2/10/2014 10:00 A.M. ET
Advanced stats provide context in analyzing players
Votto, for one, embraces wRC+, a calculation that goes beyond traditional metrics
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
On a Cincinnati sports radio show last week, Joey Votto took questions from fans and was asked which statistic is most meaningful to him.
Contractual dollars per at-bat.
Sorry, was just making sure you're paying attention. Votto's answer was actually weighted runs created plus (wRC+).
That's an esoteric answer, all right. Votto could have cited runs, but that is co-dependent data. He could have cited runs created, but that's too "Bill James circa 1985." He could have cited weighted runs created, but at this point that's like buying an iPhone 4. You're marching slightly behind the times.
No, he took it all the way to wRC+, which, like Diet Coke Plus or Google Plus or Nike Plus, adds a little marketing flair to the equation. That little plus sign really makes you feel like you're getting the creme de la creme of the number-crunchers, doesn't it?
All right, so most of you have probably never heard of wRC+. And that's totally understandable. The formula, after all, is above and beyond most of our heads, but all that really matters is that it boils a player's offensive performance -- doubles, homers, walks, stolen bases, etc. -- down to a single metric, which is then compared to the league average. With league average set at 100, every point above or below that number explains how much better or worse that player performed vs. the norm. So if a guy scores a 125, he was 25 percent better than the league average, while a guy with a 90 was 10 percent below the league average.
Pretty simple (to read, that is), and it was no surprise that Votto, one of the more sabermetrically minded ballplayers in the game today, quickly cited that geeky metric, available at FanGraphs.com, as his go-to.
The surprise, of course, will be if the general populace ever treats such stats as anything other than an oddity, curiosity or, in extreme cases, an attack on all numeric baseball knowledge they hold near and dear. We know Babe Ruth hit 714 homers, but most of us couldn't care less that he is the all-time leader in career wRC+ with a 197 mark.
I get the hesitancy to conform to such calculations. Not just because we're all brought up adhering to baseball's statistical holy trinity of batting average, home runs and RBIs but also because it does seem you can find a savvy stat to augment just about any argument.
For example, the A's had either one of the best defenses in baseball last season or one of the worst, depending on which metric you applied. So it's difficult to decide how much weight to put into the newfangled numbers and how often they should be cited. You don't want to dumb down the discussion by adhering only to the aforementioned trinity, but you don't want to go overboard, either.
So what, if anything, should we make of Votto's statistical leanings?
Well, on the one hand, here are last year's Major League leaders in wRC+:
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: 192
2. Mike Trout, Angels: 176
3. Chris Davis, Orioles: 167
4. Jayson Werth, Nationals: 160
5. (tie) Votto, Reds, and Paul Goldschmidt, D-backs: 156
No wonder Votto likes wRC+. He had the fifth-highest wRC+ in baseball last season, and we can use this to offset any implication that his declines in slugging percentage and RBIs made for a disappointing season. The debates about the merits of Votto's walk-heavy output raged all last summer in Cincinnati, making Votto a centerpiece of the ongoing arguments between the statheads and the traditionalists. It was like the Cabrera-Trout WAR-aided war, except it centered around a solitary man and his gargantuan 10-year, $225 million contract extension. The stat Votto cited is ammunition for anyone joining hands with Team Joey.
But I don't think Votto likes wRC+ just because it makes himself look good. I think he recognizes the limits of the oft-cited numbers within the context of today's game.
And this is a pertinent point for all of us.
"I'm all about keeping things fair," Votto said in that radio interview, "and evaluating a player based on what he does all-around."
Never have such evaluations been more important than in today's climate, given the dollars at stake and the league-wide offensive decline taking place.
It bears repeating: Last year, the average number of runs per game was at its lowest point since 1992, the overall batting average was the lowest since 1972 and the strikeout rate reached an all-time high. Even more telling, for the purposes of this discussion, only 24 players hit .300 or better. Only 14 hit 30 or more homers. Only 15 drove in 100 or more runs.
Given that context, it therefore helps to have a better way of understanding which guys are outperforming their peers. If a .300 average is still your standard for excellence, you might be downright depressed by the numbers above. But if I told you that 101 players helped create runs at a level better than the league norm, well, now we're working with a more accurate assessment of which guys moved the needle, so to speak. It is a lot easier to understand, for instance, why someone like Shin-Soo Choo, who has never been an All-Star, got a $130 million contract from the Rangers if you know he had the ninth-highest wRC+ last season and is tied for the 14th-highest wRC+ over the past six.
Context counts, and the beauty of a stat that is park- and league-adjusted (that's where the plus sign comes in) is that it keeps things in the proper context of the times. Unfortunately, OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), which has taken on greater prominence in terms of its use among broadcasters, writers and fans, doesn't accomplish this. But wRC+ does.
So maybe Votto is on to something. Maybe more of us should embrace our inner geek and not be afraid of clunky yet effective acronyms.
Or maybe I'm just sticking up for a guy who only drove in 73 runs last season.