Sunday, August 14, 2011

All Statistics Are Important Except the One Used to Keep Score

Sean Forman, creator of the invaluable Web site, has an unfortunate article in "The New York Times" this morning arguing that Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies is really not that good of a hitter even though he leads the National League in RBI. By an unhappy coincidence for the author, another story in the same sports section is about how Howard had a homer and four RBI in a Phillies win last night.

Forman's article isn't really about Howard per se. It's the sluggers' statistics he's mad at, not the slugger himself. Forman is at war with the RBI, a venerable measurement of batting success that baseball quants just can't stand -- especially the fact that hitters who get lots of RBI become very famous and even more very well-paid. Like all ideologues, Forman has become a slave to his theories. In this case, it's the theory that new statistics which DO serve to advance the cause of baseball knowledge actually prove that nobody in baseball has known what the hell they're doing for the past 150 years.

Forman successfully makes the case that Howard makes a great many outs as a hitter, especially strikeouts. This comes as no news to Phillies fans, or to anyone who can read another old-fashioned stat, Howard's batting average. He glosses over Howard's impressive home run totals for the past five and two-thirds seasons, as homers ARE valued by the new stat crowd (one is tempted to say almost as valued as walks, but that'd be unfair). Then we get to the crux of Forman's complaint.

"Howard is very good at what he does. But the trouble with RBI is that they give too much credit to the player, and not enough to the players being driven in."

OK. That's a position. There is, however, a statistic that does give credit to the players being driven in. It's been around for awhile, too, and is called Runs Scored. And while Forman doesn't say this in his piece, it is a prime tenet of the new statistical faith that Runs Scored is also an obsolete and inaccurate measurement of player worth, as it fails to account for the role played by the batter who drove in the scorer.

Catch-22, or considering the people making the argument, Catch-22.437251. Entranced by the metrics they have created to more accurately measure a batter's ability to hit for power and avoid outs (which I note generally involve tweaking old stats), the quants have denigrated the most important stat of all -- runs. Runs, and nothing but runs, determine who wins or loses. There is nothing a batter can do that's more important than being involved in the creation of a run.

Forman states, again accurately, that one reason Howard the cleanup hitter has so many RBI is that the Phillies' one-three hitters in the lineup don't hit for the same power and create as many RBI as the Red Sox one-three hitters, especially Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia (the quant beau ideal, and he is a hell of a player), do. This fact, however, would seem to make Howard's ability MORE valuable to the Phillies, not less. If he doesn't drive those guys in, then the offense is dependent on Raul Ibanez enjoying one of his triennial hot streaks.

Judging by the contract the Phils gave Howard, the club's management agrees with me.

Truth be told, Howard is merely an extreme example of the flaws and virtues of a type of player who's been around since the creation of the lively ball. He's a low-average, high-production slugger with a penchant for striking out. Such players, if they've been able to string as many years together as Howard has, have ALWAYS been paid large sums for their skills. Or to quote a classic of the genre, Ralph Kiner: "Singles hitters drive Chevys, and home run hitters drive Cadillacs."

To assume that the RBI is overrated as a means of evaluating talent is to assume that everyone making financial decisions in baseball for close to a century has been an idiot. I'm sorry. Markets don't work that way. Everybody making investments makes an idiotic decision at least once, but idiocy is not consistent and universal. Somebody has to be right once in awhile. The National League standings currently indicate that Philadelphia's management has handled its portfolio quite nicely, thank you.

If Forman's essay had simply taken on the RBI as a statistic, I wouldn't have bothered to respond. But he didn't, preferring what I regard as the most unpleasant and specious means of argument used by the sabermetric crowd, attacks on individual players, and they're always big stars, which carry the message "This guy's not nearly as good as you think he is" to justify wading into a dense fog of acronyms and numbers nobody would read if the player's name weren't attached to the story. It's remarkable how many players who I'll bet Forman my house are first ballot Hall of Famers someday just don't measure up according to the statistics created by people who say they love baseball. Derek Jeter, Ichiro, oh, it's a long list.

You'd think that anomaly might cause the quants to ask if numbers are the only means of evaluating what happens in baseball. You'd be wrong, but it'd be nice if the saber crowd give itself the same rigorous analysis it gives box scores.

Ryan Howard is a big star because home runs and RBI win ballgames. It's as simple as that. No ratio, acronym or numerical concept ever invented will alter the fact runs are what count.

Do you know how expensive it would be to alter scoreboards so they could display digits after the decimal point?


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