It Doesn't Always Add Up
August 30, 2005

As I scored today's Oriole's game against the A's, I couldn't help but think about the events that I was recording and how the numbers they generated would be analyzed.  For example, in the 12th inning, Eric Byrnes jogged to a flyball and fumbled the catch, resulting in a three-base error.  Normally, the official scorers in Baltimore are reluctant to pass out errors, especially on home players.  But this one was a no-doubter - Byrnes had tried to make a play on a ball that required reasonable effort to get to and had simply blown it.  The fact that a good number of bad plays in Camden Yards would be called errors at RFK (the other park where I score quite a few games) or many other parks reminded me of a thought I've had quite often over the last five years of recording what happens in these games.  And that is this: stats simply don't tell the whole story.  So anyone using them exclusively to analyze what happens on the field

In the Orioles' case, their pitchers get charged with more earned runs than they might were they pitching elsewhere because of the generous scoring of the home OS.  I don't have any idea how significant the difference is, only that there is a difference.  I do know that Camden is a good park for triples as far as park factors go despite the fact that it doesn't have many quirky features that are typical of triples parks.  I believe the official scorer's preference for not calling all misplays "errors" is a significant contributor in that respect.

There was another play in this game that will be missed by the boxscore.  In the bottom of the eighth inning, Alejandro Freire (pronounced Free-dee) hit a ground rule double.  He was replaced by pinch runner Luis Matos.  David Newhan tried to sacrifice him to third, but Justin Duchscherer made a throwing error that allowed him to reach base.  So now there are runners at first and third and nobody out.  Next, Sal Fasano hits a ground ball to short and even though Marco Scutaro did a quick look to third to try to hold Matos at third, Matos had an opportunity to try to score.  At the very least, he could have forced a throw and/or gotten himself into a rundown.  But he didn't.  He just moved about 10 feet from third base and just stood there as Scutaro stepped on second and threw to first for a double play.  So instead of the O's possibly scoring the go ahead (and possibly winning) run, or at least have two men on with only one out, now they only had one on with two out.  Brian Roberts followed with a soft grounder to second ending the inning and leaving what would turn out to be the O's last chance of winning the game stranded at third.

It was clearly a significant play in the game, yet no stat will record the scoring opportunity squandered by Matos' indecisiveness.  Since errors are only a defensive statistic, there won't even be a footnote as to why the O's didn't threaten more that inning.  The reason I bring this up is that these kinds of plays have a real baseball impact, and sometimes players get benched for stuff like this.  But if one only looks at the numbers, the only thing they show is Matos hitting .362 in August.  Theoretically, he could find himself riding the pine more often if he continues to make baserunning blunders like this one despite what appear to be very good offensive numbers.  A player hitting .360 over a month but costs his team 5 runs with bad baserunning decisions might not be worth much more than a guy hitting .250 or .260 who is very efficient with his baserunning opportunities.

Another instance where stats don't always tell the real story is pitch counts.  Not the total pitch counts necessarily, but the strike/ball breakdowns.  It's generally believed that a pitcher should throw strikes and that the more often he throws strikes the better off he'll be.  But this isn't necessarily true.  If a team has a pitcher who has nasty stuff like Daniel Cabrera, then yeah, sure, he should throw strikes as often as possible because the hitters will have a tough time catching up with his stuff.  But if a guy doesn't throw anything nasty and tops out at 85 mph, say like Tomo Ohka, then pounding the plate might not be the greatest idea.  For a pitcher like Ohka, he needs to find the plate just enough to make hitters offer at stuff off the plate.  Any more than that and he's opening himself up for a beating. 

To whit: can you guess which starting pitcher threw the greatest percentage of strikes last year?  If you said Paul Byrd, give yourself a gold star.  He's usually among the league leaders in the category.  Some years, like 2002 (17-11, 3.90, 1.15 WHIP), that's a good thing.  He threw 69.3% strikes that year.  Others, like 2001 (6-6, 4.05, 1.41 WHIP) when he threw 66.3%, it's not.   But last year he threw 71.4% yet wasn't quite as good overall as 2002.   Jose Lima is also one of the yearly leaders but anyone who's had him on his fantasy team knows what a wild ride that he can be.  It's true that more often than not the guys who do well tend to throw more strikes than the guys who don't, but it's not a slam dunk.  For example, Freddie Garcia (60.5%), Jaret Wright (60.7%) and Tom Glavine (58.1%) were near the bottom last year in percentage of thrown strikes yet they had pretty solid years.  Tomo Ohka had his best success in 2002 when he threw 65.87% strikes.  He was 13-8 that year with a 3.18 ERA and 1.24 WHIP.  The next two years he actually threw a greater percentage of strikes, yet his ERA and WHIP were worse. 

An interesting bit of trivia is that Curt Schilling led the majors in strike percentage in 2001 and 2002 with 70.59% of his pitches going for strikes... the kicker is that he threw the exact same number of pitches in both years: 3709.

All this to say that even as methods and tools for statistical analysis improve - and they have made significant strides in the last five years - we're not yet to the point where we can just look at stats and know which way to go with our fantasy acquisitions.  One still has to watch the games in order to better understand what they mean and what they don't reveal in order to make the most prudent moves.