Major League Baseball and Sabermetrics

Advanced baseball statistical analysis is no longer the fringe field it used to be. Now, Major League Baseball’s flagship TV station has an entire show dedicated to sabermetics and the advanced statistic-centric website, Fangraphs, has emerged as an industry leader for baseball analysis. Sabermetric’s influence is now even present in general popular culture as legendary baseball statistician Bill James made a cameo appearance on The Simpsons and Moneyball was transformed into a blockbuster movie.

For a die-hard baseball fan, there is no doubt this advanced statistics phenomena has been a blessing to the sport as this mainstream emergence has coincided with sabermetric statistics becoming readily available to fans. Now, one can use the “Wins Above Replacement” statistic to effectively compare players of different historic eras. Before advanced statistics it would have been cumbersome to appropriately compare Deadball Era aces like Walter Johnson and Christy Matthewson to today’s premier pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez. Using a traditional statistic like Earned Run Average is futile as there are too many variables such as changes in rules, ballpark dimensions, athlete conditioning that essentially altered the statistic’s magnitude for each era. With Wins Above Replacement, one can effectively minimize the impact of such variables and can truly see how effective a player was in the entire scope of baseball history.

While it is intriguing to casually compare players of different eras with sabermetric statistics, Wins Above Replacement should not be used as a primary statistic for determining Hall of Fame candidacy. Numerous articles for key media establishments, which have the potential to influence HOF voters, use Wins Above Replacement end-all statistic. Often times, pundits excessively diminish a player’s hall of fame chances if they do not reach an arbitrary Wins Above Replacement threshold. While it is convenient to sum up an entire career in one number, the immense shortcomings of Wins Above Replacement are too often overlooked.

One of the key issues with Wins Above Replacement is its failure to quantify the catcher’s critical role. The catcher is the most important defensive position as he is entrusted with task of calling each pitch. The difference between calling a change-up versus a fastball can potentially decide the outcome of the game. Besides calling each pitch, the catcher also has key tasks such as framing pitches and inhibiting the progress of baserunners. Unfortunately, these unique responsibilities are difficult to sabremetrically analyze due to the lack of hard data. While there has been some progress in analyzing the catcher’s impact of the game, this is still in its infancy and cannot be reliably implemented into the relatively mainstream Wins Above Replacement.

The even larger problem with Wins Above Replacement, however, is its total disregard for postseason play as the statistic is based solely on regular season games. (Yes, a postseason version of Wins Above Replacement does exist, but this is seldom cited due to small sample sizes and general volatility of the statistic.) The postseason is the most significant stretch and each postseason game carries exponential weight compared to a regular season game. Postseason heroics have singlehandedly defined players’ historic legacies. I’m not saying a player like Kirk Gibson, Aaron Boone, or one of the many other non-HOF caliber players with postseason glory should be headed to the Hall of Fame based on one moment alone, but to not count such immense achievements towards a player’s hall of fame candidacy is a disservice to the players and fans alike. Such monumental, game-changing moments are a key part of player’s career narrative that defines the “fame” aspect of the hall of fame and need to at least carry some weight.

Cooperstown is a place for baseball legends and the honor of being enshrined in the most renowned sports hall of fame is too complex to be funneled into the Wins Above Replacement statistic. There is no doubt that such sabermetric stats are eons better than the traditional counting stats and are actively improving. Even if statistics are perfected to the point where one can boil down a whole career into one number, it would still be the incorrect thing to do. Just as baseball is more than just a sport, but “America’s Pastime,” Cooperstown should be more than a barometer of sabermetric statistics. Intangibles and other notable contributions to the game of baseball need to be weighed as well. While within baseball Yogi Berra is known for being among the best at his position and his multiple world series rings, outside of baseball a non-fan may perhaps know him for his renowned quotes. Such contributions to the game and culture need to be considered even as statistics reach unprecedented levels. No, it is not time to put Bryce Harper in for “That’s a clown question, bro,” but if for some reason that quotation still holds the same weight in culture half a century from now as many of Yogi Berra’s witticisms do today, perhaps it should hold at least some merit.