Sabermetrics: wOBA

For my second sabermetrics post, I thought I would talk about a complex sabermetric that combines many simpler, more widely understood statistics: wOBA, or weighted On-Base Average. An improvement from the tradition triple slash-line, the goal of wOBA is to assess a player’s “offensive value” in measuring how capable a hitter is of moving himself and his teammates around the bases to generate runs.

Before I attempt to explain wOBA itself, however, it is important to understand the simpler stats that factor into wOBA. Batting average measures how often a player gets a hit, but does not factor in walks. On-base percentage measures how often a player reaches base, regardless of how. Slugging percentage weighs how many bases a hitter covers per hit, but does not include walks. wOBA attempts to combine all of these stats into a number that takes into account not only how many bases are covered per hit, but the odds of a hit also removing another play from a base, so it takes walks into account.

The formula itself uses average weights of how valuable a type of hit is to the overall possibility of said type of hit generating a score in order to correctly factor in all ways of reaching base (walks, hits, homers, getting hit by pitch) to calculate what a player contributes offensively.

With that in mind, I’ll let FanGraphs present the wOBA formula:

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

**FanGraphs specifies that the weights in this formula are for the 2013 season, and change slightly each year.**

It is important to remember that wOBA does not take into account disparities in ballparks (some ballparks are considered “hitters ballparks,” meaning it is easier to hit a home run, for example, based on the outfield configuration/ length of the outfield than other ballparks) or in-game context (this includes runners on base or the score of the game during the player’s at-bat).

In general, an average wOBA is about .320, with anything above that being about average to excellent; excellent is .400. There are a number of MLB players currently with season wOBA averages significantly above even the excellent mark. They are all in close contention,  none of their names are surprising, and some have absolutely fabulous haircuts. Joey Votto (.429), Bryce Harper (.427) and Aaron Judge/Paul Goldschmidt (.426) are the current 2017 wOBA leaders. These players, then, are exemplary in scoring production solely from the plate–stolen bases and other on-base events do not factor into wOBA, so these guys are some true productive sluggers.

Cue Bryce Harper hair flip.

Sabermetrics: BABIP

I thought I would start with a stat that is slightly more obscure than, say, WAR, but is both useful and extremely relevant: BABIP. BABIP stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play, which is a measurement of how many non-home run “balls in play” end up as hits. In other words, the stat provides a numerical measurement of how many balls put in play by a specific hitter end up as, for example, seeing-eye singles versus ropes straight to the center fielder. The numbers factored into the BABIP equation include strikeouts, hits, home runs and fly outs (I cannot BELIEVE I’m doing this, but here is the equation below, courtesy of FanGraphs).

BABIP = (H – HR)/(AB – K – HR + SF)

“The numerator is the number of hits minus the number of home runs and the denominator is at bats minus strikeouts and home runs with sacrifice flies added back in.” – FanGraphs

There are three major on-field factors that influence BABIP: defense, luck and talent. If the batter is facing a more skilled defender, perhaps one withs faster reflexes or a stronger arm, then the ball in play might become an out rather than a single. The luck of whether a batter hits  into a shift, for example, or hits a ball slightly out of a fielder’s reach, is also a factor. And, of course, talent-based factors such as exit velocity and the ability to hit both sides of the plate also play a role in BABIP.

BABIP is a difficult stat to use on its own because of these uncontrollable factors that go into whether or not a ball in play ends up as a hit. Therefore, BABIP is best used in context with a given hitter’s average BABIP over many at-bats. Because the league BABIP average is .300 for a hitter, it is safe to say that a player whose career average BABIP is significantly above .300 is especially skilled at turning contact into hits. Whereas an altered BA over the course of a few weeks most likely signifies either a slump or a streak, the fluctuations of BABIP over a few weeks or a month could be the result of bad luck or good defense rather than talent.

The BABIP stat also exists for pitchers, but requires about a season more of stats to calculate than would an accurate career hitting BABIP. Pitching BABIP is also much more reliant on the pitchers’ team, as his own defense plays a significantly higher role in his BABIP.

Interestingly enough, both Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge, two vastly different players in terms of build, position and overall strengths, boast the third and fourth highest BABIPs in the Majors right now, respectively (behind Chris Taylor and Ben Gamel). Judge is a dominant outfielder and loping power-hitter; Altuve is a small and quick, but still boasts 15 home runs and a .367 season BA. It is likely that Altuve’s speed and Judge’s power (exit velocity) produce similar BABIP results.

In other words,  there is more than one way to put balls in play.

Reluctantly, what we can learn from this year’s Home Run Derby

Despite my many qualms with the event, I was guilted into watching last night’s Home Run Derby and reluctantly agreed for mostly for one reason: Aaron Judge.

I have to say, I enjoyed watching him participate, even if I still despise the general idea and fairness of the Derby itself–I’m looking at whoever booked Mr. Worldwide as the pre-Derby talent. And although I was sufficiently entertained by the spectacular display Judge put on,I still hate the Derby. As talented as Sano and Bellinger were, I would have been bored without Aaron Judge.

But this article is not about whether or not Judge changed any of my Derby opinions–this is about what Judge, and the Derby itself, may have just taught the world of baseball.

