Counting Stats and Stats That Count

It wasn’t that long ago that baseball’s advanced metrics adherents would tell you that top-flight defense was not hugely important and that players regarded as elite defenders were not worth big salary investments, at least not on that basis.

Then, as sabermetrics gave rise to new methods for evaluating defense, that viewpoint took a 180-degree turn, landing us now in autumn 2014, when a Kansas City Royals team featuring astonishingly good defense in the outfield (and also at catcher) nearly won the World Series. As the offseason gets underway, the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals have made headlines with a multi-player trade in which the principles going in each direction are outfielder Jason Heyward and starting pitcher Shelby Miller.

In essence (and looking beyond the other players involved in the deal, hard-throwing reliever Jordan Walden to St. Louis and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins to Atlanta), the Cardinals decided to give up a 24-year-old, durable, cost-controlled starting pitcher for an outfielder once regarded as the top prospect in the game. Today, Heyward is a player of ordinary offensive production, but an absolute standout, maybe even a game-changer, on defense. And the Cardinals are being hailed for making a trade that I suspect would have brought them ridicule about six or seven years ago.

Neither “All-In” Nor Completely Dismissive

Let me step back a minute to explain my own perspective, or bias if you prefer. I like to say I stand in a middle ground in today’s baseball debate. I was pretty much horrified by what I read in “Moneyball” about a decade ago. I’ve long held a high opinion of author Michael Lewis and have enjoyed his writings on the worlds of business and politics, but here I perceived a baseball dilettante latching onto the “next big thing”. Sometimes, with the “next big thing” you get Nirvana, other times you get the Squirrel Nut Zippers. (I apologize for the dated cultural reference, but I was a child of the ‘70s and ‘80s, not the aughts.)

I saw “Moneyball” as presenting less a new perspective on baseball, management and player evaluation and more a cult of personality built around Billy Beane, adored by those who enjoyed deriding an older generation of scouts who did themselves no favors by writing reports focused on players’ jawlines or how pretty their girlfriends were. These men nonetheless still unearthed many excellent prospects, some of whom became quality major leaguers, by virtue of long hours of hard work. To me, their ridicule was just another iteration of the “cool kids” lampooning the “uncool” and I wanted no part of it.

(Full disclosure: I never finished reading “Moneyball” – it still sits on my bookshelf and I have always meant to return to it. But I felt confident I could safely put it down once a huge contradiction revealed itself – Billy Beane swore off evaluations based on anecdotal evidence, due largely to how wrong the scouts had been about Billy Beane, the baseball prospect. In other words, Beane decided to ignore anecdotal evidence … based on very personal anecdotal evidence.)

As luck would have it, though, I’m also a lifelong fan of the Philadelphia Phillies. I was there (well, in front of the TV) for Black Friday and Oct. 21, 1980, for the Wheeze Kids and then 23 seasons interrupted only by the brief emergence of Macho Row, and then the glory years of 2007-2011. Now, we are in the winter of that 2007-2011 joyride, or as some might put it, the Phillies have returned to their default position of ineptitude and irrelevance.

If that’s true, and it seems to be for at least the short-term (not 23 years again, please), one reason probably is that GM Ruben Amaro and the Phillies’ front office decided to wage philosophical war against “Moneyball” and advanced metrics.

Baseball Management Is Not a Philosophical Debate

That’s not the resistance I had in mind. While I disliked the tone of “Moneyball” (exemplified in the movie by the casting of an overweight actor to play the role of always-trim Art Howe), I didn’t want the team I supported to completely disregard potentially useful methods for evaluating talent, drafting amateur players and making contract decisions. As I have said repeatedly since Phillies execs began mouthing anti-sabermetric rhetoric, it is self-defeating not to use every tool available to you in doing your job.

My disgust at the Phillies’ attitude led me to re-evaluate some of my views on advanced metrics. Today, I’m at a place where I certainly value the more commonly used metrics such as OPS. I like to think I appreciated the value of pitching stats such as WHIP and strikeout ratio, as opposed to win/loss record or saves, even before it was “cool” to do so. One area where I remain a big skeptic, however, is WAR or wins above replacement.

To be fair, it’s hard to look at WAR as a universal metric because different sources use different formulas – some, like Baseball Prospectus, even use a different terminology, WARP, in trying to elucidate pretty much the same distinction: what is “player A” worth in terms of wins compared to the basic “replacement player.” (Let’s leave alone for now the question of what exactly a replacement player is and how his contributions to team performance are measured.)

