Baseball Statistics 101

Why Have Stats?

Once upon a time there were two guys who liked to go to the local ballpark and watch the games. Both of them had a different favorite player. They were always jabbering back-and-forth about whose favorite player was better.

“Your guy might get on base more than mine does, but my favorite player hits more home runs,” said the first guy.

“Well,” responded the other, “your guy might hit more home runs, but mine is a better defensive player than yours.”

They would argue, day after day, which player was better. Until one day in the middle of winter, they had an idea. “We will go to the ballpark every day next summer and count how many hits each player has, and how many home runs, and how many runs they score. At the end of the season, we will truly know who is the better player.”

This is not how it really happened, how baseball statistics were invented, but the essence of the story is true: Statistics are about answering questions. Who had more hits? is very different than who is the better hitter? What weaknesses does this pitcher have? Does he walk more hitters compared to that other pitcher? What are the chances the first pitch he throws me will be a strike?

Ten people could watch a team play every game for the whole season and come up with ten different answers to who the best hitter is. But who had the most hits, we can determine that simply by counting. The catch is, the guy with the most hits is not always the best hitter.

Nobody is able to watch and remember every play of every game and remember what happened, so we decided to start counting things. Add, subtract, multiply, and divide those things in different orders and you have got our best attempts at figuring out who is good, who is bad, and who do I want on my team? And every baseball fan uses one stat or another to formulate their answers.

What Did He Say?

If you are just getting into baseball, things can get overwhelming. You cannot watch a half-inning of a ballgame on TV without someone throwing out some numbers, and it can be frustrating if you do not know what they mean. So let’s start with the most widely-referenced stats you will see in the newspaper, on TV, or most websites.

Hitting stats

The simplest thing we can do is start counting things a player does day in and day out: number of hits, number of strikeouts, walks, times hit by a pitch, times put out. Go to a place like MLB.com, we’ve got a whole bunch of stats across the top. In most cases it will be what he has done this season, although many sites will let you look at different situations: what his stats over his career, against right-handed pitchers, during day games, or even how he has done when the count is 2-0.

Here’s what you will usually see:

G – Number of games played in
AB – Number of at-bats
R – Number of runs scored
H – Number of hits
2B – Number of doubles
3B – Number of triples
HR – Number of home runs
RBI – Number of runs batted in
BB – Times walked
SO – Times struck out
SB – Number of stolen bases
CS – Number of times caught stealing

In 2012, we see that Miguel Cabrera played in 161 games, but Mike Trout only played in 139. So even though Cabrera had 23 more hits than Trout, because he played in 22 more games is it really fair to automatically say he is was a better hitter? Most agree it is not. So we have two stats called Batting Average (AVG) and On Base Percentage (OBP), that allow for a more accurate comparison.

Batting average was much more popular than on-base percentage for many years, but on OBP has increased in popularity a lot over the last few years for a few reasons.

Not all hits are equal though. You would prefer to hit a home run over a single, but AVG and OBP count all hits equally. So how can we give proper credit to the guys with more power? With Slugging Percentage (SLG) and On Base Plus Slugging (OPS).

You could probably call these stats—Batting Average, On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, and On Base Plus Slugging—the Big Four of Mainstream Baseball Stats. Know them along with what the simple day in and day out stats and the things that most announcers on television are saying will make sense to you.

Pitchers

Pitching stats have some similarities and some differences with hitting stats. We’ve got our ‘counted’ pitching stats too. The pitching equivalent to ‘at-bats’ is ‘batters faced,’ which is the number of different hitters a pitcher has pitched against, but rather than basing pitcher stats off batters faced like batting average is based on at bats, many of pitching stats are ‘per inning’ or ‘per nine innings.’

Here’s our simple counted stats for pitchers:

IP – Number of innings pitched
H – Number of hits given up
R – Number of runs allowed
ER – Number of earned runs given up
BB – Number of batters walked
SO or K – Number of batters struck out

For starting pitchers you will probably hear winloss record and Earned Run Average (ERA) as the most-referenced stats. For closers, it will be ERA and saves or holds rather than win-loss record.

As previously mentioned you will also see many ‘per nine inning’ stats, like ERA. Others would include BB/9 (walks per nine innings) and K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings). This is similar to how AVG or OBP puts everyone, regardless of how many innings they have pitched, on an even playing field.

