Saber-Prattling: A Dummy’s Guide to Understanding the New Measurements of Baseball

Baseball acronyms used to be easy: ERA, RBI, W, K, BA. But lately, perusing an article about the Cubs, or any baseball team for that matter, is likely to elicit quite another abbreviation from the reader who is as yet uninitiated into the elite cadre of new-age baseball cognoscenti: WTF?

Seeing references to FIP, WRC+, and WAR will educate some but get others ready to fight. If you’ve read my work, you already know that I’m far from adroit when it comes to leveraging advanced metrics. My troglodytic struggles with the oceans of newfangled numbers often leave me grasping for the nearest slash line just to keep from drowning.

So at the risk of insulting the intelligence of a portion of my readership, I wanted to take a closer look at some of the esoteric terms we see in this and other blogs. I’m not sure my work will get any of us initiated into the fraternal order of intelligentsia, but perhaps it can serve as a day pass of sorts, like renting a really nice car on vacation.

And speaking of, I feel obligated to fulfill my primal urge to regale you with a couple of anecdotes here. Should you wish to continue on unencumbered by tales of my personal exploits and follies, feel free to scroll down to the bold headings.

Hard as it may be to believe, I’m actually able to hold down a steady job in addition to my duties as an intrepid blogger. As such, I’ve had the requirement and opportunity to travel quite a bit for business; every once in a while there’s a little pleasure mixed in too.

Take, for instance, my trip to SoCal. I was to fly into San Diego, have a couple meetings, then drive to Orange County for a couple more. Ever aware of the company’s bottom line, I’m careful to contain my expenses, so you can imagine my surprise when the number next to my name at the Hertz stand directed me to a new Mercedes.

I walked to the car, then back to the info stand, back to the car, then back to an employee to confirm. You sure it’s not supposed to be a small Hyundai or something else that makes me fear merging into freeway traffic? Turns out it really was the right car; the Hertz at the John Wayne airport only rents a higher class of vehicle, so I got a Benz for the standard-car price. Keep that in mind next time you head out there. That’s what we in the biz call a Pro Tip.

But I’m not always that lucky; as a flyer I go coach all the way. Until, that is, I took the opportunity to upgrade to 1st class (on my own dime) for one particular flight. After all, it was only $30 or something. But my travel-addled brain had not processed the fact that the trip from Chicago to St. Louis was only 40 minutes, thus rendering my upgrade nearly as impotent as a guy waiting on his Cialis prescription refill.

Then there’s the time my wife and I stayed in New York City at the St. Regis, a pretty swanky spot on 5th Avenue. Upon closing the door to the room and seeing the posted per-night rates, my capacity for speech failed me (but neither I nor my company was paying, so…). Thus I was hardly able to communicate when I responded to a knock at the door to find a butler in full tails ready to serve our every whim. My wife made fun of my bumpkinness, but I showed her the next morning, when I had said butler deliver coffee service on a silver platter.

So why did I tell you all of that? Well, first, it’s part of my self-deprecating nature. Beyond that, I wanted to show that when it comes to dealing with things that are new, different, and perhaps a bit on the elite side, I’m usually just as lost as the next proletariat. But now I want you to take my hand as we walk together through the world, and word, of the baseball bourgeoisie.

Much of the info below courtesy of FanGraphs:

FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching)

I already covered FIP a little bit in a previous piece about the abomination that has been Edwin Jackson’s tenure with the Cubs, but I felt it deserved a bit more coverage here. From that post:

For those of you unfamiliar with FIP, it’s a sabermetric stat that is gaining a great deal of credence as a more accurate measure of a pitcher’s performance. It takes into account only the outcomes a pitcher can control once the ball leaves his hand: walks, strikeouts, hit by pitches, and home runs.

Balls that fall in play are the defense’s responsibility and are also subject to too many variables to accurately reflect how well a pitcher is doing. The Cubs have taken great advantage of FIP picking up guys like Scott Feldman and  Jason Hammel, and then Jake Arietta and, most recently, Jacob Turner.

Ideally, a pitcher’s FIP would be lower than his ERA, with the difference indicating that he’s simply been the victim of either bad luck, bad defense, or a bit of both. In Jackson’s case, his FIP heading in Thursday’s start was a pedestrian 4.17; not great, but certainly not as gaudy as his ERA.

So when considering a pitcher’s worth, FIP appears to be a much better measure than the tried-and-true ERA and is certainly more accurate than using win totals. Perhaps as much as any sport, baseball includes a great deal of luck and misfortune, something FIP attempts to remove from pitching stats. It also removes…

BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play)

According to FanGraphs, BABIP “measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit. A ball is “in play” when the plate appearance ends in something other than a strikeout, walk, hit batter, catcher’s interference, sacrifice bunt, or home run. In other words, the batter put the ball in play and it didn’t clear the outfield fence. “

BABIP is essentially a measure of how well a hitter makes contact; the harder a ball is hit, the more likely it is to fall for a hit. Of course, to be a truly effective tool, it must encompass a large sample size. BABIP can tell us whether a hitter’s slump or streak is a sustainable trend or simply an aberration. Just as almost no one can maintain a BABIP of .380 or higher, a number of .230 or lower is incredibly low for an MLB hitter.

