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.

How CTE is going to change every major professional sport

A report released Tuesday detailed neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee’s decisive findings regarding the ongoing medical inquiry into the link between Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.) and football. Dr. McKee’s report revealed that 99% of brains examined in the study previously belonging to NFL players showed signs of C.T.E. In addition, 87% of  high school, college, semi-professional and CFL brains who never made it to the NFL also were affected to varying degrees.

Until now, C.T.E.’s most notable moment came during the 2015 release of the film Concussion, which told the story of Nigerian doctor Bennet Omalu’s shocking discovery of the disease. Though the film sparked both widespread outrage over the health risks that the NFL had previously denied and major questions the future of the NFL, the subject has been absent from the news in the last six months. But Tuesday’s study, though shocking to almost no one, has reopened the C.T.E. conversation.

The C.T.E. findings in this report could impact not only the NFL, but also every major American sport. Here is how other professional American leagues could change as a result of the NFL’s link to C.T.E.

MLB

Last September, I wrote a column explaining how the discovery of C.T.E. could impact Major League Baseball. In essence, hesitation to play football could drive many athletes who would previously pursue the NFL to choose other sports that seem safer;  therefore, more extremely large, strong athletes such as Aaron Judge–who could have easily pursued a career as a receiver in the NFL–could opt for baseball. This would notably increase the overall strength and athleticism of the game in all aspects. Average pitching speeds could increase ,as well as a variety of hitting statistics such the number of home runs and the length and exit velocity of these home runs. Players would also make more extremely athletic plays in the field. Overall, the NFL’s C.T.E. scandal would make Major League Baseball a faster and more athletic game.

NBA

Cue the NFL banning Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham’s signature touchdown celebration, the goal post “dunk.” Graham was a seasoned forward who played four years of college basketball, but made the switch to football after encouragement by famed quarterback Bernie Kosar. The Jimmy Grahams of the future might just stick to a sport where dunking is not only legal, but also encouraged.Many statistics, including a 2016 Business Insider report, placed the NBA behind both the NFL and MLB in American popularity. The demise of the NFL, however, could boost the NBA’s contention as the most popular American sport. It is difficult to say how the game itself would change if a flux of football players chose to pursue the NBA, as both sports require extreme stamina and expert footwork. Most likely, overall statistics would rise as a larger, more competitive athlete pool entered the running for the NBA.

MLS

Though historically considered one of the least popular American sports, soccer–and the MLS specifically–would make major gains if  C.T.E. studies are startling enough to steer players and their families away from football. Soccer is already an extremely popular sport for American youth–and if more of kids stick with soccer instead of going off to play football in high school (or even earlier, in Pop Warner), American soccer could become not only more popular but also perhaps more competitive on the world stage. Yesterday, the U.S. Men’s national team–which, this year, fielded a B-list roster–bested Jamaica to take home the CONCACAF Gold Cup Championship title. The USA’s competitiveness on both the domestic and world stage is constant rising; The NFL’s popularity loss would only boost that rise.

NHL

Ironically enough, institutions such as Boston University have recently conducted studies illustrating a potential link between C.T.E. and hockey; therefore, the impact of C.T.E. on hockey still remains to be foreseen…

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Wiffle Ball League

In eighth grade, my Little League Juniors team came in first place in our league. I don’t remember how I played in that game, what our celebration was, or how our trophies looked. I don’t even remember which team we beat.

The only detail I remember about that game was that it would be, until now, the last baseball game I ever played.

Let’s get this out of the way now: knowing that I am a woman, I bet you expected that the word following “last game of” in the above sentence would be “softball.” Instead, I wrote baseball. Because I played baseball for over eight years leading up to high school, in your neighborhood-usually-all-male-only-except-for-me-and-two-other-girls-who-quit-eventually-so-then-it-was-just-me Little League. I played until age 14, when I was barred from trying out for my high school baseball team and then offered a spot on the varsity softball team as a consolation. I bitterly declined, pursued track and field instead (I never got caught stealing one base in my entire Little League life) and thus ended my baseball “career.”

I have not played any form of baseball–not during the summer with the boys, not on vacation on the beach, not in college intramurals–since that last game in eighth grade.

That is, until three weeks ago, when two of my friends commissioned an informal summer Wiffle Ball League. Once a week, we play a casual, six inning game where the only shoes on the field are the flip-flops that make up the bases, as footwear is strictly prohibited on the field. We play with whoever shows up, and then we usually go to the pool. It’s a great way to hang out with our friends, laugh and play a casual game.

But for me? Not exactly…

Playing wiffle ball has been one of the strangest, most déjà vu-inducing experiences of my life. When I stepped into the “batter’s box” three weeks ago, wielding the much-too-light and much-too-thin yellow wiffle ball bat, I realized the game was not, and never could be, casual for me.

Every aspect of my baseball life came rushing back. I remembered the batter’s box jitters, the quick mental checklist of my stance, my pre-plate ritual–tap home plate with the bat and whip it around once before settling into my stance–and even the way I used to try to lock eyes with the pitcher before he entered his windup. I remembered just how much playing baseball is so damn fun.

But I also remembered the crippling nerves; the awkwardness of a woman in a “man’s” game, the expectation of failure based on my ponytail–which was much longer back then–and the knowledge that every strikeout, every mistake, every swing-and-miss even, was a silent affirmation to everyone that I was in over my head.

Wiffle ball is a game anyone can be amazing at. Some of our players, who had until now never picked up a bat, can routinely smack screaming grounders and high flies to deep left center with the most creative swings I have ever seen. That’s the beauty of wiffle ball–you can hit a comfortable triple by swinging only with one hand.

At today’s game, I found myself up at the plate in the bottom of the 6th–and last–inning, with runners on second and third and two outs, my team down by one run. Everyone was laughing and joking about the “intensity” of the moment, except for me; in case you haven’t noticed, I am ridiculously competitive and serious about anything baseball related.

My at-bat was twelve pitches, culminating in a quiet groundout to end the inning and the game.

During that at-bat, I kept flashing back to Little League playoffs, where I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders not only because I was a member of a team that I wanted to contribute to, but also because I was the girl. I know that is not true of the Wiffle Ball League. Looking back, I probably should have closed my eyes and swung the bat like I was hitting a piñata–then maybe I would’ve hit a homer.

For better or for worse, the Wiffle Ball League has forced me to revisit memories from T-Ball to Juniors. From the smell of the grass to the surprised cheers when I got a hit to the sexist taunts from players in the “good game” line, I remember everything.

But above all, the Wiffle Ball League has reminded me how much I love baseball from every perspective–not just as a fan and writer, but as a participant as well.