I watch sports a lot, probably too much, but I’m really interested. I follow the teams I love the good (the Yankees, the Portland Trail Blazers, the University of Oregon Ducks football plus men’s and women’s basketball), the bad (the New York Giants, the team closest to my heart, which is probably payback karma for all the wrong turns I’ve made in my life) and the ugly (the New York Knickerbockers). I can watch sports without my hearing-aides because I understand what’s going on and I don’t need the constant nattering of most play by play announcers and their analysts. I also spend significant time reading about sports. I’ve bookmarked the sports sections of every New York paper, and regularly check out fan websites for each of my teams except the Knicks (I can only take so much). In addition, I subscribe to a daily sports newsletter, the Athletic, which does a lot of very interesting in-depth articles. I pretty much understand all that I read except when I read about baseball, the sport I have been following since I was 7 (so, for 66 years). What I’m about to discuss is not a complaint, it’s not a “we need to get back to the good old days when it was simple” whine. It’s just that in order to understand what’s being written about a sport I always thought I understood I’ve had to learn a lot about statistics that didn’t exist for most of my life.
Baseball card packs with rock-hard bubblegum
When I bought my first package of baseball cards was when I first encountered baseball stats. Besides the slice of rock-hard bubble gum, the back each card had the player’s statistics. For position players, there was batting average, home runs and runs batted in. For pitchers, it was wins, losses, winning percentage and earned run average. The only reason I was excited when I learned ratios in high school was so that I could figure out earned run averages on my own. And so, I went on thinking I knew how to determine a player’s value from his statistics until I didn’t.
The day after the Washington Nationals won the World Series, I was reading an article about the series in the Athletic. The writer was describing the Nats’ opponent, the Houston Astros. This reason for this post can be boiled down to two sentences from the article: “Their powerhouse pitching staff had an Adjusted ERA-Plus of 127. Their deep, talented offense had an adjusted OPS-Plus of 119”.
Sabermetrics – the new generation of statistics
Whaaat???? I actually had some idea, but only some, of what the writer was talking about because back in the spring I set out to learn about this new generation of baseball statistics. I didn’t understand what a hitter’s slash line was, or his WAR, or a pitcher’s WHIP or ERA+. I thought maybe I was missing out on something I should know. I bought a book and I learned about this new generation of statistics, called sabermetrics. Actually, sabermetrics started back in the ’70s but really didn’t reach the mainstream of baseball statistics until this century, I think. I’m not sure because I ignored these new-fangled stats for as long as I could before I finally caved and accepted the fact that this is the way baseball players’ effectiveness and value are now measured. And although I resisted wholeheartedly, sabermetrics really does provide some interesting analysis of players’ value.
Wins Above Replacement (WAR)
Examples abound. The ones that make the most sense to me are WAR, OPS, WHIP, and ERA+. WAR, Wins Above Replacement, charts the value of a player relative to someone who would replace him if he were injured. So, if Aaron Judge, the young Yankee slugger, goes on the injured list, and has to be replaced, how much value do the Yankees lose? Or, how many more wins is Aaron Judge worth to the Yankees that his replacement? That’s WAR.
On Base plus Slugging Percentage (OPS)
OPS is On Base plus Slugging Percentage, a statistic that was formed from two of the earlier new generation stats. On Base Percentage (OBP) measures all the times a player reaches base safely not including times he reached on errors or hits into a force play. So, it takes into account hits, walks, and being hit by a pitch (the most painful statistic, at least for the player). Slugging percentage (SP) is the number of total bases a player’s hits account for divided by his at bats. It measures a player’s ability to hit for power. I think it makes sense to look at a player’s batting average as one measure of his worth, but adding slugging percentage adds another dimension to the evaluation. OPS is the sum of OBP and SP, so it measures both a player’s ability to get on base plus his ability to hit for power. I guess that’s useful too. But is it necessary to understand this to enjoy watching a game?
Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched (WHIP)
On to pitchers. The classic measures were win-loss percentage and earned run average, the number of runs (excluding those caused by fielding errors) per nine innings that a pitcher allows. The new stat, WHIP takes a different approach. WHIP, Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched looks at a pitcher’s effectiveness in keeping batters from reaching base. The lower the WHIP, the better the pitcher is at limiting the number of batters he faces to reach base. Finally, ERA+, or Adjusted ERA+, takes a pitcher’s Earned Run Average and adjusts it based on the ballpark in which he pitches. If a pitcher pitches in a stadium whose dimensions favor hitters, his ERA+ would be lower than his ERA, and a pitcher who pitches in a ballpark that is pitcher-friendly (long distances to the outfield fences) would have a higher ERA+ than his ERA.
These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more hitting and pitching sabermetric statistics. There’s a slew of fielding saber-stats too. And there’s more-when a batter hits a ball they measure the “launch angle” of the batted ball (which determines whether the player is predominantly hitting fly balls or ground balls) and they also measure the velocity of the hit, with the understanding that the harder it’s hit, the less time fielders will have to react, making it more likely to be a hit.
Look, I could go on and on. I want to be clear though-I learned about these statistics because I want to understand what I’m reading or hearing. Someone once said, “Sports are the candy store of life” and I like candy. I’m not sold on how important these new stats are to fans but sabermetrics have become really important to baseball teams’ front offices. They utilize these statistics to help them determine which players to keep and which ones they should pursue, either through trades or signing them when they become free agents.
Me, I’m more than a casual fan, but I’m not into baseball enough to really care about next-gen stats. They really don’t help me understand the game or enjoy watching a game any more than I did. But, as an older adult who believes that lifelong learning, I’m glad I took the time to learn a little about sabermetrics. It is not going to change my life, but I’m glad to be able to understand what I read when I read about baseball. And that’s something, I guess.
– Edward from McMinnville, Oregon, a FAR customer who is finding purpose in this new stage of his life.
Edward writes for FAR and is also a customer. He is 73-year-old, born and raised in and around New York City. After college and a little graduate school, he took Horace Greeley’s advice and went west. Edward lived in several cities throughout California and currently resides in Oregon. He practiced law for a few years as part of a law collective doing what they called “people’s law,” but spent most of his career working as an internal organizer for the unions.
When Edward’s career ended with the unions, he was determined to become an advocate for older adults. He enrolled at Portland Community College studying Gerontology. He learned a lot about aging and how it applied to his own life experiences and my own aging process. Much of Edward’s writing is related to what he learned in his Gerontology studies.
* The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Finance of America Reverse (LLC).