One last pitching stat to mention is WHIP, which stands for ‘Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched.’ As a pitcher, you want to avoid allowing guys on base and therefore the fewer walks and hits you allow, the better.

And that about sums it up. If you understand what all the stats we’ve mentioned, you should have no trouble understanding a game on television or the two guys talking in the row behind you at the ballpark. You might even be able to explain a thing or two to them now.

Just remember those two guys from the intro, often times we’ll compare stats from two different players and want to say, ‘It’s obvious this guy is better than that one! His batting average is higher, he’s got more RBIs, and he hit more home runs!’ But always keep in mind what exactly those numbers are telling you: There is nothing in there about how well they play defense, how often they draw walks, or their talent on the base paths. Things have been changing, but some widely used stats are still questionable.

Further reading

Different stats have been developed over the last hundred years or so. But over the last few decades, computers and the internet have allowed people to do studies that would have been impossible in the early days of the game. This has brought about many new theories and stats—some of which have disproven long-held beliefs about the game. You can enjoy baseball a great deal knowing only the stats above, but you might enjoy it even more with knowledge of some of so called ‘advanced statistics’ behind the sabermetric movement.

FanGraphs has a fantastic reference guide for these stats, although these can get very confusing if you are just starting out. I would recommend starting with wOBA for offense and DIPS for pitchers.

Here’s a great video about FIP (which is related to DIPS) from one of their writers to get you started. (His videos are a little different than mine, but probably better. I mean, he’s got dragons, I can’t compete with dragons.)

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How the MLB Season Works

If you do not live somewhere that MLB coverage is common, it can be difficult to learn all of the different stages of the season and figure out which games are played when. Hopefully this will help you out some.

League Structure

MLB, or Major League Baseball, is the highest form of professional baseball in the world. The league consists of 30 teams across the United States and Canada. There are two main groups within Major League Baseball, called the National League and the American League, or the NL and the AL.

The NL and AL have 15 teams each and are not divided by geography. The only real difference between the two is that the AL uses a designated hitter (someone who bats for the pitcher) and the NL does not. The AL and NL are each divided into three divisions: the West, Central, and East (so we’ve got the AL West, NL West, AL Central, etc.) which are based on geography.

For many years NL teams only played other NL teams and AL teams only played other AL teams, and the season would culminate with the championship being between the winners of each league. But in 1997, teams began something called Interleague Play, in which a few regular season games were played between NL and AL teams.

You can find a list of all the teams and their divisions here.

The Season

One of the most special days in the MLB season is that day that Pitchers and Catchers Report, which means that pitchers and catchers arrive at the place where their team holds Spring Training. Pitchers are the first to arrive so they have a few days of preparation before the rest of the team shows up.

Spring training is the pre-season of baseball. Every team has its own field in either Florida or Arizona where they gather in February for a few weeks of practice before they start playing spring training games against other teams. These games do not count and are really designed to be practice for players to get back into shape for the season and younger players to have some time playing against veteran players.

Spring training will last for about a month, at which point the regular season starts. Opening Day is the first day of regular season play, it is typically in late March. Every team plays 162 regular season games, 81 at home and 81 on the road. Typically teams will play each other three nights in a row (games usually start at 7:05pm) in order to reduce travel (for example, St. Louis and Milwaukee will play a game on June 10, 11, and 12. St. Louis will then travel to Pittsburgh for three games and Milwaukee will play San Francisco for three games). Most teams will play every day, seven days a week, but no team will play more than 20 days in a row without at least one day off.

The only break in the regular season is in mid-July, the halfway point of the season. This is a three-day break for the All-Star Game.

The regular season lasts until late September, when the playoffs begin. The winner of each division (six teams) plus two wild card teams from each league (the teams with the best record who did not win their division) advance to the playoffs. These teams will play best-of-seven game series, in which the first team to win four games advances to the next round.

Ultimately, the winner of the NL and the AL meet in the championship, which is called the World Series, sometime in October. The first team to win four games in the World Series is crowned champion… it’s not an easy thing to win though, with players having played a game almost every day for nine months.

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How the NFL Season Works

If you do not live somewhere that NFL coverage is common, it can be difficult to learn all of the different stages of the season and figure out which games are played when. Hopefully this will help you out some.

