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Baseball’s Shift to Advanced Analytics

A new era of baseball has finally arrived; Gone are the days of batting average and pitcher record. Welcome to the new age.

Let’s face it, Major League Baseball (MLB) is at an all-time low. Viewership is waning, interest has not increased at a steady pace in decades and MLB market appeal is nowhere near its contemporaries such as the National Football League or National Basketball Association. Unfortunately for baseball fans, the upcoming Collective-Bargaining Agreement (CBA) may put the league on strike, after fan turnout at games is already down. It has been a rough couple of decades for America’s greatest past-time.

But quite frankly, who cares?

Baseball in and of itself is exciting again. Lack of viewership is in no way the fault of the players or even those in suits who employ them. Baseball’s marketing failures are another topic that deserves to be touched upon, but for now, the positives outweigh the negatives of the greatest game played on the planet. Fans in the US and around the globe alike have found new love for this game through the use of advanced analytics. Specifically, the advanced statistics that give failing teams life and past behemoths death. 

When analyzing a baseball player, context is important, particularly given the hundreds of different results that can occur as a result of an official plate appearance. As a result of these plate appearances, an extremely vast array of statistics arise. The common baseball fan will know the simple stats, what we can call the “basic” statistics. Basic statistics, for the purpose of this article, will include batting average, earned run average (ERA), Runs Batted In and home runs.

While these stats do serve their purpose of giving some insight into how a player is doing on a base level, most fans and even managers give these mediocre numbers too much power over how they value players. For example, batting average is simply total hits divided by total at-bats. This number lacks context as a single, worth only one base, is weighed the same as a home run, worth four bases.

The same goes for ERA, the most common stat used to evaluate pitchers. ERA on the surface seems to suffice the need at hand, judging a pitcher on how many runs they give up. The problem with ERA, as is with batting average, is the lack of context. In the MLB, official scorekeepers decide what counts as an earned run on a subjective, play-by-play basis. This causes inconsistencies which can either make a pitcher look better or worse based on his ERA.

So, what is the solution to this not so obvious problem? Give the most context possible to player performance using statistics that isolate player performance based off of factors only the player can control, otherwise known as: Advanced Analytics.

Weighted Runs Created Plus (WRC+), Skill-Interactive Earned Run Average (SIERA) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) are the new kings of baseball analysis. These statistical formulas are far too complex to break down in this article, but they can still be accessed very easily. Essentially, each statistic minimizes potential interference from factors outside the individual player’s control.

Currently, baseball’s focus on semi-advanced stats such as On Base Percentage (OBP), Slugging Percentage (SLG) and On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS) is now mainstream. Almost every contending team has their OBP leader batting leadoff, with their rates of getting on base highest on the team, resulting in the highest likelihood of starting any given game off on the right foot.

Currently the two best teams in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, deploy offenses which feature their best hitters in order of OPS on a nightly basis. These two teams, headed by advanced stat wizards Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi, respectively, have had massive success looking beyond batting average when putting lineups together. It is with this blueprint bottom feeding teams such as the Texas Rangers and Colorado Rockies will perhaps vault themselves into contention with.

All in all, basic statistics are on their way out of baseball’s mainstream consumption. Batting average and pitcher records are dead, along with ERA and other cumulative stats who both have one foot in the grave.

As baseball ushers in a new era of stars and MLB poster-boys like Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr into the game, we should look to avoid using these outdated stats in order to determine player’s values, and in turn, move towards more reliable advanced insight into these fascinating players. 

All hail WRC+, xWOBA, SIERA and WAR.

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