Monday, April 25, 2011

Nix the E

Let's talk baseball. Let's talk about stats. Take the following from the Wikipedia article about the E.

[F]ans and analysts have questioned the usefulness and significance of errors as a metric for fielding skill. Notably, mental misjudgments, such as failure to cover a base or attempting a force out when such a play is not available, are not considered errors.

A more subtle, though more significant objection to the error, as sabermetricians have noted, is more conceptual—in order for a fielder to be charged with an error, he must have done something right by being in the correct place to be able to attempt the play. A poor fielder may “avoid” many errors simply by being unable to reach batted or thrown balls that a better fielder could successfully reach. Thus, it is possible that a poor fielder will have fewer errors than an otherwise better fielder.

The above is not an objection to the E—it's a criticism of it. I object to the E altogether. The E shouldn't be an official stat in baseball. Baseball stats ought to be free of human judgment save the on-the-field calls made by the umpires.

There are two facets to the E: defensive and offensive. Defensively, it's widely believed that the E is a poor stat to compare fielders with, as the Wikipedia article points out. To compare fielders meaningfully, we must either use a new stat—like UZR—or resort to gut instinct—as most of us do anyway.

Offensively, the E affects batting average. It's a shame that a batter is penalized for what a fielder does just because the fielder does something irregular. The whole game is irregular.

If a batter reaches first base safely on a routine ground ball to the shortstop, then that batter is lucky. But if one batter is consistently luckier than another batter, then batting average should reflect that, not try to ignore it. For example, if a batter runs fast and the shortstop knows the batter runs fast, then maybe the shortstop bobbled the ball because he rushed. Credit the batter with a H.

There are better offensive stats than batting average, so let's keep batting average the dumb stat that it is. Limit mucking with the AB and H to objectively measured cases like fielder's choice and the sacrifice fly. Again, only umpires should make official subjective judgments.

Of course, one consequence of eliminating the E is that we must eliminate ERA, too. But if we eliminate the ERA then how do we distinguish between bad pitching and unlucky pitching?

We can't and we don't need to. Eliminating ERA is far from problematic—it's downright good. Far too long the pitcher has been off the hook for what the fielders around him do. Pitchers create their own luck—at least over the long term. A pitcher who incessantly nibbles around the corners of the plate and tries to deftly strike out each batter is probably going to have less alert—and thus sloppier—fielders than a pitcher who challenges each hitter to put the ball in play. Ditto for pitchers who take an extra rub of the rosin bag and dawdle around the rubber between pitches—they should be punished for boring their teammates. Replace ERA with RA and make pitchers accountable for everything going on on the field. This is already accepted practice with the W–L stat.

I don't expect the E to go away in my lifetime. Neither do I expect our country to do the right thing and amend the Constitution to outlaw the designated hitter. I respect and love baseball's adherence to tradition—even when that means keeping the warts. It's worth it. Tradition keeps the Cubs out of the World Series every year. And tradition allows fans to criticize the E.

2 comments:

Chad said...

"Credit the batter with a H."
That's just awesome. I didn't know you were a baseball fan. Apparently you are one hell of a baseball fan.

cmbrandenburg said...

IronChad— Thanks, but I'm just an ordinary fan. My baseball experience is limited to: (1) having played a few years of Little League; (2) having collected baseball cards in the late 80s–early 90s, at the peak of national baseball card collecting mania; and (3) having been an on-again, off-again fan since the late 80s.

The `94 strike killed baseball for me. The McGwire–Sosa home run chase of `98 distracted me a little from hating baseball, but I didn't return to baseball in full until I discovered Milo Hamilton and Alan Ashby's voices on AM in San Antonio covering the Astros games. The Astros had a lot of great years in the early aughts. But I've paid almost no attention to MLB since Craig Biggio retired in `07, and I've never really gotten over the 'stros firing Dierker.