League Structure

The NFL, or the National Football League, is the highest form of professional football in the world. The League consists of 32 teams across the United States. The NFL has two conferences called the AFC and the NFC, and each conference consists of 16 teams. These conferences are fairly arbitrary and do not have anything to do with geography.

Conversely, each conference has four divisions: North, East, South, and West (so there is an AFC North and a NFC North, an AFC East and a NFC East, etc.). Because each team plays the other teams in its division most-often, this reduces the amount of travel and helps to form rivalries between neighboring cities.

You can find a map of where the teams are here.

The Season

You could say the season begins each year with the NFL Draft, in which teams choose teams from college to join their team.

A few months later, in late July teams start training camp which is a few weeks for every team to gather, learn any new plays, and practice, practice, practice. In early August teams begin to play their four pre-season games, which are games against other teams, but do not count towards their record for the season. Pre-season games allow players to get back up to speed of playing against an actual opponent and give younger players more in-game experience.

The regular season, which are the games that actually counts, starts in September. The first game of the season is usually on a Thursday night. One of the teams in the first game is the team that won the Super Bowl the year before.

The vast majority of games in the NFL are played on Sunday. Most weeks there is one game on Thursday night, one game on Sunday night, and one game on Monday night; the rest of the games are on Sunday afternoon (assuming you’re somewhere in the United States’ time zones).

The regular season lasts for 17 weeks. Every team plays 16 regular season games (eight at home and eight away) and has one week off that is called a bye week.

In order to qualify for the playoffs teams must either be the winner of their division or a wild card team—which are the top two teams from each conference that did not win their division. In total there are 12 teams—six from each conference that qualify for the playoffs.

In the first three weeks of the playoffs the teams play the other teams in their conference to determine the champion of each conference. These two teams—the AFC and NFC champions—play two weeks later in the Super Bowl, which is the championship of the NFL.

In the off week between the playoffs and the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl or the All-Star Game of the NFL is played in Honolulu, Hawaii. It is usually a high scoring game, because players do not want to hit each other too hard for risk of injury.

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Weakness of the RBI Stat

The baseball videos up to this point were designed for people who are beginners at the sport, but I have noticed that once you get to a certain point level of knowledge it does not make much sense to keep making videos that only assume a basic level of understanding.

And so here is a new video with a much quicker pace and different format, that may or may not be better. Leave a comment and let me know.

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Keeping Score: Between Innings

Keeping score of baseball games is an activity that I enjoy a great deal. It can become monotonous however, during a double-header of lopsided games that seem to take forever.

I have developed this checklist to do after every half inning. Being that it is about baseball, it unsurprisingly consists of three main steps:

  • Were there errors?
  • If yes, were there runs?
  • If yes, reconstruct inning without errors to find if runs were earned or unearned.
  • Was there a pitching change?
  • If yes, what was the score after runners he was responsible scored?
  • Check defensive players for any changes.
  • Run to the bathroom (as needed).

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Are You Out of Your Baseline!?

There was a play last night in the Cardinals-Giants game where about 8,000 things seemed to happen back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to… you get it.

One of those things is a perfect example to illustrate the oft-misunderstood “running out of the baseline” rule.

You can watch the video here.

San Fran base runner Gregor Blanco, realizing that John Jay has just made one heck of a catch turned and ran back toward first base. Jay gets up and hurls the ball toward first base where Blanco, at first glance, seems to avoid the tag attempt from first baseman Allen Craig.

Subsequent replays have shown that Craig did tag Blanco who should have been called out. But regardless of that, should Blanco have been called out anyway for being out of the baseline?

I say the rule is often misunderstood is because most people assume the “baseline” is a straight line from one base to the next and you cannot run more than three feet on either side of it. This is not the case.

Surely you have seen a batter launch a ball into the gap and take a wide turn around first base, out into the grass in foul territory. He was way beyond three feet and nobody was complaining he wasn’t in the base line.

So what’s the rule? “Any runner is out when… He runs more than three feet away from his baseline to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball. A runner’s baseline is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely…” (Rule 7.08a1, emphasis is mine).

To reemphasize, the line is not from base to base, but rather from runner to base. Also as it states, this rule applies only if a tag attempt is being made. Otherwise a runner is free to go anywhere on the field he wants. By the rule, a runner on first base could take his leadoff in right field.

