Sabermetrics becoming popular, but not in Twins clubhouse
For as long as baseball has been around, there have been statistics to accompany the game.
Hits. Home runs. Wins. Losses. Batting average. These basic measurements of success and failure are a staple of our national pastime. They’re the numbers that the casual fans associate with the most. They’re on the backs of baseball cards and displayed prominently on scoreboards in ballparks across the country.
Yet a more sophisticated set of numbers and analysis is becoming more and more popular among fans and outside observers: sabermetrics. It’s a concept that originated in the 1980s thanks to statistician Bill James, who defined sabermetrics as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball." While this way of viewing baseball is by no means new, it has only grown since James first coined the term.
Sabermetric numbers don’t put much stock in wins, losses and batting average. Instead, measurements such as BABIP (batting average on balls in play), FIP (fielding independent pitching), UZR (ultimate zone rating) and WAR (wins above replacement) aim to tell the story. For the average fan, these numbers may still be a foreign concept. Some believe crunching the numbers to this extent take away from the joy of the game. Others simply have trouble wrapping their heads around the newer wave of statistics.
Yet there’s no denying that sabermetrics are becoming more commonplace in the game today, at least among those who watch, observe and analyze the game. But what about the players whose numbers are being analyzed?
"Obviously that’s part of the game now more than ever. I really don’t (pay attention to it) because as far as defensively, sabermetrically, anything like that, I think it’s people behind a desk trying to dictate how you play the game," said Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier. "That’s not the way the game’s been played. Nobody can see what’s inside of you.
"It’s kind of taken over the game in a way, to be honest with you. I don’t know. It’s part of the game now, so you have to listen to it."
Making sense of the numbers
There is one person inside the Twins’ clubhouse who does keep close tabs on sabermetrics. That would be closer Glen Perkins, who made his first All-Star Game last season after recording 36 saves — which isn’t a sabermetric stat, but is one that didn’t become officially tracked by Major League Baseball until 1969.
Perkins, a self-proclaimed numbers guy, started getting into sabermetrics a few years back. While he claims he doesn’t necessarily use the advanced numbers during his preparation for a game, he will view the advanced statistics to gauge how he’s pitching. He cited the fact that his ERA and FIP — which eliminates the fielding element by only examining a pitcher’s walks, home runs, hit by pitches and strikeouts — are nowhere close to each other after eight innings of work. His ERA is 4.50, while his FIP is 1.40.
"As that gets to 25 and 30 and 40 and 50 innings, if my FIP’s still at 2 something, my ERA’s going to be at 2 something eventually," Perkins said. "So it tells me that what I’ve done so far is the right things. Balls that fell are going to get caught. I think that it gives me an outlook of keep doing what I’m doing and things will even out. It keeps me sane."
There are other players on the team who call themselves math guys, but unlike Perkins, they don’t delve into sabermetrics. Chris Colabello, whose 26 RBI (by no means a sabermetric stat) leads the American League, said math was his favorite subject in school. Yet his appreciation for numbers has taught him that statistics in baseball, especially at this juncture in the season, don’t mean much — regardless of whether they’re a traditional stat or a more advanced metric.
"You start to appreciate, especially as you get older and mature more as a hitter, you start to appreciate how you go about creating the numbers," Colabello said. "People on the outside looking in want to look at, say, your batting average after a week or two in the season or whatever it is. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. It fluctuates so much. I think until you get really 250-300 at-bats under your belt, the numbers are somewhat of a representation, but they’re always small sample sizes."
Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson is in the same camp as Colabello. While he’s always been fond of math and numbers, he admits he hasn’t taken much time to learn about sabermetrics and how some of the various statistics are calculated.
Gibson also said that he felt he sometimes let numbers and scouting reports get in his way of his performance during his first year in the major leagues last season.
"I feel like last year I definitely had paralysis by analysis," Gibson said. "I looked at the numbers on sliders down and changeups away. I feel like I ended up staying away from certain parts of my repertoire just because I thought that Eric Hosmer or whoever could hit this pitch. . . . I feel like I just kind of fell into that rut and changed the way I pitched."
Putting sabermetrics to use
While Minnesota’s players may not put much stock into sabermetrics, that doesn’t mean the Twins’ front office ignores those numbers. Much of the number-crunching duties fall to Jack Goin, the team’s manager of major league administration and baseball research. Perkins said most of his conversations about sabermetrics are with Goin and video director Sean Harlin, since most of his teammates can’t relate.
Yet despite the plethora of information that can be gleaned from advanced statistics, some believe it all needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
"I put a lot of stock in a lot of different metrics — the defensive one the least," said Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony. "I believe that it started out with the zone rating. We finally had one, now we’ve got an answer. We can measure the defense. A year later, now we’ve got it improved. There’s some flaws in that one, so it’s the ultimate zone rating. Each year, it seems like that’s the one thing that’s the hardest thing to measure. The way they calculate and figure it leads me to have the least confidence in the defensive metrics than a lot of the other ones."
Antony was recently discussing his views on defensive metrics after the Twins acquired infielder Eduardo Nunez from the New York Yankees. While sabermetric stats show Nunez as a below-average defensive player, Antony and the Twins believe he’s capable of playing multiple infield positions.
In some cases, the eye test is still preferred over number crunching. In the case of Nunez, Minnesota relied on several scouts who saw him play firsthand when they decided to acquire him.
"For talent evaluators, I think if they don’t pay attention to it, they’re going to be left behind," said Twins pitcher Phil Hughes. "Players, there’s nothing you can really take from it other than give our best effort and do what we do. You can’t all of a sudden say, ‘I want to have a higher WAR.’ You have to actually go out and play well for that to happen."
The future of advanced stats in baseball
Sabermetrics are finding their way into the game more and more each year. Some television broadcasts will list at least a few advanced stats in a player’s statistics, and OPS (on-base plus slugging) can now be found on the backs of Topps baseball cards.
As fans continue to learn what the different metrics mean, it’s likely that those numbers will continue to work themselves into the mainstream media and become less of a niche or, in Perkins’ case, a hobby.
But what about the locker rooms? Will sabermetrics ever fully be embraced by the players who already have enough to worry about without focusing on their WAR or BABIP every time they step up to the plate?
"Eventually they’ll catch on," Perkins said. "I think the more information there is, the better. I don’t think anyone would argue against that. I guess people do, but I wouldn’t."
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