Postseason Baseball

It is that time of year when I awake from my sporting slumber and begin paying close attention to the telly. I admit to being a fair weather baseball fan, with a love for the game but a lack of patience for the 162-game season. I’ve come to see the season as statistics, and the things that happen in individual games as noise – or at least, a difficult environment to pick signal out of noise, especially with the inane baseball minds trying to explain it to me over the television as we go.

My case in point is the strange story of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, the two superstars on the left side of the New York Yankee infield. Both are terrific ballplayers, but there has been a consistent story line in the sporting press this year, repeated in the Fox pregame show, about Rodriguez’s struggles at the plate as contrasted with Jeter’s brilliant batting season.

If one looks at the number most coveted by baseball announcers – the batting average – one would have to agree. Jeter hit .343, nearly leading the league, while Rodriguez struggled with a .290 batting average. That’s still better than the typical ballplayer, but less than Rodriguez’s career numbers. More importantly, Rodriguez only hit 35 home runs. For most ballplayers, that would be a career season, but for Alex Rodriguez it’s sub-par numbers.

Now, I’m not a serious baseball stathead, but I’ve learned that, as an actual measure of a baseball player’s offensive performance, batting average is a poor indicator. It misses a couple of things. The first is walks, which contribute to a team’s offensive performance but are not reflected in a player’s batting average. (The reason is some visceral feeling that reaching base without whacking the ball is unmanly, I think.) Including walks gives the on base percentage (OBP), much loved by statheads and celebrated in Michael Lewis’s wonderful book Moneyball. Jeter’s OBP was .417, Rodriguez’s was .392, closing the gap quite a bit.

The statheads also like a statistical invention called “slugging percentage” (SLP), which sums up total bases and divides by at bats (so a single is worth one, a double worth two, etc). This is viewed as superior to batting average because it places higher value on multi-base hits. Which obviously are of higher value. Jeter: .483. Rodriguez: .523.

To really get fancy, though, the statheads particularly like an artificial construct called “OPS,” which is the sum of SLP and OBP. It’s virtue is that, statistically, it’s a better predictor of a team’s total offense than batting average, slugging or on base percentage.

Jeter’s OPS this year was .900. Alex Rodriguez’s was .915. You can play around with the numbers here, refining the stats in a number of ways (providing, for example, greater weight to OBP, as my smart baseball friend Dan suggests). But the bottom line is that, if we abandon our beloved but misleading batting average measure, Alex Rodriguez had as good a year at the plate as Derek Jeter.

It’s worth noting that I had this worked out before Jeter went five-for-five tonight with ten total bases while Rodriguez went one for four. But that’s the noise I was talking about.

One Comment

  1. You also have to look at where they are hitting in the lineup John. A-rod may or may not have anyone hitting behind him that day, whereas Jeter always does, so Jeter is going to get something to hit; the fact that he has that average hitting that high in the lineup is something right there.

    Nonetheless, IMHO Jeter is having a way better year overall & I’d take either one on my team any day, but I’ll pick Jeter first every time – he’s a winner (I was a P & CF until ~7 years ago & played baseball all my life until then).



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