Sunday, March 14, 2010

Preparatory to Anything Else...The Beauty of Baseball

There are few things in life that I am more passionate about than the game of baseball. As the season grows near I will be writing much more about it and so a brief introduction will follow.
First, an introductory video from noted expert of athletics, Goofy:

So we've got the basics out of the way.

My love for the game began as a child watching games on television with my dad and, beyond caring about the game's events, I was fascinated for the most part by how everything looked; the quirky batting stance of the hitter, the windup-and-uncork motion of the pitcher (and how lefties seemed to be throwing from a much wider angle on TV), the sidearm throws from infielders. It just looked so cool. I often drew pictures trying to depict baseball game action sequences.

The beauty of the game's sights still stir me, especially when watching it in person at the stadium, but as I grew up I evolved new hobbies and perspectives for enjoying the game. Mostly through reading. My older brother John introduced me to the writings of one of his idols, Bill James, when I was in high school and a love for the game's history and statistics was born. In my first years of college I often cut classes escaping to a secluded cubby desk (I loved those things) nestled back somewhere in the huge school library exploring the contents of its surprisingly deep baseball section. All of the Roger Angell I could ever hope for as well as numerous other colorful and entertaining histories from the 60s and 70s.
My geek-like infatuation with the numbers side of the game compelled me to spend hours staring at a computer screen each day reading baseball articles concerned with sabermetrics. Sabermetrics is a term used for the study and analysis of baseball through statistics or more generally, as Wikipedia states, through objective evidence. I spent most of the last decade reading perhaps more than is considered healthy about sabermetrics and baseball through the perspective of this quickly expanding science. This "science" or perspective (or manner of looking at the game of baseball) is considered to have been originated by the aforementioned Bill James who, while working nights as a bean factory security guard, self published a book in 1977 analyzing and computing baseball statistics and eventually put out a similar book each year for over a decade. These Baseball Abstracts as they're called eventually became bestsellers that helped the rotisserie or fantasy baseball industry explode into the monster it is today. When James later faded out of the book world in the mid-90s, a new group of sabermetrically inclined intellectuals began publishing an annual book devoted to analyzing the game and looking forward to the upcoming season. I caught on with the writings of this group, a conglomerate of brilliant minds called Baseball Prospectus and have been reading their website and numerous publications for years now. I have even befriended one of their current key writers and spent time as an intern for them.

Delving a little deeper into the geekness, I'd like to briefly introduce a few stats that I will use or make reference to here when talking about baseball. It was established pretty early on by Mr. James that a baseball team's actual won-loss record during a season is not as good an indication of the team's quality as their record of runs scored vs runs allowed, their run differential as it's called. He developed a formula to determine the true quality of a team, using those numbers to come up with their Pythagorean Record, so named because of the mathematical formula's similarity to the Pythagorean theorem. It was determined that 10 runs represented roughly one win, so that if a team scored 850 runs and allowed 840, they would have won one more game than they lost. Like most of James' stats, this has been thoroughly expanded upon by Baseball Prospectus into increasingly accurate and more complicated measures. We've also now got some pretty accurate numbers to show a player's true performance and contribution in terms of runs (whether created offensively or prevented defensively) and so now it's common to discuss how many wins a single player was worth.

Here's some of the stats, note the seeming obsession with acronyms...
EqA or Equivalent Average or as it's apparently been renamed recently, True Average (abbreviated as "TAv"), is a rate statistic that looks like batting average (i.e. .300 is good and anything above is pretty awesome; .260 is usually average) but this wonderful stat combines a hitter's overall offensive performance into one condensed and clear number. So, considering all his homeruns and also his walks and doubles and everything else, Joe Mauer hit for a .346 EqA last season.

VORP stands for Value Over Replacement Player and shows, in terms of runs (offensive runs for a hitter and runs prevented for a pitcher), how many runs a player contributed above a baseline---that baseline being the expected performance of his imagined replacement. "Replacement" is a term used often in sabermetrics and is considered basically a readily available minor league player or cheap (because he sucks) available unsigned player. Last year, the Royals' Zack Greinke had a VORP of 79.8, considered a huge year for a pitcher. A good VORP for one season is usually around 40-50 and a great one is 60 and above. A scrub player would have a VORP of zero presumably.

WARP is derived from VORP and factors in both defensive and offensive performance to show how many wins a player was worth above the replacement threshold. Albert Pujols all by himself was worth 12.7 wins last year which is huge. Determining a good, bad, or great WARP number is similar to VORP but with that 10-runs = 1 win thingy I mentioned before, you'd shift the decimal one place. So Zack Greinke's great 2009 was worth 79.8 runs and thus 7.9 wins.

ERA+ is a bit simpler. ERA stands for Earned Run Average but ERA+ compares a pitcher's Earned Run Average to the rest of the league and adjusts for the effects the pitcher's home ballpark may have had on his performance (park factors are big in sabermetrics---long story short, it's harder to hit the ball out of a large park). The stat is shown on a convenient scale of 100, so 90 is ten percent below the league's average and 125 get the idea. In Steve Carlton's best season, 1972 he had an ERA+ of 182. One of my alltime faves, Pedro Martinez had an unbelievable 291 ERA+ in 2000. He was 191% better than average.

UZR is becoming very popular with the continued rapid expansion of the sabermetric universe and it stands for Ultimate Zone Rating. It shows how many runs a player saved on defense compared to the average for his position. There's more about it here.

There's a whole lot more of these type of stats but I'll try not to ever venture beyond these. If you've made it this far, I commend you.

I will not always or often write about baseball's sabermetric side but I'll certainly use it to prove a point at times. Although I'm a geek for the numbers aspect of the great game, at heart I'm one who enjoys the simple pleasures of it. It is often while attending a baseball game, a live and mostly loud sporting event, that I usually find myself taking a step back and reflecting on my life. Past games I've attended become bookmarks, their events and outcomes having struck an indelible engraving in my memory. The memories of these games unfold the other events and circumstances from that snapshot of time and promote deep reflection. Sitting with my wonderful new girlfriend along the thirdbase line at a Friday night contest between the Padres and Cubs in San Diego last summer I paused to think back to a Mets-Cubs game at Shea Stadium where a lonely 19-year-old me stared out at the early evening glow on the Queens horizon, waiting for my brother John to meet me at our seats.

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