What stats are important from the viewpoint of a player?
By Bennett Jacobs
Note from Jim Albert
Hugo Mentors is a mentorship program that connects a high school student with a professor in the student’s area of interest. Bennett was interested in learning about baseball analytics and Hugo Mentors brought Bennett and I together. We met throughout the fall and spring, learning about coding in R and the modern statistical measures found in FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Bennett wrote this post to describe what he learned from this experience.
With the recent revelations in baseball in terms of advanced data, determining the importance and impact of certain players has never been easier. Fans can easily identify which players have the biggest impact using stats like WAR and who is the most productive using stats like wOBA. The shift in the use of basic to advanced stats in the last decade or so has been drastic, but this is only from the outside looking in. Even front offices have started using these new stats, with many teams having statisticians to help them determine who to sign, draft, and trade for, and how much to pay for each player. While this is all helpful to determine the impact of players off the field, how do these stats apply on the field? Are the players using them, and if so, what adjustments are they doing based on these stats?
My name is Bennett Jacobs, and I am a sophomore at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. I have been playing baseball almost my entire life, and I am a pitcher and outfielder. Over the last few months, I have been working with Dr. Jim Albert on the importance and usefulness of certain stats, ranging from basic stats like batting average to advanced stats like xFIP. We have focused on how these stats can change for a given player year to year, how they can be used in-game, and how they correlate with each other. I have learned a significant amount about their value over these last few months and am very excited to share my findings.
Before I get into that, I want to share a little about my experience with these stats. At IMG, we train every day for 3-4 hours to become the best possible players in the game. IMG has been one of the dominant high schools in baseball over the past decade, as they won the national championship in 2019 and are always one of the highest-rated teams in the nation. They have produced many of the top prospects and minor leaguers, including last year’s number 5 pick Elijah Green, the Nationals’ top prospect James Wood, college star Tommy White, and many others. At IMG, many stats are tracked in order to measure our development as players.
They measure some of the more common stats like the velocity of pitches using a device called Rapsodo, our exit velocity and launch angle through HitTrax, and all of our in-game stats are tracked. Our coaches also help in tracking as they write down our pitch-by-pitch sequences and the result of our at-bats or innings. This helps us track our development as players but do not help us focus on what we should focus on in-game in order to improve our performance.
Real Life Applications
In my recent studies Dr. Albert, I was able to discover what I had focused on in the game might not be the right statistics. Before working with him, I thought that ERA and Wins were important ways to measure my success on the mound. As players, we would compare how many wins we had and how many earned runs we let up. However, these are not the best statistics we should be using to see how we are playing and developing. ERA is often a result of the defense, and wins, or losses result from the team. A good measure of ability should correlate well from one season to the next. That is, if you plot a good measure of performance for two consecutive seasons, one would see a strong positive association. For example, here is a scatterplot of the SO rates of pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched for the seasons 2021 and 2022.
Statistics like Wins and ERA do not have this property, while stats like BB%(walk percentage) and K% (strikeout percentage) do. I learned through working with Dr. Albert that Defensive positioning often has a large impact on balls falling, and eventually runners scoring. Instead, I should focus on ensuring I have a low BB% and a high K%. This is because, as a pitcher, we can only really control what happens before the ball is in play, so having a high strikeout rate is really important for a pitcher’s success. Before working with Dr. Albert, I had been focused on pitching to weak contact. Based on the work I did with Dr. Albert, I learned that strikeouts are a lot more indicative of a pitcher than the results of balls in play. I have realized that I need to focus on strikeouts and limiting batters on base.
This has led me to continue to perfect my off-speed pitches. My coaches now state that my curveball is my out pitch – as batters often completely miss the ball or get called out looking. Additionally, I have continued to improve my overall control. I have limited my walks as they are just as bad as hits. Nothing used to frustrate me more than a ball finding just the right gap where a fielder could not get to it, even if it were poorly hit. Now, while still not happy, I recognize that a certain percentage of balls in play will find those gaps. The best way to prevent that is to make sure batters miss the ball completely. As a pitcher, once the ball is in play, there is nothing I can do to affect the outcome of the result. All I can do is affect the outcome before the pitch is hit, so strikeouts are the most effective thing for a pitcher.
As a hitter, it is mostly the same idea. I should not focus on my batting average or the result of a ball in play but more walking and putting the ball in play. I should focus on a high BB% and a low K% because I need to put the ball in play or walk to get on base, and the result of a ball in play is mostly the result of the defense. This has led me to more plate discipline, focusing on bat speed, exit velocity, and hitting the barrel. I will likely never be a home run hitter. But if I focus on launch angle and hitting the barrel, I can maximize my ball-in-play percentage and get on base more and add real value to my team.
- As I continue to develop as a player, focusing on the old traditional stats to determine my improvement can help me succeed, but will not allow me to reach my ultimate best.
- Advanced analytics is allowing me to focus on the right skills to maximize my performance and my impact on my team.
- As players learn earlier about what is truly impactful, it can help us develop better, play better and win more.
- Players should focus less on the results of a ball in play, and more on making sure a ball does get in play if you are a hitter, or does not if you are a pitcher.