRARP (batting runs above replacement position), DIPS (defense independent pitching statistics) and other advanced specialty stats that could scare off a jet propulsion engineer, here is a look at what's in vogue—and what's not—in the vast array of baseball stats.
1. On-base percentage. An official stat only since 1984, OBP (hits plus walks plus hit by pitches divided by at bats plus walks plus hit by pitches plus sacrifice flies) is enormously important because it tracks how often a hitter wins his duel with the pitcher by not making an out. Contrary to the adage, great hitters do not fail seven out of 10 times—that's a .300 OBP, which is poor. Great hitters fail six out of 10 times (a .400 OBP), and extraordinary ones like Barry Bonds, at least for the past three seasons, fail five out of 10 times.
2. OPS (on-base plus slugging). Adding on-base percentage to slugging percentage tells the story of how well a hitter gets on base and how much damage he does with his hits. It reveals how much better Alex Rodriguez (.996) was last year than fellow shortstops Edgar Renteria (.874), Nomar Garciaparra (.869), Derek Jeter (.843) and Miguel Tejada (.808).
3. Strikeouts per nine innings. "Pitching is defense," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein says. "You can't separate them." The outcome of balls put into play often depends on the range and skills of the fielders or just plain luck (think bloop hits and bad hops). Strikeouts, though, are defense independent; the higher the rate of strikeouts, the less that pitcher relies on defense and luck. A declining trend in strikeouts per nine innings may be fatal for a pitcher, as was the case last year for Mets lefthander Tom Glavine.
4. WHIP (walks plus hits allowed per inning pitched). The fewer base runners allowed, the fewer opportunities for the opponent to score. The Giants' Jason Schmidt was the only qualifier last year with a WHIP lower than 1.00 (0.95). Bad news for the Orioles and the Devil Rays: Six of the top 10 are in the AL East ( Boston's Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling, Toronto's Roy Halladay and the Yankees' Mike Mussina, Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown).
5. Stolen base percentage. It's not how many bases you steal but how successful you are. Playing for one run early in a game is overrated in today's power game. The stat-minded As and Blue Jays, for instance, ranked 29th and 30th in steals last year because they know not to risk the opportunity for a big inning. "If you're stealing at less than a 75 percent success rate, you're better off never going at all," wrote Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus. The team with the most steals, Florida (67%), was below that mark; only three teams exceeded it.
1. Batting average. Wait a minute. Isn't the player with the highest batting average considered the batting champion? Isn't batting average one of the jewels of the prestigious Triple Crown? Well, yes, and people once listened to music by having a metal stylus skim across a rotating vinyl disc. The problem with batting average (hits divided by at bats) is that it reveals nothing about the type of hits (bunt singles count the same as grand slams) or how many times a player reached base by walk or by hit by pitch.
2. Runs batted in. RBIs are heavily dependent on a player's spot in the lineup, how often his teammates batting in front of him get on base and how well they run. Any player who hits in the middle of a lineup and stays healthy should drive in 100 runs. Half of the 20 AL players with 600 at bats last year did so, while two others had 99. Carlos Lee of the White Sox and Jay Gibbons of the Orioles, for instance, accumulated 100 RBIs even though they made outs at a worse rate than the average major league player.