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Even BP admits it's not just about stats
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff

The White Sox' Scott Podsednik received recent criticism on sports talk radio about his statistical contributions this season, a rap that sabermetrics aficionado Scott Ellis found overdone.

 

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Published: 6/16/2009 12:01 AM

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Sparked by an invitation from White Sox business executive Daniel Render, a 20-something Baseball Prospectus reader as well as a former outfielder at Haverford College, BP hosted its first "Sabermetrics Night at the Cell" on June 2.

Kahrl and managing partner Kevin Goldstein carried the bulk of the presentation, which was done for about 100 fans who crammed into the Sox's conference center.

The crowd was overwhelmingly affluent white males (BP's primary demographic), but there were signs sabermetrics have taken hold with the young folk.

Not only were there clumps of students from Northwestern and the University of Chicago, 12-year-old Ethan Ellis coerced his father, Jim, into letting him skip ninth-period study hall at Hadley Junior High in Glen Ellyn so he could be there.

Though Ethan wore his replica Scott Podsednik jersey and brought his glove to the presentation, he was there as anything but a fan.

As the Ellises drove toward the park, they listened to afternoon WSCR host Dan Bernstein use all sorts of sabermetric measurements to tear down Podsednik's contributions.

Not only did Ellis understand how and why Bernstein and Terry Boers took apart Podsednik's performance to date, he also knew they misstated part of their argument.

"I think they burned him too much on the on-base percentage thing," Ellis said. "They said his on-base percentage was .320, but it's .336. I had checked earlier today."

Ellis, whose goal is to become a major-league general manager, buys the Baseball Prospectus annual to keep track of everyone in the majors and minors and even applies his sabermetric knowledge to his own game.

As the leadoff hitter for his Pinto League team, he owns a batting average in excess of .400, but his patience and keen eye have his on-base percentage over the .700 mark.

But future GMs like Ellis, talk-show hosts like Bernstein and amateur sabermetricians who groan at home every time a manager calls for a sacrifice bunt or a TV announcer talks about "clutch hitting" should know Baseball Prospectus no longer believes it's all about the stats.

Three years ago, BP hired Kevin Goldstein (and his Rolodex filled with scouts' numbers) away from Baseball America to provide the scouting perspective that they'd derided for so long.

"The more you learn, the more you realize what you don't know," Jazayerli said. "When we started, we thought statistical analysis was maybe not the only way, but was certainly the dominant way to be successful in running a baseball team.

"Just like 'Moneyball' isn't about walks, it's about the process, I think that's what Baseball Prospectus is about. We're trying to gain knowledge wherever it comes from. If that means admitting you're wrong sometimes, then so be it."

In that vein, Jazayerli even suggests baseball's emphasis on pitch counts - perhaps the sport's biggest development over the last decade - has become a little too onerous.

Of course, forever playing the role of the fan trying to get his point across from the outside looking in, Jazayerli phrases his concern as only a Baseball Prospectus original can:

"I almost feel like teams are almost too protective of their pitchers in a way," he said. "Which is a better problem to have."

Sabermetric shorthand

To list every metric invented over the last 20 years might take up more room than pi (hint: it's infinite). But here are a handful of terms to learn and love:

VORP (Value Over Replacement Player)

Invented by former Baseball Prospectus author Keith Woolner, who now works for the Cleveland Indians, VORP is expressed in runs.

For example, through Sunday's games, Minnesota's Joe Mauer led the majors at 41.0 VORP runs better than your freely available catcher (think of a non-prospect Class AAA guy who wouldn't cost the Twins anything to replace Mauer if he were hurt).

Since 10 VORP runs generally equal a run, Mauer's offense alone has been worth a little more than 4 full wins to Minnesota through Sunday.

EqA (Equivalent Average)

Those of us born before the sabermetric revolution were brought up on batting average as the grail but that number says nothing about a hitter's ability to reach base or hit with power.

Baseball Prospectus co-founder Clay Davenport developed a formula that takes a hitter's overall performance into account, but puts it on a scale (i.e, a .300 hitter is pretty good) that speaks to those of us raised on batting average.

For example, the White Sox' Jim Thome boasts a mere .256 batting average, but his 12 homers and 41 walks put him at a a Chicago-best .315 EqA.

If you don't count the sorely missed Aramis Ramirez (.332) because he owns just 72 plate appearances this year, then Kosuke Fukudome leads the Cubs with a .285 EqA.

FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching)

Invented by Tom Tango, a top statistical analyst hired by Seattle this year as a consultant, FIP tries to isolate a pitcher's true ability by removing the quality (or cruddiness) of his team's defense.

Similar to EqA, the FIP formula tries to put the number in a context easily understood by the traditional fan so it's expressed like an earned-run average.

FIP sees a guy like the Cubs' Ted Lilly as someone who has benefited from excellent defense (his ERA is 2.94 but his FIP is 4.03), while the Sox' Gavin Floyd is at the other end of the spectrum. His ERA sits at 4.94, but FIP estimates an average defensive team puts his rightful ERA at 3.80.

DER (Defensive Efficiency Ratio)

Forget about errors and fielding percentage telling you how well a team plays defense.

DER, which is expressed as a percentage, tells you how often a team turns batted balls (not including home runs) into outs.

Through Sunday's games, the White Sox were tied for eighth in the American League in DER (.692) while the Cubs (.715) shared the major-league lead with Milwaukee.

Now, to indicate how DER and FIP play off each other, the Cubs' ERA stands at 3.84 but FIP suggests it would be 4.14 without such great fielding.

Conversely, the White Sox' official ERA of 4.22 only rises to a FIP of 4.24 once you factor in the team's mediocre fielding.