Jason Heyward, to me, is a player who provides great grist for anti-WAR (what is it good for?) sentiment. FanGraphs.com lists Heyward as posting the 35th best WAR in all of the major leagues this past season, 5.1. And that rating and ranking are both lower than you’ll find for Heyward at other places like Baseball Prospectus or ESPN.com. On the basis of advanced metrics, Jason Heyward is considered one of the best all-around players in the game.

Excuse me for resorting to so-called “counting stats,” but Heyward posted 11 home runs, 58 rbi, 74 runs scored, 50 extra-base hits (including those 11 homers) and 20 steals over the course of 149 games in 2014. Even in an era where such counting stats are disregarded as virtually meaningless, wouldn’t you expect more from the 35th best player in the major leagues? (To try to be fair to both sides, as someone who probably will never be convinced to totally discount stats like homers and rbis, I must admit that Ryan Howard, who finished 4th in the National League this past season with 95 rbi, has unwittingly provided maybe the best argument ever against “counting stats.”)

Heyward’s OPS was an unspectacular .735, although that needs to be viewed in the context of a down year for offense throughout the majors. But Heyward gets major mileage in WAR rankings because he is revealed by analytics to be an elite defender, with great range. Never mind that he plays right field and did so in Turner Field, not one of the more expansive or difficult outfield assignments in baseball.

What Is The Value of Outfield Defense?

I’m not questioning whether Heyward is a great defensive player. I am debating whether elite defense in right field by a player who played his home games in a venue that does not offer the kind of complications that, say, right field in San Francisco’s AT&T Park or any outfield position in Denver’s Coors Field could present is all that important, especially given Heyward’s middling offensive output. Other than his .351 on-base percentage, again not spectacular but quite good in the context of 2014, nothing he does offensively really jumps out at you. When Heyward was being hailed as a nascent superstar in 2010 (a reputation cemented by an opening day home run), I doubt his partisans were expecting one season with 20 or more homers or 80 or more rbi in his first five big league campaigns.

But I have taken to my keyboard today neither to bury nor praise Jason Heyward. My real concern is the Phillies. Because regardless of what I think of Heyward individually, I do consider the Cardinals and the Braves as two organizations that “get it.” And if the Cardinals think Heyward, a potential free agent after 2015, is worth sacrificing the upside and possible long-term output of Shelby Miller, I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt that this position is well thought out and researched.

And that leaves us with the Phillies, who in an era of increased emphasis on outfield defense, are going into next season (for now at least) with an outfield composed of Domonic Brown (-1.4 WAR in 2014), Ben Revere (0.6), Grady Sizemore (0.3) and Marlon Byrd (2.6) (those stats are courtesy of ESPN.com). Try as I might, I could not find broken-out defensive WAR ratings for 2014 for the Phillies primary four outfielders, but I have no doubt they are not impressive.

In doing my search, I found one rating that listed Brown as an even worse defensive player than Ryan Howard (although comparing an outfielder to a first baseman is apples versus oranges). I now pause to let you shudder for a minute.

I like Marlon Byrd a lot, am sympathetic to the desire he expressed to end his career as a Phillie and only want the Phillies to trade him if they get a premium return. Overall, I think Byrd is a more than adequate right fielder in all respects, including defense, although I understand that even in his case the defensive metrics for 2014 were not all that good.

I like Ben Revere the person a lot and wish there was some way the Phillies could maximize his strengths (range, speed, hitting for average) and minimize his weaknesses (fly ball judgment, throwing, on-base average, power) but a 162-game season does not allow that. Sizemore, I think, is a perfectly respectable 4th outfielder who can still get the job done at any of the three outfield spots on a part-time basis.

Then, there is Brown. The conventional wisdom there is that a Phillies team highly likely to finish last in 2015 has nothing to gain by “selling low” on Domonic Brown – that therefore they may as well run him out there next year and see if he can replicate his offensive performance from 2013 or at least come a lot closer than he did last year. It’s a logical argument. It’s also one that, as a fan with all the emotional baggage that comes with it, I just cannot resign myself to.

Even if there are solid valuation arguments for giving Brown yet another chance in 2015, doesn’t the primacy of outfield defense in the present-day game provide yet another reason why the Phillies should move on here? Brown, quite honestly, looked like a little leaguer in left field many times last year – and not a good little leaguer at that.

With Revere’s limitations in center and the way that age (and injury) have diminished the defensive proficiency of Byrd and Sizemore, can the Phillies really afford Brown’s atrocious defense while pursuing (fruitlessly, I suspect) the mirage of his 2013 power surge?

I think the answer is no. Among other things, the Phillies 2015 season probably will be about evaluating some young starting pitchers and I’d just as soon give them a fighting chance by putting at least an adequate defense out there behind them. To me, that necessitates moving on from Domonic Brown (and also Ryan Howard).

(Note: The author is not actually Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, nor purporting to be him.)

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