Baseball has always been a numbers game, but during this century computers have buried this sporting event in more digits than a calculator.
The creation of "analytics" has invented a new sector of the economy of sports, and fan interest. Access to all of this data has changed the game forever, and created new interest, and revenue streams, to baseball.
Fantasy baseball thrives on analytics. Game preparation is stuffed with data. Player evaluation is now a spreadsheet of numbers.
The data allows players and managers to scout innumerable situations to the point where they can't think for themselves, or at least question their instincts.
Before every single at bat, a player can go to the team's video room in the clubhouse to watch nearly all of his career appearances against the pitcher he's about to face in the next inning.
One veteran major leaguer told me he might watch a few of these plate appearances, and no more; younger players, he said, tend to overload their brain with all of it.
There is such a thing as too much, and I firmly believe this deluge of numbers has hurt the flow of games as much as TV.
With all of these numbers, there must be a few that matter more than any other.
So I asked the manager of the Texas Rangers to educate fans that if they want to just focus on a few, basic, stats to best evaluate a pitcher, a hitter or a fielder.
(Note that this request excludes the highly technical "exit velocity" or "launch angle," etc.)
Here are Rangers' manager Jeff Banister's personal favorite basic stats:
1. OPS over batting average.
Over the years, the importance of the batting average has taken a beating. The importance of reaching base via a walk, and the lust for the extra base hit, has put the batting average well behind the on base percentage, and this - on base plus slugging.
"This gives a clearer, bigger picture of the hitter as a whole," Banister said.
On base plus slugging is a batter's on-base percentage and slugging average; it calculates how effective he is at reaching base, and the type of damage he does when he connects with the ball.
Runs batted in is an old school number that in the world of sabermetrics has been slightly devalued; a batter can drive in a run and pad his stats with a two-out, two-run bloop single in the ninth inning to make the score 11-3. Big deal?
For Banister, however, to drive in a run means the batter came through with a hit when the pitcher, in theory, is locked in and focused.
"To drive in a run means the pitcher is at his best to stop you," he said. "Driving in a run and trying to stop you from doing it is the essence of the game."
1. Walks/strikeouts per innings pitched.
Banister is a believer that this statistic reflects the pitcher's control, which is what all managers covet. Managers can deal with a pitcher who gives up hits, but they detest the guy who can't throw strikes. And they hate the pitcher who is afraid to throw strikes.
The strike-to-walk ratio doesn't allow a pitcher to hide from his ability to be in the zone.
When guys like Bill James, Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane acknowledged the value of a batter reaching base by whatever means, stats such as these began to change player evaluation.
The pitcher's goal is to prevent runs, which start with base runners, whether they reach by hit or walk; as such, the value of this walks/hits to innings pitched (WHIP) should have been evident decades ago.
3. Earned Run Average
Banister is a believer that a pitcher's earned run average does tell a story. Again, this is an old fashion stat, but how many earned runs a pitcher allows in nine innings of work is revealing; the lower the ERA, the better the pitcher. It's not complicated.
A hard one. Make that the hardest one.
For forever, the defensive stat that people could use was fielding percentage, which led to all sorts of issues.
Banister's "frustration" is that some players will be labeled as inferior defenders, based on numbers, when there is no way to weight all of the factors that go into defending a given play. Numbers might regard a player as substandard when in fact he's more than competent because he can track down and reach a play.
There is no number to accurately quantify that talent and skill.
A marginal defender might win a Gold Glove award simply because his fielding percentage was high, but in reality he might be an awful defensive player because he had zero range.
In 1999, Texas Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro won what might be the worst Gold Glove ever awarded. He started 28 games as a first baseman, and 128 games as the designated hitter. He committed one error in 246 chances.
Palmeiro was not a bad fielder by any means, but in 1999 he simply did not merit this award.
Banister's preference in this category is DER (defensive efficiency rating), which is more team-oriented than player specific.
The accepted formula for DER is 1-((H-HR)/(PA-HR-BB-HBP-SO)).
This is not a perfect formula, but it accounts for every ball that is hit into play, the chances it will be turned into an out.
Now ... as for WAR (wins above replacement, which has no universally agreed formula), Banister said, "That's a little too fancy for me."
Amen and amen.