Saber-Slant #1: Context is Everythng

Hello and welcome to Saber-Slant! My name is Michael Jong, and I’m going to be one of the contributors here at Call to the Pen alongside some of FanSided’s top baseball bloggers. While covering baseball news, transactions, and other happenings is within the purview of my other gig as lead writer of Marlin Maniac, here I’ll focus on just one thing that I enjoy about baseball: sabermetrics.

No need to fear, that word should scare anyone. I’m not going to tell you stop watching games and spend hours on spreadsheets (or at least, let me do that!). No, understanding sabermetrics does not mean you no longer are allowed to enjoy the game of baseball. Sabermetrics is the objective understanding of the game, not some joyless endeavor that sucks the life out of the game. If anything, it has helped me enjoy the game more.

I will start by making one statement that is tantamount in sabermetrics. Call it a manifesto, if you will. The next time you see statistics about a player, keep this statement in mind: context means everything.

What do I mean by that? Everyone to some degree considers the context of a play, player, or statistic. Take this simple example that every fan can appreciate: suppose there are two players with the following Triple Crown lines for the season:

Player A: 612 PA, .262 AVG, 12 HR, 64 RBI
Player B: 606 PA, .277 AVG, 15 HR, 68 RBI

Ignore the fact that Triple Crown stats are not the best indicators of performance. Given only knowing this information, which player would you presume was the better hitter? Well, Player B hit more homers, hit for a better average, and got a few more RBI, so you would presume that he was the slightly better hitter that season.

Now, what if I told you that Player A played half of his games at PETCO Park, which is the most extreme pitcher’s park in baseball (i.e. it provides the lowest run-scoring environment in baseball), while Player B played half of his games in U.S. Cellular Field, one of the better hitter’s parks in baseball? Which performance looks better now? You might be inclined to say that Player A’s performance is better, and you would probably be correct. But, knowing only those Triple Crown stats without the context that surrounded the run environment of either player, it would not be apparent to you.

(Note: By the way, Player A is Chase Headley, while Player B is Alexei Ramirez.)

Most fans are fairly familiar with the way parks can affect hitters, but context is hiding in every stat you can see in a traditional box score. Let’s look at RBI, one of the most context-heavy stats recorded, and the eyesore of sabermetricians everywhere. Look at these two players:

Player A: 643 PA, 84 RBI-HR
Player B: 644 PA, 78 RBI-HR

Consider RBI-HR as “Baserunners Driven In.” Looking at just this information, you would presume that Player A was a bit better at driving in runners than Player B. After all, even when taking away home runs, Player A drove in six more baserunners than Player B in the same playing time. This difference gets even more pronounced when we consider runs that scored on plays not considered RBI.

Player A: 91 runners scored on Player A PA (0.14 runners scored/PA)
Player B: 80 runners scored on Player B PA (0.12 runners scored/PA)

That would certainly suggest that Player A had a better season driving in runners than Player B, as you can see that he drove them in at a higher rate. But what if I told you that they both drove runners in at the same rate?

Player A: 513 runners on base for Player A PA, 18% runners scored
Player B: 440 runners on base for Player B PA, 18% runners scored

Those extra 11 runners that came home were strictly a result of having 73 more runners on base during Player A’s PA than Player B had during his PA. This gives us reasoning for the discrepancy in runners driven in.

(Note: Player A was Jorge Cantu and Player B was Brandon Phillips)

This is part of the reason why sabermetricians abhor RBI as an evaluative tool. So much of the RBI total is dependent upon the number of baserunners you have when you come up to the plate, and that is dependent on your teammates’ abilities to get on base, not your prowess as a hitter. RBI is as context-driven a stat as you can find, and not understanding the context is how you get things such as Juan Gonzalez winning the MVP in 1998 over Alex Rodriguez or Justin Morneau winning in 2006 over Joe Mauer or Derek Jeter (there were more issues than just that, but that was one of them).

If your goal is to evaluate performance, the creed of “context is everything” is important to keep in mind. The field of sabermetrics has worked to develop ways to evaluate a player’s or team’s performance in its context and, when appropriate, remove that context and “level the playing field” to compare that performance to others. In fact, sabermetrics has always been in part about understanding the underlying context of everything that happens in baseball. In future Saber-Slants, we’ll talk about those evaluative tools and how they are used, but if there is one thing you can take away for now, it’s that context plays a role in every player’s stat line and every team’s record, and comparing players and teams without speaking to that context can miss important information.

Topics: Alexei Ramirez, Brandon Phillips, Chase Headley, Context, Jorge Cantu

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