What did we learn from this year’s Home Run Derby? Just ask Yankees’ reliever Dellin Betances, who reacted to one of Judge’s 500+ foot homers the same way one might expect to react to witnessing a literal nuclear explosion. Rather than cheering for Judge or exhibiting jubilation or pride like most any Judge fan or friend would, Betances’ gut reaction to Judge’s sheer power was one of confusion, awe, and even, perhaps, fear.

So what exactly is that something? Betances’ memorable expression was not caused by a number–as well as Judge performed during the Derby, he was far from the most impressive statistical competitor to ever participate in the event. Marlins’ own Giancarlo Stanton, knocked out early last night by underdog and Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez, won the 2016 Derby in a record 61 home runs;  Judge only launched 47 last night. In 2007, Josh Hamilton recorded a historic 28 homers in one round; Judge halted at 23. And while Judge recorded the longest home runs of the evening, home run tracking technology has not existed long enough to decisively comment on whether or not anyone else had ever hit multiple 500-footers at a Home Run Derby.

But even though none of the biggest Derby records were broken last night, everyone, including the ballplayers, is acting like we had never seen a Derby performance like Judge’s.

Rather than statistics, it was Judge’s aesthetics that illustrated why his performance was so unique, so spectacular, so superhuman. Visualize–or watch–the ease with which Judge clobbered multiple homers in a row. Judge’s hands were quiet, leg kick almost completely absent, and his swing short. Unlike other contenders, such as Sanchez and the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger, who utilize multiple exhaustive strategies to power their home runs, Judge swung easily.

Compared to the other guys, Judge seemed to exert little to no force when smashing long, high dingers. And by the end of the Derby, when other bats were sagging, hands dropping and mechanics failing, Judge’s remained smooth, consistent and energized.

Dellin Betances acted as if he had never seen a ball swung at so easily that was hit so hard and so far–probably because he hadn’t. None of us have…until Aaron Judge.

The stats did not explain the magnitude of shocked awe that was every person’s reaction to last night’s Home Run Derby. The footage did. So perhaps what this year’s Derby showed was a taste of the baseball to come: a game played so well that a collection of saber metrics is but a mere companion to the awe-inspiring talent that we only need our eyes to see.

I hate the Home Run Derby

Well, the names are officially out. The eight players who will participate in this year’s Home Run Dery have been announced–not without excitement, and not without some rare but headlining drama. And I have to admit, it’s a damn good lineup. The appearance of the two hottest young coastal sluggers, Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, is reason enough to watch the whole damn, hours-long event. Add in last year’s winner Giancarlo Stanton and the seeming underdog Gary Sanchez, and you’ve got a Home Run Derby that may just shape up to be as memorable as that one very warm and fuzzy Derby that showcased a rising-from-the-ashes Josh Hamilton a few years ago.

This year, there are so many stars–and not just stars but breakout stars–not just breakout stars but electric, record-breaking breakout stars–that I guess I’ll have to watch. I guess I am obligated to begrudgingly plop down with a bag of extra-buttered popcorn and endure my least favorite baseball-related event.

Why begrudgingly, you ask? Simple. I hate the Home Run Derby.

Now, if you would be so kind as the peel your incredulous jaw off the floor, and before you start with the “who doesn’t love to watch home runs!?” B.S., allow me to explain.

I hate the Home Run Derby because I never want my favorite players to participate in it in the first place. Call me paranoid or overly traditional, but I do believe that the concern of the Derby being detrimental to a player’s swing mechanics, late-season production or even health is a valid one. The statistics backing the drop in production of Derby participants is substantial, even if not proven. So I never understood why an event that has less signicance than even the All-Star Game–which really is saying something–is worth the risk of adversely altering one’s sacred swing mechanics or perpetuating injury due to multiple over-swings.

Mike Trout has passed on the Derby for this very reason; former sluggers such as Bobby Abreu–laugh all you want, he did have the numbers at one point–have substantially lost power after participating in the Derby.

Some managers buy it, some don’t, but the risk is still there. So to me, it’s just not worth it.

Because not only is the Derby unimportant, it is also painfully boring. It is perhaps the only event in sports in which the same motion takes up hours of so-called competition. There is no variation in athletic movement; just swing after swing after swing after swing after swing after swing after…continue for approximately 50,000 more words and you get my point. So the entertainment factor isn’t there.

And don’t try to tell me the Derby is one of the few times when baseball players get to be “fun.” This is not the NBA, folks. The outlandish guestures of sweat-wiping and child head-patting, the joking competition and even the petty drama–I’m looking at you, Logan Morrison–is just not interesting enough.

In fact, this theatrical aspect of the Derby illustrates exactly what is wrong with baseball: only a select few–and by a select few I mean Bryce Harper–can get away with the theatrics in a genuine manner. Theatrics are not part of baseball, and no effort of the league to make baseball “funnier” or more “dramatic” is realistic. Smeared pie on a player who has hit a walk-off or cleared benches during a brawl are as theatrical as baseball can get. The Derby is an excellent example of baseball trying desperately, for the sake of ratings, to be something that it is not. And I, loving baseball just the way it is, cannot stand it.

So, on second thought, not even the great Judge and Jury could sentence me to watching the Home Run Derby. Someone just call me if Judge smacks at 600-footer, and I’ll watch a highlight of it the next morning.

But even that incredible event could not be as historic as it should, because it will have taken place during the Home Run Derby. It’s just not real.