The stature of baseball, our national pastime, is in decline. Television viewership is so low that regular season football games outdraw the World Series. Baseball is in need of rescuing. So, cue up the William Tell Overture. Here comes the Lone Economist on his rhetorical white steed to do his darnedest.
My plan is to introduce a new class of statistics that are not only statistically valid (unlike some traditional baseball statistics), but also heighten interest in watching the games. These posts will be rather technical and not intended for the statistically uninitiated.
I hope to someday publish a book easily understandable to the average baseball fan. For now, think of these posts as the technical appendix of that future book.
The Perspective of Baseball Statistics
A while ago I wrote about the importance of being mindful of one’s choice of perspective when analyzing the economics of the U.S. healthcare system (It’s the Perspective Stupid). Many public health experts claim they have the indisputable weight of science on their side when they compare U.S. health outcomes to those of other countries. Yet when we see that they have chosen a purely global perspective – as opposed to an individual perspective, for example – their patina of objectivity is revealed to be largely subjective, something less than pure science.
Most analysts are unaware of the choice of perspective they have made. It is one of the reasons partisan arguments rage on and on without resolution. Both sides think they are talking about the same thing when they aren’t even talking about the same plane.
The subjective and often unconscious choice of perspective affects other areas of quantitative analysis as well. Almost all baseball statistics assume the perspective of an individual player. Player statistics, like earned run average (ERA) for pitchers and on base percentage (OBP) for batters, have been standards for over a hundred years. The Sabermetrics revolution in the 1970’s greatly refined and expanded these types of measures which ultimately led to their use in the management of teams (e.g., the Moneyball phenomenon) and fantasy sports leagues.
However, the player perspective is not the only perspective one can choose. One could choose to take the spectator perspective. From the spectator’s perspective, the drama and entertainment generated during a game is from the suspense of not knowing which team will win until the end. This is what makes the game fun to watch. When the spectator anticipates that a team is about to score, interest is at its highest and maximum attention is paid. At other times, spectator attention wanes. That is why close games are more interesting than lopsided games, because even when one team is likely to score during a lopsided game, it is unlikely to make any difference in which team wins. There is little suspense in the game’s outcome. From the spectator’s perspective, the most interesting statistic is the one that predicts what will happen next, i.e. how likely is the batter going to reach base or the batting team to score.
In other sports, one doesn’t need fancy statistics to figure this out, it’s obvious. In baseball, not so much. To see what I am getting at, consider the argument that there are only two types of team sports. There is baseball and its variations like softball and cricket and then there are the goal-line sports, i.e., football, soccer, basketball, hockey, rugby, polo (regular and water), lacrosse, ultimate frisbee, and quidditch.
O.K., that last one only exists in Harry Potter novels. But their commonality is obvious. These are just variations of the same game. Each team tries to put an object in a goal on either side of a rectangular space within a fixed time limit. Anticipating when a team is likely to score is quite simple. The closer the object is to the goal, the more likely the team is going to score. Besides time, these sports are one-dimensional.
I believe this simplicity is key to the popularity of the goal-line sports. Every American football fan knows their team is likely to score when they have the ball within 20 yards of their opponent’s goal line (aka the Red-Zone). They don’t need sophisticated math skills or knowledge of complex rules to appreciate the situation.
Baseball, however, is not so simple. A baseball in play can go anywhere within the ballpark and even out of it. Scoring doesn’t depend on the location of the ball and there is no clock.
In contrast to one-dimensional goal-line sports, baseball is multi-dimensional and consequently much harder to predict. It is generally understood that the closer the runner is to home the more likely he is to score, other things the same. However, is the team more likely to score when the bases are loaded or when only third and second are occupied?
Each additional ball that the home plate umpire calls is believed to improve the batter’s chances of reaching base and each additional strike should have the opposite effect, but what is the net effect of a full count (i.e. 3 balls and 2 strikes)?
Then there are the effect modifiers, such as the innate abilities of the pitchers and batters, the proportions of the ballpark, and the size and location of the home plate umpire’s strike zone.
Only long-time students of the game are likely to have the experience and knowledge to make informed estimates of these scoring possibilities. What this series of posts provides is a systematic explanation of how to sort through all the facts, figures and formulas as well as a list of simple statistics that can be observed throughout the game to indicate when a batter is likely to reach base and when he isn’t and when a team is likely to score and when it isn’t. In short, it identifies a Red Zone for baseball.