Life as a player for the Oakland 'Mathletics'
As far back as 1964, when Earnshaw Cook published the book "Percentage Baseball," baseball statisticians have been providing us ways to get as deep into those numbers as possible to determine just how valuable a player might be. In 1971, the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) was formed in Cooperstown, New York, and lent both its acronym and advanced mathematical functions to analyze the game. Bill James, the pioneer of sabermetrics, defined them as a way to provide an objective view of baseball.
Sabermetrics finally let us enjoy baseball the way it was meant to be enjoyed: with a TI-89 graphing calculator.
Many of you are familiar with the movie "Moneyball," which chronicles the Athletics' use of sabermetrics to successfully assemble a winning team on a decidedly small-market budget. By thinking outside the box and favoring players' on-base percentages over their batting averages, those A's were able to build a productive lineup of affordable players en route to a 20-game win streak and a division title.
Since then, the use of sabermetrics has continued to change the way players are evaluated. Metrics such as OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) and wOBA (weighted on-base average) provide a much more comprehensive and accurate evaluation of a hitter's overall productivity than, say, batting average. Meanwhile, the wRC (weighted runs created) and wRAA (weighted runs above average) categories help quantify a player's total offensive value to his team in the form of runs created over the course of a season.
Just as metrics for hitting have advanced past on-base percentage, pitching metrics are going far beyond earned run average. WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) measures the number of baserunners a pitcher allows, on average, per inning. FIP (fielding independent pitching) and xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) assess a pitcher's abilities based on results he can "control" -- K's, BBs, HBPs and HRs allowed -- and have proved to be very reliable predictors of future performance.
And it turns out WAR is good for something after all. The wins above replacement category quantifies a player's overall contributions to his team and quantifies how many wins a player is worth to his club, compared to a league-average stand-in.
Although these might be some of the more commonly used calculations in evaluating a player's value, they are just the tip of the iceberg.
The A's use of advanced statistics
The Athletics' front office has remained on the cutting edge in its use of sabermetrics to evaluate players. From the offseason right up until the July 31 trade deadline, the A's have signed several free agents and negotiated several trades -- and some of these trades and deals left even the most patrician baseball folks scratching their heads.
So exactly which metrics do the A's value most when assessing potential players? I think I've finally figured it out:
BDP (beard dependent pitching): While FIP eliminates defense and focuses on strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed, BDP assesses a pitcher's value in relation to the league average by isolating outings during which the pitcher has a beard.
WPA/3+C (win probability added with three-plus catchers in the lineup): Athletics manager Bob Melvin is a former catcher, so he values backstops and looks for ways to get as many into the lineup as he can. By playing Stephen Vogt in the outfield or at first base, either Derek Norris or John Jaso can get behind the dish while the other slides into the DH spot. It's worth noting that Josh Donaldson made his major league debut as a catcher and did not convert to third base until 2012, so there are instances when the A's have four players in their lineup who are capable of getting behind the plate.
rfFSR (right field fan scouting report): The fan scouting report (FSR) is a metric used by sabermetrician Tom Tango that estimates a player's value based on fan observations and online voting. The rfFSR evaluates a player's value based on reports and polling of the fans in the right field bleacher section at O.co Coliseum. Those are some of the best fans in the game, so it comes as no surprise that this metric is one of the most reliable when predicting future performance.
wOPS (weighted overhead press): This gem calculates how strong a player is to determine whether he can carry a team. In Oakland, no one player carries our team. We all have very similar wOPS numbers.
HR/FB: That's home runs per fly ball, yes? Think again. It's home runs by a fullback. When you're a small-market team, sometimes you're forced to think outside the box. When you also share a stadium with an NFL team, it never hurts to see if any of their players can use their size and strength to drive the baseball out of the ballpark. No word yet on when Raiders fullback Marcel Reece will be given a chance to hit for A's scouts. And the jury is still out on whether this also can be applied to a wide receiver such as Jeff Samardzija.
Contact percentage: This metric is out of this world -- literally. This number indicates how often a player is able to successfully decode messages received from outer space (just like Jodie Foster's character in the 1997 film "Contact"). Although this is an interesting metric, it has nothing to do with baseball, so it's not a great indicator of future performance. But "Contact" is a great movie.
BB percentage: If you're guessing this particular sabermetric indicates a hitter's walk percentage, guess again. It's called "Baseball is Best." This metric helps indicate a player's intangibles because it shows just how much a player likes baseball. When a team is considering signing a player to a long-term contract, it's important to find out if baseball is the sport he likes to play the best.
Sabermetrics are becoming more popular as we continue to strive for a better understanding of the game. And as the game evolves, so will the metrics. Hmm, maybe someday there'll be a metric to quantify clubhouse chemistry (the JON/nY GoM.E.S. phenomenon?).
Critics will argue sabermetrics don't paint the whole picture. Some say a player still must pass the "eye test," and the only information a manager might need to make a decision is a past experience or a gut feeling.
Others argue there are intangibles that cannot be quantified. Or they say the formulas are becoming too complicated for people who didn't ace calculus and don't know the mathematical order of operations or how to use a graphing calculator. Sabermetrics might not tell the whole story, but the numbers never lie.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm about to be shoved into my locker.