Count on Rate Stats, Not Counting Stats, for Player Evaluation
Anyone who reads my tweets and my baseball articles on a regular basis knows that I'm a stat-friendly baseball fan. Evaluating baseball can be a tricky endeavor, especially with so many players on so many teams playing so many games in so many places over the course of the season. Even the sharpest, keenest, most highly-trained scouting eyes can't see everything, and that's where the numbers and data are very helpful.
Of course, just as our eyes can't see everything, neither can the numbers. Evaluating baseball players and teams takes a lot of nuance and comes with a margin of error. Last week I delved into the concept of BABIP, Batting Average on Balls In Play, and I got a lot of great feedback on that. Today, I want to break down something that I think is a little more accessible for baseball fans.
As the title of the piece might've indicated, I'm talking about rate stats and counting stats. So what are they? Let's start with counting stats.
Counting stats are essentially any baseball stat that you count as a total. Home runs are a counting stat. At-bats are a counting stat. Runs batted in, runs scored, stolen bases, walks, triples, you name it. Anything that you count up as a running total is a counting stat.
Rate stats are basically anything counted as an average, or a rate. Batting average, for instance, is the most commonly known rate stat. Unlike counting stats, which add up over time, rate stats can go up or down. There's no floor. Well, I guess 0% is the floor for most rate stats. But that's basically it. Rate stats are percentages, averages and anything that can be rated in a "X per Y" type fashion. Nothing you haven't seen before.
With all due respect to The Count, who looks damn good in that Mets cap, I must say, I'm not a huge fan of primarily using counting stats to evaluate baseball players. Especially when comparing players. Counting stats aren't always going to be equal, because they lack context, for the most part.
To give an example, it's not a terribly accurate measure to say "player A hit X amount of home runs last year, so he's better than player B, who only hit Y amount of home runs last year." Same thing with RBI, stolen bases, etc.
How do I know player A didn't hit those X home runs in 600 at-bats, compared to player B's 300? Even if you clarify the sample size, with rate stats, you're setting a relatively even foundation that you can evaluate players on, and it gives you a better context of how productive these guys really are.
Batting average, for example, is a better evaluation tool than just hits, in my opinion. Slugging percentage is better than extra base hits total. And walk percentage and strikeout percentage (BB% and K%, respectively) will tell you a lot more than just the total number of walks and strikeouts a player has.
That's not to say that counting stats don't have their place. Certainly driving in 100 runs and/or hitting 30 home runs in a season is a nice thing. But it doesn't necessarily mean that a player who has a 30 HR/100 RBI season necessarily had a better season than someone who fell short of those counting stat totals.
Real world example: Catcher J.P. Arencibia hit 23, 18 and 21 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively. For a catcher, it's a serious show of power, and those 62 total home runs in that span ranks fifth among all players with catcher eligibility, (which includes Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana, two guys who have primarily become first basemen now.)
Arencibia, by that measure, is one of the better hitting catchers in baseball. 62 home runs in three seasons is impressive for any player in this day and age, not to mention from a position like catcher that does not typically feature too many strong offensive threats.
But here's the kicker. After the 2013 season, the Jays offered Arencibia in trade talks to anybody who would listen. When they couldn't find a suitor, they released him outright. Arencibia has since signed with the Texas Rangers this winter to be their backup catcher.
Why wouldn't any team want a catcher who hit 62 home runs the past three seasons? The reason, in part, is because home run total doesn't tell the whole story. The rate stats paint a much more illuminating picture.
Over the span of those three seasons, in which Arencibia combined for 62 home runs, he had a batting average of .214, with a paltry .260 on-base percentage. Making an out 74% of the time he came to the plate far outweighed his propensity to rack up a solid home run total.
Compare that to Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who hit 42 home runs over the same three-season span, but with a .285 AVG and a .338 OBP. Lucroy played 10 more games with 35 more plate appearances than Arencibia in that three-year sample, and despite hitting 20 fewer home runs, Lucroy's slugging percentage was actually higher than Arencibia's (.438 to .410) in that span, and he was a more productive offensive player.
The bottom line is that while counting stats are a nice novelty, you need to dig a little bit deeper if you're trying to measure production in a meaningful way. Ike Davis has shown you can hit 32 home runs and drive in 90 runs in a season in which he hit .227 with a .308 on-base percentage. Was that a good season? It was above-average overall, but was it truly "good," per se? Well, that's for you and your interpretation of the available data to decide.