Blanco’s baseline was established the moment Craig started moving toward him (essentially the same instant Craig caught the ball), and Blanco without question moved toward the outfield in an attempt to avoid the tag.

Blanco’s and ‘his baseline’ are established when Craig tries to tag him.

The call as to whether he went more than three feet is extremely close. Considering that Blanco is 5’11” it would be about three feet from the middle of his chest to the end of his fingers. After Blanco gets past Craig and is lying on the ground reaching for the base, he is unable to reach it. If the baseline was from base to base, he would clearly be out of the baseline and clearly should be called out. But again, it is not from base to base.

When Craig first started attempting to tag Blanco, Blanco was about a foot to the outfield side of the base-to-base line, meaning his baseline gives him about an extra foot of leeway on that side of the base. Which makes it an extremely difficult call to make when he slides past Craig and his outstretched arm is about a foot from first base.

Blanco is clearly outside the base-to-base line, but that is not the rule.

Like last week’s “outfield fly rule” call, this play is close enough that I can see how an argument could be made for either side. If I had to pick one or the other, though, I would say he was out of the baseline (his baseline, that is).

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Pre-Snap Movement

A great deal of football is about deception—the offense and defense will each spend the week leading up to the game planning how to best go about neutralizing the weaknesses of their opponent. The offense, in particular, will be trying to keep the defense off balance in an attempt to gain as many yards on each play as possible or even score.

Before every play the offense decides if they will run a passing or a rushing play. Every player will know which direction the running back will run or the routes run by the wide receivers. And while the action occurs and the yards are actually gained during the play—after the ball is snapped—the team must correctly be lined up before the ball is snapped to assure that they will be able to execute the play that they have designed.

The offense has three stipulations placed on them before the snap:

  1. There must be seven players on the line.
  2. All players who aren’t on the line, other than the quarterback, must be at least one yard behind the line.
  3. All players must be in bounds. (I can only imagine what a team tried to pull that that rule had to be included).

Let’s take those first two a step further, what does it mean to be on the line?

  1. The player’s shoulders must face the goal line.
  2. If he is the snapper, his whole body must be behind the line.
  3. If he is not the snapper, his helmet must break the vertical plane that passes through the belt line of the snapper.

Just like the offense is lining up in a certain formation, the defense will be too. The defense has a little more leeway as far as their formation goes, because they don’t have requirements—like the offense must have seven guys on the line—the defense’s 11 guys can stand or move or run wherever they want to. Just because they can, and often will be moving around a lot doesn’t mean they don’t know exactly who they will be covering or where they will be going during the play.

If the offense lines up and they recognize that the defense is standing in a certain way, they can call an audible (change the play). Many quarterbacks in the NFL will audible regularly, but there’s one named Peyton Manning who has become the poster child for this over the past decade or so. During the week before the game, Manning will watch the games that the other team has played (something that every player on every team will do) and he will breakdown what they did based on the positions that they were in.

So the offense will get up to the line and Peyton will look around and if he sees something that he recognizes he will audible. Obviously he can’t just yell out, “Hey we’re gonna run the ball now!” or the defense would hear him. So he’ll use different codes and signals that only the offensive players will know the meaning of and that’s how they will know what play is going to be run. Sometimes changing to a different play will require the players to move from their current formation.

For the offense, pre-snap player movement can be achieved in two ways: a Shift or Motion.

A shift allows multiple guys to move at the same time. Maybe the quarterback got up to the line and audibled so that rather than having a receiver and a tight end on one side of the field, he wanted them on the other side. He would take a step back and call out his secret code and the players would shift. After a shift the rules say that all players must come to a complete stop and be in a set position simultaneously for at least one second.

At this point, the team can snap the ball and begin the play, or they could shift again, or they could send a man in motion.

Sending a man in motion is different from a shift, while multiple players can move during a shift only one player can go in motion at a time. If a player does go in motion though, the ball can be snapped while he is still in moving. Similar to the shift, sending a man in motion would probably be moving a player from one side of the field to the other. And if a player goes in motion and stops at his new spot, another player is free to go in motion.

The only other rule about going in motion is that the player must be moving away from or parallel to the line of scrimmage—in other words he cannot get a running start, which is something you are allowed to do in Arena Football for example.

Keep in mind that a team has the play clock to worry about, so you will rarely see a lot of pre-snap movement but you will usually see some every few plays.

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