Stats Sunday – wRC+, Liking Baseball, Liking Beer

Raymond-1Dave Raymond has broadcast for the San Francisco Giants (2003), Baltimore Orioles (2005) and Houston Astros (2006-’12).  Now a co-host on MLB.com Full Count, he also occasionally updates his blog Everybody Reads Raymond (http://mlblogsraymond.mlblogs.com/).  You can follow him on Twitter:  @daveraymond4                                                                     
Mom warned me about sabermetrics.  Decades before Fangraphs.com and Baseball Prospectus, she knew what was coming.  My mom is a wise lady.We’ll get back to that later.

First, let’s understand why we’re here.  It starts with liking baseball.  It might even include liking beer.

See, Henry Chadwick started bustin’ balls in neighborhood taverns as far back as the late 1850s.  He was the first stats blowhard who couldn’t wait to tell you who had the fewest “hands lost,” or that George Wright wins the batting title by virtue of his “runs.”  Fun guy.

Eventually we all agreed to use batting average, homers and RBIs as measuring sticks.  We’d count wins and bust out a slide rule for some ERA conversation, too.  It was a simple time.  All you needed was a 40-lb. “Baseball Encyclopedia” and a great memory to be the Cliff Claven to my Norm Peterson.

Until Leo Durocher gave everyone a swirly.

I doubt he would have popped off if he knew what would follow.  But his point was clear: if you don’t wear a uniform, your input is worthless.

“Baseball is like church,” he said.  “Many go, but few understand.”

Ouch.  Line drawn.  Time for the nerds to mount up and bring some data-mining noise.  And bring it they did.

To wit, I recently read that wRC+ (weighted runs-created plus) is the new OPS+.  Or WAR.  You could argue that it’s closer to the new VORP if you want.  But we’re getting so many ALTUVES away from the point that I’m about to notch another TOOTBLAN.

(gulp)

Point is, wRC+ is another in an evolving line of calculations to help us understand how good Cap Anson was with the bat.  Also, Ernie Banks.  A lot of really smart people like wRC+.

It started when Bill James, math’s mafia Don, authored the “runs created” stat (RC) many moons ago.  It was a great concept at its core.  Simple, too.  James stood back from the stat sheet and asked, “what matters here?”  He came up with the same answer my eight-year old would.

Runs matter, dummy.  The game is about runs!

James took all the available player data (hits, walks, doubles, triples, homers, stolen bases, etc.) and crammed them into a single digestible metric.  It’s the statistical equivalent of the multi-vitamin they ate on Charlie Kerfeld’s favorite cartoon – The Jetsons.  Finally, RC allowed us to estimate the number of runs a player contributed to his team.

Tom Tango, however, wanted more.  His wOPB (weighted On-Base-Percentage) had come along as arguably the best all-encompassing offensive barometer – accounting for the relative values of each unique offensive statistical category.  Its marketing slogan: “Not all hits are created equally.”

We’re almost there.  Another beer!

Tango took James’ RC and, in a moment of passion, mated it with his wOBP.  Out popped wRC.  Not surprisingly, the top three offensive contributors this year are Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis and Mike Trout.  Seems like a lot of math to tell me that.

These things aren’t perfect, of course.  It’s worth noting that a player can get on base all he wants but he still need to score.  His teammates’ abilities — or lack thereof — directly affect his “runs created.”  Good teammates help.

Then there is the “+.”  I’m pretty sure this is Harry Potter’s doing.  The plus-sign meant that they normalized all the numbers for variances like ballparks, leagues and years.

Now we can compare the offensive values of Willie Mays to those of Jeff Blauser!  Who wouldn’t want to do that?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as fascinated by these intellectual pursuits as the next guy.  I love the creativity.  Maybe it’s the fact that the math is so far beyond me that I struggle to buy into its credibility.  I don’t know what’s less believable, Sharknado or some of this statistical alchemy.

I mean, is there any number that could have predicted the Miracle on Ice in the 1980 Olympics?  Or Christian Laettner’s buzzer beater against Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional Final?

There’s no possible combination of xFIP, BAbip or tOPS+ that could explain Francisco Cabrera’s hit (or Sid Bream’s baserunning, for that matter!) against the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1991 NLCS.

I know there’s a difference between predictive stats and counting stats.  And there’s the ever-present issue of sample size.  But maybe Durocher had a point.  Maybe it was this exact paradox he was addressing more than 60 years ago when he said about Eddie Stanky:

“He can’t hit, he can’t field, he can’t run.  All he can do is beat you.”

Well, the math beats me.  I want to understand it in the worst way.  I feel like the rookie bat boy who gets sent around looking for the bucket of left-handed curveballs or the keys to the batters box.

(Me: “Has anyone seen Rizzo’s linear weights?” Them: (snicker) “Have you looked in the response vector?”)

Real funny, guys.  I know I’m not smart enough to take sides here.  I like wRC+.  It’s interesting and fun.  I like the nuance, texture and depth of thinking that managers and coaches put into daily maneuvering — sometimes in spite of the numbers.

The advancements in baseball analytics have been profound in recent decades.  General intelligence world-wide seems to be multiplying.  The Flynn Effect continues to show linear growth in global IQ.

Yet like a damn drunken fool, I sit here more confused than ever.

Right where my mom hoped I’d end up.  She loved to tell me that “the more you learn, the more you’ll understand how much you don’t know.”

I’ll drink to that.

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