LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Baseball is overflowing with statistical ways to evaluate a player’s performance. Measures such as win-loss record and earned run average for pitchers and batting average and runs batted in for hitters have been augmented in recent years by more advanced metrics such as Fielding Independent Pitching and Wins Above Replacement.
But what statistics do players and coaches rely on for personal evaluation? An informal survey of Washington Nationals offers a glimpse into what skills they value.
“There are so many different stats out there nowadays I honestly don’t even know half the time,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “I read articles, and I don’t even know what these guys are talking. fWAR-plus or ERA+, I don’t even know what those things mean. And I don’t really care to because I’m kind of like old-school-type mind-set where I just go out there and do well, and all that other weird statistical stuff will fall into place.”
Every year, reliever Craig Stammen sets personal goals by looking at two statistics: walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB). Stammen cannot control how well the defense behind him plays nor the size of the ballpark, but he can limit the number of base runners he allows.
“Mine are basically tied to putting people on base for free,” he said.
Stammen’s goal is to notch a K/BB rate of 3.00, and the closest he has come in a full season is last season’s K/BB of 2.93. (The major league average was 2.51 last season.) With WHIP, Stammen aims for less than 1.200. (The major league average last season was 1.300.) To improve the numbers, Stammen knows it is “not about striking more people out, but it’s cutting down the walks.”
“WHIP dictates how many runners you’re allowing on base,” added Clippard, whose 0.94 WHIP over the past three seasons is the sixth best in baseball among relievers. “The fewer runners you can allow on base, the fewer runs you’re going to give up and situations you’re going to get the team into where you could potentially give up the lead. I think that’s a very important stat for a reliever.”
Stammen knows about advanced pitching statistics that account for the size of the ballpark (ERA+) and the team’s defense (FIP), but prefers the simpler statistics and leaves the complex metrics to the front office for evalutations.
“It makes sense to me, but I don’t know how to calculate” FIP, he said. “If I don’t know how to calculate it, I don’t pay attention to it because it serves me no purpose.”
Mentioning some advanced statistics to pitching coach Steve McCatty results in obscenities. He has a number of preferred statistics: percentage of strikes thrown, hits per nine innings, walks per nine innings, and strikeout-to-walk ratio. He also likes looking at first-pitch strike percentage and strikeout rates, but would rather see fewer base runners than more strikeouts.
“I like to see guys, but I like to keep the walks down because it’s just like giving up a hit,” he said. “If they’re going to beat you, make them earn it. If you can keep your walks down, and average 3-to-1 strikeouts, you don’t have to be a strikeout guy. That’s not always important, but that’s a good number.”
Jordan Zimmermann, values WHIP and innings pitched highly because he can mostly control both of those. Starters take pride in making their start every five days, and notching 200 innings “to me, is the equivalent of 100 RBI for a hitter,” he said.
When Zimmermann scouts opposing teams, he often looks at opponents’ average against fastballs, curveballs, sliders and other pitches, and their first-pitch swinging percentage. The major league average was 27 percent last season.
“That’s probably the biggest one, so I know if I can go right after them or not,” he said.
The Nationals’ new manager, Matt Williams, embraces analytics and advanced metrics and wants to blend them with what he sees on the field. The Nationals already had an analytics department that creates its own version of some advanced metrics, but Williams brought with him Mark Weidemaier, who spent 18 years as advance scout and has experience in the dugout as an instructor, to implement defensive shifts and provide scouting information on future opponents. At his introductory news conference in December, Williams humorously said regarding analytics, “If you don’t get with the times, bro, you better step aside.”
First baseman Adam LaRoche is a middle-of-the-order hitter, so his view of statistics skews that way. LaRoche hit 20 home runs last season but posted a career-worst .735 on-base plus slugging percentage. Asked if he liked OPS, LaRoche said: “I don’t know enough about it. You see it everywhere.”
LaRoche believes highly in on-base percentage, but believes that the run-scoring statistics apply best to him.
“I like to produce runs and score runs,” he said. “If I’m .280, obviously the higher the better, but was it productive? Doubles? Home runs?”
Wilson Ramos is similar to LaRoche. The slugging catcher likes average, home runs and RBI. He looks at OPS, but also believes in on-base percentage. On defense, Ramos likes to judge his performance with two numbers: the performance of the pitching staff by ERA, and caught stealing percentage.
“Those are the two things on defense that I care about the most and I’ve worked hardest on,” he said.
The statistics can also depend on where a player hits in the lineup. Shortstop Ian Desmond has hit anywhere from leadoff to sixth in the batting order over the past two seasons. He can drive in runs but also has the speed to steal bases. And in Williams’ lineup, Desmond could potentially hit second.
Desmond likes to note his batting average by month not because he obsesses over it but because he wants to break it down into more manageable chunks. “Whether it was a good month or bad month, I erase it,” he said.
A player’s batting average with runners in scoring position, known in shorthand as average with RISP, is a telling statistic for Desmond.
“I’m a character-type guy so if you have a guy with really high average but terrible with runners in scoring position, it kinda gives you a little reading on the person.”
Hitting coach Rick Schu shows hitters the tendencies of opposing pitchers: whether they nibble on the edges of the strike zone or fire high 90s fastballs — but he prefers to avoid the advanced offensive statistics.
“I don’t even know what all that stuff means,” he said. “I kind of just have a baseball edumacation. Just have some quality at-bats, barrel it up and do some damage. . . . I think all those numbers are more for the front-office guys. I’m more of a gruntster: score some runs, have some good ABs, make some loud noises.”