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JaCoby Jones, Mike Trout, Sabermetrics, and You

How Jones' OBP and Mike Trout's defense gives us greater understanding of the game

Best defensive player ever!
Best defensive player ever!

Last week, the mothership pondered the question whether advanced stats are good for the game. I sat the conversation out because there's nothing I find more boring than continuing to fight the battle between the false dichotomy of old school fans and new school stat geeks. We've been having this conversation for twenty years, and I think we all know everyone's position on the matter.

But the answer to the question is obviously "yes". Because what's wrong with one more way to watch the game? If you hate advanced stats and think that every game is a match up between who digs deep and tries harder, well, here's the thing... you can still watch the game that way. Literally nothing is stopping you.

It takes different strokes to move the world, and there's room for all of us. And let's be honest, most of us are not extremists on this. We like a little bit of everything. I like my advanced stats to give me a better idea of player value, but I like watching heart and hustle as well. I don't think I'm alone in being comfortable with both narratives, or even more.

Which brings me to JaCoby Jones.

Jones is hitting .213 right now, and there are whispers of the dreaded "slump" word. He's made some good contact, but it seems he is falling victim to the classic hitter's problem - he ain't hitting it where they ain't. And LSU fans are rightly worried that one of their key bats isn't pulling his weight in the lineup.

Well, I'm here to tell you it's not a big deal, and you already know it's not a big deal. Behind every fancy schmancy stat that's been invented over the past 30 years, there are some simple concepts that, frankly, even the most grizzled anti-fancy numbers scout agrees with. The biggest concept is this: don't make outs.

This isn't even Bill James talking, that's Earl Weaver. Earl Weaver's fourth law of baseball is "Your most precious possessions on offense are your twenty-seven outs." The reason is simple if you spend a minute thinking about it: outs are the clock. There's no time limit in baseball, but there is an out limit. Not getting out not only puts a man on base who can score, it also lengthens the time you get to hit. And Jones is doing just fine getting on base. His .424 OBP isn't earth-shattering, but it is respectable.

Put another way, 42.4% of the time, Jones has successful plate appearance by simply not getting out. Oh, and he's stolen 8 bases, hit 2 home runs, and has a sac fly. Let's lay off on the guy. He's not playing like a superstar, but we don't need him to be a superstar. Jones is pulling his weight, and hopefully, the hits will come. As long as he keeps getting on, he's helping the ball club.

See? We're able to talk about "advanced metrics" and the like without getting bogged down in fights about my mom's basement. I don't have to tell you that you're stupid for looking at batting average, and you don't have to get all defensive and say I never watch the games. We both watch the games. We all love baseball. The world of fandom is better because we have more tools in our toolbelt. What's wrong with options?

And honestly, I'm a bit of a traitor to my stathead brethren. I'll be honest, I like simple concepts and simple calculations. I'm not in it for the math. I don't know Alex Box's park factor, nor will I bother to calculate it (though it would be awesome if someone would). I just know it's a really small park that encourages offense. I don't need the numerical value, I just need the concept of Park Factors.

I rather like that the college game gets to use the concepts without getting bogged down in the numbers. Because it is the concepts that are the important part. Don't make outs. Pitchers have little control over whether a batted ball in play becomes a hit or not, that's what we call defense. Parks influence scoring. These are not incredibly difficult concepts to grasp. And if you don't buy into these concepts, then fine. We can still talk baseball. We're at least speaking the same language.

Baseball analytics have left me a bit in the dust recently because they have become obsessed with what I like to call the One True Number. It's like statheads are becoming Gollum, stuck in a cave and stroking their Precious, Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Reducing a player's total contributions to one numerical value strikes me as contrary to the whole purpose of advanced metrics. I like the slash lines of AVG/OBP/SLG because it gives us a well-rounded picture of a player in a simple and easy to understand stat line. It tells me something.

On the other hand, seeing a guy has a WAR of 3.4 tells me nothing. Is he a speedster? Does he have power? Does he rely on a high batting average to drive his value? How often does he not make outs? WAR doesn't tell us any of these things. It clouds the picture and gives us the false sense of certainty. Oh, this guy is worth 3.4 wins. Done. Next player. It ends debate instead of encourages it. I hate it so much, even if it was remotely accurate, which it is not.

How wrong is WAR? So incredibly wrong that it shouldn't be out of beta testing. Here's an example. You're probably familiar with Mike Trout's WAR case for MVP. Well, his defensive WAR was 2.1. Another All-Star centerfielder, Adam Jones, had a defensive WAR of -1.3. That means the gap between their defensive value is 3.4 WAR, or the entire value of Josh Hamilton (3.4 WAR). Now, we can quibble on whether Jones deserved his Gold Glove or not, but to say that the gap in value of Trout's defense and Jones' defense is the entire contribution of Josh Hamilton is just not accurate. You know what? Sometimes you need to step back and ask whether this makes any sense. Maybe Jones is overrated in the field. Maybe Trout is a historically great centerfielder, which is why the Angels are pushing him to left field. But to say the value of their defense is one of the best players in baseball strikes me as so obviously wrong that it makes me question the entire statistic.

But here's the great news. WAR is not coming to college baseball. While other concepts translate from MLB to NCAA, the concept of a "replacement player" does not. There is no such thing as a replacement player in college baseball because unlike professional baseball, there is no "freely available talent" out there. Teams can only replace talent in the offseason, and they can only do it through recruiting or the occasional transfer.

The concept breaks down at its inception for college ball. So, luckily, we'll be spared the One True Number for at least the time being. I like baseball statistics. I grew up on Bill James and pouring over box scores. But at the end of the day, it's the concepts that matter, not the numbers.

And we can disagree on concepts. In fact, disagreeing is part of the fun. The world is richer for our civil disagreements. We reach greater understanding of the game through these conversations, so long as we listen to one another. There's room for everybody to love baseball.