Take Starlin Castro, for example. After starting his career with season totals of .346 and .344, Castro dipped to .315 and then .290 (MLB average is around .300) as he adjusted to a new plate approach. Not surprisingly, his offensive numbers were far worse in those latter two seasons. But in this season of marked improvement, Castro has a BABIP of  .333.

It’s dangerous to blame luck, either good or bad, for the results we see on the field, but there are certainly times when we can point to bad breaks as reasons for a slump. Earlier in the season, Castro’s numbers began to drop off despite the fact that he was making solid contact and really driving the ball. Naturally, the law of large numbers won out and his offensive stats rose again. While some feared that the drop-off was a case of water finding its level, it seems obvious that Castro’s down year was more an aberration than anything.

Now, if only there was a way to improve upon FIP by including BABIP in a way that measured a pitcher’s ability to limit it. Wait, isn’t that…

SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA)

FIP is a nice improvement over ERA, as it eliminates much of the factors a pitcher can’t control, but SIERA attempts to model what actually makes a pitcher successful. It gives us more of the how and why of pitching by way of trying to explain why some pitchers are better at limiting hits and runs.

SIERA holds that strikeouts are very good, as high-K pitchers typically also limit solid contact. While walks are bad, the number of walks are a factor in just how bad. Finally, balls in play are important, as grounders typically go for hits at a higher percentage than fly balls.

Measured on basically the same scale as ERA, determining a pitcher’s worth based on his SIERA doesn’t really take much of a leap for the fan. It’s simply more accurate, as it it park-adjusted and weighted for different factors, such as today’s lower-run-scoring environment.

But rather than a projection tool, SIERA is telling us what a given pitcher’s ERA should be. Ideally, a pitcher’s SIERA would be in line with his ERA, which would indicate that his performance has not been helped or hindered by luck and that he’s not hurting himself with walks.

Take Jake Arrieta for instance, the diamond the Cubs essentially stole from the Orioles, due in part to the latter’s rough grasp of advanced metrics. In 2012, Arrieta had an ERA of 6.20 but a SIERA of 3.66. In other words, he was actually pitching much better than the more traditional measure gave him credit for, something the Cubs recognized and exploited. So far this year, Arrieta’s 2.88 ERA matches up quite nicely with his 2.98 SIERA.

Those improved numbers would seem to indicate that he’s limiting…

wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average)

In an attempt to measure a hitter’s overall value based on distinct events, Tom Tango developed wOBA. While it seems obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a baseball game, not all hits have the same value. In other words, an double and a home run are worth more than a single. Batting average and OBP, however, treat all events as equal.

And while slugging percentage weights extra-base hits, it does so in a very rudimentary and inaccurate manner (a double isn’t worth twice as much as a single, and so on). wOBA was developed to correct the obvious flaws present in those more popular stats. It is calculated by combining all the aspects of hitting, weighting each in accordance with its actual run value.

Now, these weights vary on an annual basis, so the calculation will change each season, but the 2013 formula was:

wOBA = (0.690×uBB + 0.722×HBP + 0.888×1B + 1.271×2B + 1.616×3B +
2.101×HR) / (AB + BB – IBB + SF + HBP)

So while batting average, OBP, and OPS can give you a pretty good picture of a guy’s individual performance, wOBA tells us how well a player actually contributes to run scoring. An average hitter will typically finish with a wOBA of around .320, with every 20 points being worth about 10 runs over 600 plate appearances. For a real-life example, Mike Trout’s wOBA in 2013 was .423; when compared to the MLB average of .314 that season, he was worth just over 61 more runs than the average offensive player. That’s, um, good.

But wOBA isn’t a great stat to use in comparing offensive players, given the difference in parks and leagues, which is why we have…

wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus)

While wRC attempts to measure a player’s total offensive value in terms of runs, the “+” compares a player’s wRC to the league average after taking into consideration the effect of different ballparks. So a league-average position player would have a 100, with each point above that representing a percentage point.

So far this season, Anthony Rizzo has a wRC+ of 146, which means that he has created 46% more runs than the average player would have in the same number of plate appearances. And because this statistic is park- and league-adjusted, it allows us to accurately compare players from different teams, leagues, and even eras. wOBA is great, but it doesn’t give credit for tough ballparks or discount stats compiled in small ones.

wRC+ is actually a very easy stat to use, since you can quickly see how much better or worse a player is than the average. And like wOBA, it’s a more accurate indication of a batter’s relative value and impact on scoring runs than a stat like batting average. And when you get down to it, isn’t scoring more runs really the only thing that matters at the end of the day?

I know that might have been a lot to chew on, but I hope you took a little something away from it. Since they’re often thrown around with little regard to us common folks, these sabermetric stats can sometimes be intimidating, forcing us back to our old standards.

But these advanced metrics were developed to give us all a clearer picture of the game we love, so let’s embrace them, or at least give them a stout bro-hug. You don’t need to familiarize yourself with all of the mess of acronyms out there, but having a working knowledge of some of the more commonly-used saber stats will help you to better understand the game and some of its nuances.

Have some other stats you don’t understand or would like to know about? Check out FanGraphs or just ask.

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