In the 1950s, when Topps became the leading baseball card company, card-collecting gained popularity among kids. The cards were interesting to look at and easy to understand.
Among their main draws were the stats on the card’s back. By quantifying a player’s performance they strengthened our connection to the game.
Henry Louis Aaron’s 1954 Topps card, his rookie card, contained the following column headings: Games, At Bat, Runs, Hits, Doubles, Triples, Home Runs (H.R.), Runs Batted In (R.B.I.), Batting Average (B. Avg.), plus Putouts (P.O.), Assists, Errors, and Fielding Average (F. Avg.) Given that it is his rookie card, the numbers are for his minor league play.
Only two calculations were required, one for batting average, the other for fielding average. Both calculations were easy for kids to do and all the card’s were easy to embed in arguments with friends about who was the better player.
That’s no longer the case.
Here are the statistics on Mike Trout’s 2020 Topps card.
MAJOR LEAGUE BATTING RECORD
LEAGUE LEADER IN ITALICS. TIE*
H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SLG OPS AVG WAR
Notice the absence of the three fielding stats and the additions of SB, BB, SLG, OPS, and WAR. Two of those stats are new to this era: OPS and WAR.
If you are unfamiliar with OPS or WAR or want to learn more about them, a good starting point is Anthony Castrovince’s book, A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics. Subtitled “Why WAR, WHIP, wOBA, and Other Advanced Sabermetrics Are Essential to Understanding Modern Baseball.” Castrovince dives deep into its statistical subjects without making readers want to run for a hyperbaric chamber to replace the oxygen that the effort required to progress through the content.
Here is a taste of what Castrovince has to say about OPS, which is the combination of On-Base Percentage (OBP) and Slugging Percentage (SLG):
OPS tells us how well a player gets on base and how well he hits for power. Now, while it has some major flaws in relaying that information (we’ll get into those in just a sec), it’s still a major step forward from batting average and RBIs. (57)
To understand OPS, you need to know about both SLG and OBP. SLG has been available for years, but OBP has yet to show any gray hairs. SLG is a hitter’s total bases divided by at bats, where total bases is the sum of a batter’s hits + doubles + triples (times 2) + home runs (times 3). The OPS calculation is a bit more complex, but it involves just addition and division.
OBP = Hits + Walks + Hit By Pitch / At Bats + Walks + Hit By Pitch + Sac FliesSource: A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics, p. 43
In a nutshell, OBP reveals how often a batter got on base from a hit, walk, or hit by pitch. Further, for each statistic, Castrovince introduces it by sharing this information:
- What it is
- What it is not
- How it is calculated
- [Gives an] [e]xample
- Why it matters
- Where you can find it
Back to OPS: The highest OPS since 1884, according to stathead.com, for batters appearing in at least 100 games is Barry Bonds’ 1.422. In fact, two of the top three spots belong solely to Bonds. However, because Bond’s substance abuse issues affect the credibility of his numbers, I consider the OPS of the player who tied Bonds for third to be more valid.
In 1920, in his debut season as a Yankee, Babe Ruth’s OPS of 1.379 matched Bonds’ third-best, but the Babe did it in 11 fewer games. Further, Ruth’s career OPS of 1.164 is MLB’s best: Bonds is in fourth place with 1.051 behind both Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig.
The book does not begin, fortunately, with the latest stats. Instead, it starts with discussions of baseball’s old-timers: batting average and RBIs. After pushing both of them off the top of the baseball mountain where both had reigned for years, Castrovince attacks one of America’s most cherished words: “win” in the chapter “WINNING ISN’T EVERYTHING.” I knew that — but not what its subtitle stated: “How the Win Came to Be Baseball’s Most Deceptive Pitching Stat.”
America had brainwashed me into believing that “winning is everything,” starting with my last Little League manager, who pulled me from a game because I had tried to stretch a double into a triple — and failed. As I slid into the bag, the third baseman’s gloved hand was waiting for me, the ball I had socked down the third-base line locked in leather.
Though it was not a game-changing play, it was a life-changing one. The manager, who also coached third base, removed me from the lineup because I had failed to see his efforts to get me to stay at second base. What worsened my embarrassment was that game was the only one in which my father was able to see me play. He and I left before the game ended, which my team won.
Though my team, the Fairyland Flyers — sponsored by a small amusement park — won the League’s championship that season, each player rewarded with a plastic trophy and the opportunity to get sick for free on the park’s rides, the most significant lesson I learned is that how you play a game is much less important than winning the game.
You can be a loser even in a game your team wins.
The win stat has lost even more.
Castrovince states, “The win stat died—effectively if not officially—on November 14, 2018.” That was the day that Jacob deGrom, the Mets best pitcher since Tom Seaver, won the National League Cy Young Award though for that season he won only 10 games. Before then, no starter with fewer than 18 wins ever won the award in either league.
Castrovince does a decent job arguing that the win stat does not deserve its long-held reputation, labeling the stat as fatuous. His conclusion: “it is far too unreliable to be taken seriously.”
Was I convinced that it is “far too unreliable”? No. I am convinced that the win stat is not as reliable an indicator of a pitcher’s skill as I was before I read Castrovince’s thoughts about it.
In conclusion, his book’s content increased my knowledge about baseball stats, both old and new. His writing style is readable, his expertise is evident — he writes for MLB.com, and his anecdotes and examples are well chosen.
The book now serves as one of my go-to resources about baseball statistics. Though it does not discuss every stat — one of my favorites, RE24, is not mentioned, it gives enough information about the ones it covers to justify its acquistion.
Updated: June 12, 2020
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