Thursday, November 25, 2010

Felix and Sabermetircs

"Sabermetrics is the analysis of baseball through objective evidence, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity rather than industry activity such as attendance."

Why is this definition important? Because it clearly lays out the focus of sabermetrics: the study of measurable game data on a player-by-player basis. The latest Cy Young Award winner, Felix Hernandez, is the poster child for sabermetrics. Although he posted the lowest win total of a Cy Young winner in a non-shortened season, with only a 13-12 record, Felix was given the award based on a number of other statistics that suggest that he was much better than a nearly .500 pitcher. In fact, there is little doubt that "King Felix" was the best American League pitcher in 2010. In the past, most pitchers needed to win a minimum of 15 games, and closer to 20 was a big advantage, to have a shot at being named the best pitcher in baseball. So, what's changed? The pervasiveness of sabermetrics has officially penetrated baseball and success on an individual basis is finally being determined by calculating individual results, not team or industry-based metrics.

Traditional statistics have long governed baseball. For pitchers, these are statistics like wins and losses, strikeouts, walks and ERA. Some of these statistics have their merits for assessing individual performance, particularly strikeouts and walks. Stats like ERA are dependant on the performance of the fielders behind the pitcher and wins and losses not only take fielding into account, but also rely on the offense to score runs. In essence, ERA, wins and losses do not show the individual effectiveness of a pitcher as accurately as other statistics.

New-wave individual statistics, generally labeled as sabermetrics (the term is derived from the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research), can isolate the pitcher from the rest of the team's performance. For instance, these statistics don't penalize the pitcher for errors made behind him or a lack of run-support from the offense. Examples of these statistics include WHIP (walks+hits/innings pitched), baBIP (batting average of balls in-play) and FIP (fielding-independent pitching). The WHIP statistic shows the pitcher's ability to keep the opponent off of the basepaths, the baBIP statistic shows how lucky or unlucky a pitcher has been when opposing hitters but the ball in play (which can artificially inflate of deflate statistics) and the FIP statistic proves how well a pitcher has performed completely independent of the play of his infielders and outfielders.

Felix Herandez did not fare as well as other pitchers in the American League in a few of the traditional categories, most notably wins and losses (13-12). While he did post great strikeout totals (232), a fantastic ERA (2.27) and pitched the most innings of any pitcher in baseball this year (249.2), he shined brightest in the new-era categories. His WHIP was excellent (1.057), while his FIP (3.07) was still very good. Mixed with the traditional statistics, the sabermetric stats only further increased Felix's case for winning the AL Cy Young.

The fact that Hernandez was voted the winner was monumental. The voters around American overlooked his negative traditional stats and instead acknowledged his positive sabermetric results. This is clearly the first major victory for "SABR-heads" on a national level. While sabermetrics have been slowly gaining acceptance amongst more and more baseball fans and writers, the outcome here is clear. Sabermetrics are here to stay and will now be a major factor in examining baseball players, not just with stat-obsessed baseball fanatics, but even in the mainstream media

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