Cubs Convention LIVE: Stats Sunday with WGN
Last one of the 2013 Cubs Convention: Len Kasper, Jim Deshaies and Bob Vorwald of WGN talking about some more meaningful statistics that they’ve introduced to their broadcasts. Here we go!
10:32 Deshaies, the Cubs’ new TV color commentator, saw the transition to advanced stats when he was with Houston, as they overhauled their front office under GM Jeff Luhnow. He’s a believer in the kind of impact they can make on a team.
Kasper talks about how some statistics can be misleading, specifically citing Rob Deer who had great on-base percentages despite high strikeout totals and low batting averages. He compares him once again to Adam Dunn and says that, if Deer were to play today, he’d probably have been valued much more.
10:35 Vorwald brings up former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who passed away yesterday. He was ahead of his time in many ways, preaching a philosophy of preserving outs and taking bases. Known to be more about three-run homers than small ball, Weaver understood how outs were a team’s most precious resource.
10:36 Vorwald introduces the so-called “baseball card stats”: home runs, runs batted in, batting average. They’re important to fans and not going anywhere, but Kasper emphasizes that RBIs are a function of opportunities. Deshaies says that he doesn’t want to diminish a guy who gets 100 RBIs—that probably means he had a good year regardless—but that it tends to be overvalued. “If you’re hitting in the middle of the order, you’re probably a pretty good guy to begin with. But you have to separate the good from the very good [by looking at some more meaningful numbers].”
10:40 The WGN guys want you to get acquainted with “slash stats”—batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage. OBP describes how often a guy does (and doesn’t) make an out, while slugging includes value for extra-base hits. And, importantly, you want to compare a guy’s numbers to the big league average or, for instance, other leadoff hitters, etc.
10:42 An interesting slide compares the league averages from 2000 and 2012: AVG has dropped from .270 to .255, SLG from .437 to .405, ERA from 4.76 to 4.01.
10:46 Now to pitching: wins and saves are misleading. Take an example pitcher who went from 11-6 in 1987 to 11-15 in 1988. But his ERA dropped from 4.62 to 3.00. The cause of the worse record? Largely run support, which dropped from 5.33 to 3.09 runs per nine.
Who was that pitcher? Jim Deshaies. “I was lucky in ’87 and paid for it in ’88,” he quips.
10:49 WHIP, which is walks plus hits per inning pitched, is a telling statistic, as it approximates how many base runners a pitcher allows. Vorwald does add the caveat that it doesn’t reward guys who are able to pitch out of jams, get double plays or other things. Kasper calls it a “quick and dirty stat” for how a pitcher is doing in a particular year.
10:50 Uh oh, has WGN jumped the shark? Here they display the formula for Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, which looks only at home runs, unintentional walks (and HBP) and strikeouts. We’ll spare you the exact formula, but it’s been found that this stat can have informative more predictive of future performance. Kasper emphasizes that this is because the statistic specifically looks only at things the defense has no part in. So it’s only part of the picture—and that’s known—but it can tell you some things that ERA does not.
10:53 BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, measures the number of batted balls that fall safely for a hit. Kasper talks about how a player’s BABIP can have some luck involved. Faster players do have higher BABIPs on average, but otherwise, looking at how a players BABIP compares to average (either the league’s or his career’s) can give an indication if a player’s batting average has been inflated or deflated because of luck.
10:56 “Your head hurting yet?” jokes Kasper. He and Deshaies emphasize that they won’t load up their broadcasts with advanced stats but that they want to introduce and walk people through them. It will inform their analysis.
10:58 Big shout-out to the WGN guys for a great, clear Powerpoint presentation, which is laying out league leaders in each category and displaying concise descriptions of statistics.
10:59 How about OPS+, which is on-base plus slugging percentage that has been adjusted for league and ballpark? That’s something that gives context to a player’s performance versus his peers. Same with ERA+.
11:00 The defensive side gets some attention, specifically Ultimate Zone Rating. That statistic works with granular data on where and how hard balls are hit—comparing a fielder’s actual outs made versus his “expected” outs. It’s all converted to how many runs a player “saved,” positive or negative.
Kasper emphasizes that it’s about taking what you see/feel and then checking if the numbers back it up. With Darwin Barney last season, he visibly was a fantastic fielder. All the advanced fielding statistics backed up that he was the best second baseman in the league. Alfonso Soriano was another one that Kasper—and the stats—backed for his huge improvements last year in left field. Soriano wasn’t the best in the league, but he was above average according to both the eye and stat tests.
