Last week I found myself comparing the career stats of 1961 rookie standout Jake Wood with those of the second baseman who immediately replaced him in Detroit, Dick McAuliffe. Afterward, I was started down a chain of thoughts that I knew well—leading to a kind of statistic that doesn’t currently exist in baseball, as far as I’m aware. During this protracted and enforced lull in our lives, I might as well share those thoughts with you and see what you think.
Let’s take as our point of departure my observation that Jake and Dick both advanced about one base around the diamond per every three plate appearances throughout their career. That sounds a lot like an on-base percentage of .333… but I was going for something deeper. Why? Because not all “bases made” are equal. Say that two top-of-the-order guys have six plate appearances on a long afternoon. Say, further, that they advance two bases in that span. One of them might have walked twice and gone 0 for 4 officially; the other might have gone 1 for 6 with a double. Who made the higher contribution? Player A was eligible to score twice thanks to his two walks—but he couldn’t have driven anyone home unless the bases were loaded. Player B, on the other hand, might have connected for his one hit when the sacks were full and driven home three runs. Wouldn’t you rather have had B’s afternoon than A’s?
By the same token, a 2-for-6 with a pair of singles is better than an 0-for-4 with two walks: a walk is not as good as a hit. Why not? Obviously, because a single drives home a run from third, and usually from second—or it advances a runner from first to third, quite possibly. So the ideal metric wouldn’t be one that simply notes how many bases the hitter typically advances per PA (plate appearance); it would be one that also acknowledges how much advance he makes possible for other runners on base.
And to that end… shouldn’t our 0-for-4 guy, if he placed three ground balls that moved a runner up from second to third with fewer than two outs, be credited with something productive? I’m not a big fan of penalizing hitters for grounding into double plays, as the sabermetric designers of WAR like to do; but to the extent that we can fault a hitter for stroking a hard grounder right to a waiting shortstop with a runner on first, I suppose we should also be applauding a hitter for smacking a dribbler to the right side which advances runners while producing only an out at first. I’m not sure how much intent is involved in either case, especially as today’s game is played. But let’s try to be consistent in our logic.
One of my pet gripes is also addressed by these considerations. It’s commonly said nowadays that a home-run king who bats .250 is more valuable to his club than a .358 marvel who logs six homers all season. Is this necessarily true? Doesn’t it depend heavily on when Big Bruno clubs his steaks? Good pitchers will often serve up gopher balls in the late innings with a comfortable lead if Sasquatch steps to the plate surrounded by empty sacks. For my money, a guy who can double with the bases loaded is worth a lot more than a guy who homers routinely for just one tally.
Again, the sabermetricians like to treat the number of men on base when a home run is struck as a matter of arbitrary circumstance—no more under the hitter’s control than whether or not the sun dipped behind a cloud just before he made contact. Runners just happen to be on base sometimes, the way a cloud just happens to look like a camel. And yet, the same analysts want us to believe that batters deserve blame for hitting into double plays!
What I’m edging toward is a statistic that would reward the hitter for advancing runners besides himself, however his plate appearance is scored in the books. On the flip side, the hitter should also stand liable for runners removed from base, whether or not he reaches safely: this would be my concession to the “double play” police, and also a reasonable admission that grounding into a fielder’s choice isn’t really a neutral outcome, since it costs the offense an out. In fact, I’d go even farther along this line. I would lobby for the hitter’s having something subtracted from his metric when he strikes out or pops up with runners on first and second. I think he should take two deductions for that. Two runners were not advanced: that’s not the result of a successful plate appearance.
If you see how this is tending, then the following scenario will make sense. Runners on first and second, batter hits weak grounder, one runner reaches third but the other is forced at second, batter safe on fielder’s choice. The award of points for this effort is one. The forced runner is a subtraction, but the batter was able to beat the relay to first—restoring the subtraction and setting his total to zero. The runner who moved to third shifts him one point into the “credit” column: not a great AB, but not a total wipe-out.
I’d really like to see how a metric of this kind would work over an entire season. I wish I’d thought it up during my coaching days. It not only would have given me a much more objective picture of my players’ offensive productivity than I could create from hunches; it would also have handed me a number I could use to perk a kid up who kept grounding out but didn’t whiff and reliably moved runners along. Did you go 0-for-5 but moved six runners up a total of six bases without producing any outs except your own at first base? Then you’re six up on our Baserunners Advanced Index. You had a good day!
N.B.: We’re not going to deduct anything for your failure to advance yourself. You get a point if you each first safely but don’t lose one if you fail. You weren’t actually on base to start with, so the value added for the groundout, in and of itself, is a mere 0.
Note, too, that the hapless hitter who comes to the plate with nobody on base, over and over, isn’t penalized for having unsupportive teammates. Sabermetricians rightly bring RBI totals into question for this reason. My metric would make the “lucky” guys who keep striding into the box with ducks on the pond responsible for whether the duckies swim farther. Suddenly your heralded RBI leaders aren’t necessarily so lucky any more. If they do their job, they get a boost in the stats; if they don’t, they take a hit. A strikeout with the bases loaded is a Minus Three.
I’d love to see how a professional hitter like Nick Markakis would fare in such a measurement against, say, the lovable but often struggling giant, Aaron Judge (or anyone else who better resembles the late great Adam Dunn). Those of you who are fans of the movie Moneyball and of the idea behind it would share my enthusiasm, I’m sure.