June 8, 2018

NESN: An Discussion About Batting Average (Or, Quarters Are More Valuable Than Pennies)

During NESN's broadcast of last night's Red Sox/Tigers game, Dave O'Brien and Dennis Eckersley had an interesting conversation about statistics and what certain statistics signify.

In the top of the second, OB and Eck were talking about what a great hitter Miguel Cabrera has been for years. An on-screen graphic showed Cabrera's .317 lifetime batting average.

O'Brien: Look at that career batting average.

Eckersley: That, to me, says it all. It's one thing hitting home runs, but hitting close to .320 lifetime ... I was talking to somebody. Nowadays, the hitters don't care about .300 any more. It's not about .300, it's about OPS.

O'Brien: I don't believe that at all. I don't believe that at all. I believe OPS is huge – don't get me wrong there. But everybody can look up as a hitter – if you're hitting .215 –

Eckersley: Well, okay, .215 is one thing, but they're not – you know, .300 doesn't mean quite the same.

O'Brien: See, I still think it's meaningful for hitters. You are raised believing that .300 means something.

Eckersley: Oh, I agree. But I'm telling you that that's changing. I mean, I don't think .300 is as important OPS.

O'Brien: Perhaps not as important as it used to be, but if you're hitting .299 on the last day of the season – I mean the difference between that and hitting .300, I still think it's huge.

Eckersley: Okay, okay. But what I'm getting at is the average doesn't really play as much anymore.

O'Brien: Yup. I know, it's on-base and slugging (sounding exasperated) and it's such a huge number.

Eckersley: Slugging. And on-base, you know?

O'Brien: I think if you talk to veteran hitters, maybe it's a little more so with veteran guys who have, you know, eight or nine years in the game, they still want desperately to hit .300. It still means I'm a good hitter. Can hit for average.

Eckersley: What's going to make you more money? I mean, you hit .300 with an OPS of .650, hurray.

O'Brien: Right. I see that point.

Eckersley: You see what I mean?

O'Brien: And, you know, you can hit 35 home runs –

Eckersley: And hit .240, I'm taking it.

O'Brien: Who care if you're striking out 200 times?

Eckersley: Right, your OPS is going to be .900.
(I did not include the calling of the game that went on during that exchange.)

A few things:

Listening to it again, O'Brien seems extremely concerned about pushing the point that older hitters are more obsessed with a .300 average. That might be true, but he offers no evidence. Plus his exasperation when saying what constitutes OPS is telling. It's pretty clear that he is not a big fan of "newer" stats, even if they give you a better gauge of a player's contribution. I find that very odd for a guy who is utterly obsessed with talking about home runs. Maybe he believes getting on base is not that important...

When I hear O'Brien mention a pitcher's career record against a team or a batter's hitting streak against teams in his division, I always wonder if he really believes he's sharing meaningful information. Part of me thinks, he's a smart guy, he's been involved in the game for a long time, there's no way he buys this crap ... and yet he devotes a lot of time spitting out those useless factoids.

The key, perhaps, is his comment about how fans are "raised believing that .300 means something". That statement is true - or it was certainly true when OB and I were young fans (he is 2½ months older than I am). However, O'Brien seems not to consider that a fan could grow up and read about the game and learn new things and realize that what he once believed is not exactly true and that he should think a different way. (The list of things I was raised believing that I have happily jettisoned is very long, indeed.)

However, I think O'Brien still sees the game as a 12-year-old. Which is not a completely bad thing. I certainly want an announcer to have, and express, joy during a game. But it also means that you might think batting average rules, pitchers' wins and fielding percentage are important, a hitter's or pitcher's career numbers against a team (which could have a complete different lineup of players in only four years) is meaningful, and home runs are super cool. How many times during a game does O'Brien talk about what could happen rather than what is happening: If Xander gets a hit here, that might score two runs. That has always struck me as something a kid would say.

Looking at the AL batting leaders, all 13 guys hitting over .300 have an OPS+ over 100 (meaning they are better than a league average hitter). But Jon Jay's OPS+ is only 105, so he is barely better than average (with a .307 batting average). near the bottom of the list is Gary Sanchez, who is batting .201. Yet because of Sanchez's walks and power, his OPS+ is 101. So the guy "hitting" .201 is nearly as productive as the .307 guy.

That is a very clear reason why batting average is so deceptive. Batting average says that walks do not exist and singles are exactly the same as home runs. (Which is like saying that all coins are the same, that pennies are as valuable as quarters.) Batting average tells you something, but there are other easily-accessible (and easily understood) stats that will tell you a lot more. Just because you believed something about baseball when you were 12 does not mean you must cling to it when you are 54.

1 comment:

Zenslinger said...

This does a good job of crystalizing the feeling behind the clinging to AVG. There's an emotional investment back to childhood.