11:03 Deshaies is well aware of the pitch/hit/field tracking capabilities out there in the big leagues. Pitch velocity and movement, angle and velocity off the bat, and others are all being recorded, with much of the data only available to teams. But it’s out there.
11:06 And a lot of information can be used for defensive positioning, points out Deshaies. We saw this with Dale Sveum’s staff last year—the Cubs started using the shifts, both subtle and big. That’s the product of analysis in the front office as well as interpretation and implementation in the dugout.
11:07 We have a Tom Skilling shout-out! And it’s from Deshaies, the new guy! “If Tom Skilling tells you there’s a 90 percent chance of rain, you’re going to bring an umbrella.” He says that to emphasize Kasper’s point that defensive shifts don’t always work, but they’re implemented when a player hits to a certain spot the vast majority of the time.
11:09 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) attempts to combine a player’s offensive and defensive value and a pitcher’s overall value—and then turns it into wins above a conceptual “replacement player.” Again, it’s not perfect—generally no single number is. But it does give context to how valuable a player’s performance has been in total.
11:10 Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera, the 2012 MVP title bout, is being parsed out. Because of Trout’s baserunning and defense, he gets a three-win edge in the stat vs. Cabrera. Both had tremendous years, and Cabrera had the Triple Crown, but Trout’s complete picture makes a case that he should have won.
Kasper informally polled Cubs players, and his sample unanimously said that Cabrera deserved it. Many players backed up what Scott Feldman said: Cabrera is the guy you don’t want to face with the game on the line. Deshaies says that’s a valid point, but the counterargument is that every game and at-bat matters for a player’s value.
11:15 A quick dovetail to how this stuff can play into Hall of Fame consideration, and we’re into questions.
11:17 A fan asks about the right player for the leadoff spot. He points out how David DeJesus has gained favor for that role despite possessing more average speed than often seen at the top of a lineup. Deshaies says you prefer to have speed AND on-base ability—”We’d all like to have Ricky Henderson”—but that he’d rather take the guy who gets on base.
Deshaies gives a great insight into those conversations between a player and coach (manager or third base coach): He says often times a player isn’t thinking along with the coaching staff about who’s following him in the order or the approach needed for a particular situation. So they may instruct a guy to hack with the pitcher on deck (Deshaies in particular) or that a guy needs to take a strike and try to get on base.
11:20 Quick discussion at looking at players statistically during the so-called “Steroid Era.” Deshaies says he wrapped up his career right as that took over, but there are two opposing arguments can be made: If everyone was doing it, then the playing field was, essentially, level for the purposes of statistics. But he says that can get you in a rut—he’s sure not everyone was doing it, and it’s very difficult to project who did or what someone would have done.
11:23 Kasper points out that Theo Epstein always talks about how the Tampa Bay Rays, as a small-market team, basically can’t look at a chunk of the free-agent market, so they have to look for undervalued players (such as strong fielders with weaker bats). But the Cubs have the resources to take the right fit and look at the more complete picture, fielding and offense included, for instance.
11:26 A young fan asks a great question about why on-base percentage doesn’t credit a player for reaching on error. Kasper says that it’s a good point—the rationale is that a player shouldn’t have reached base. And that wades into a more philosophical discussion. Sacrifice flies are included as well, while sac bunts are not. The reason there being that in most cases a manager is responsible for the latter, while a player is trying to get a hit in the former.
11:28 What should you look at for the newest Cubs? Nate Schierholtz’s on-base percentage, Scott Baker’s walk rate and ability to keep the ball in the park (especially as a rate of his fly balls), Edwin Jackson’s swing-and-miss percentage on sliders.
Deshaies also gives great insight by mentioning that teams are doing biomechanical analysis on pitchers now. He says this was the case for the Astros (as it is, to an unknown extent, with the Cubs).
11:31 The panel jokes about run expectancy, which describes the average runs scored in certain base/out situations. It’s telling stuff, though they say that it can be a bit “too geeky, even for us.” Kasper quips, “After three innings, it’s the Cubs 2.7….”
And that’s a wrap, of the panel and the 2013 Cubs Convention! Lots of takeaways overall, but the one here is that you are going to LOVE this broadcast team.