Baseball is a stat driven league. That means that baseball handicappers who want to be successful have to have a good grasp on statistics and how to interpret them. The problem, though, is that some of the statistics that are regularly published in newspapers and magazines, discussed on TV, and embrace by the public aren’t particularly useful as indicators of what players and teams are really capable of. Here’s a look at five well-publicized statistics that aren’t nearly as significant as you would guess based on the attention they get:
Hitting streaks – This one drives me crazy. Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak is incredibly impressive, and is proving very hard to match. Because of the mythology surrounding the mark there is all sorts of coverage every time a guy hots in 20 or more games in a row. Whenever they hear about a streak most people assume that the hitter is red hot. While that may be the case it is far from certain to be true. It would be easy for a hitter to average more than four at-bats per game. That means that it would be possible for a hitter to have a long hitting streak while still hitting less than .250 overall. That may not be likely but it is possible, and without going beyond the hitting streak and looking at more meaningful statistics we have no real way to know how the hitter is actually hitting, and it is very easy to be mislead or make bad assumptions.
Wins – Felix Rodriguez won the AL Cy Young in 2010, and at the same time proved how misleading wins can be. He was totally and utterly dominant, but his team was lousy and he got no run support so his win total was far below what it would have been if he had pitched to the same level with a better team. The problem with wins is that it involves so many factors that are beyond the pitcher’s control – how effective the opposing pitcher is on the day, how much run support he gets, how strong the bullpen is, and so on. If you are trying to evaluate a pitcher, you want to use stats that measure how well that pitcher is actually pitching, and wins don’t necessarily do that.
Batting average – Batting average is an important statistic in the sense that a guy with a high average is probably better than a guy with a very low one. The problem, though, is that without context and a bunch more information the batting average paints an incomplete picture of what is going on. A guy who hits for a high average wouldn’t be particularly useful if he rarely got on base any other way, or if his hits were almost all singles. A high average would also be far less attractive if that hitter was far more effective with no men on base than he was with runners in scoring position, or if he is far more effective at home than on the road. Batting average is a part of the puzzle, but just a part. Without several other pieces – OPS, situational stats, and so on – the picture is dangerously incomplete.
RBI – Like wins for pitchers, RBIs can be a useful stat but they paint a dangerously incomplete picture for you to solely make your sports picks on. That’s because while a hitter has to be able to hit for power and hit reasonably consistently to pile up a lot of RBIs there is more to it than that – thins that are out of their control. Most significantly, you can’t drive in runs if there aren’t guys ahead of you in the lineup who regularly get on base. That means that a relatively strong hitter is likely to get more RBIs on a deep, talented, strong hitting team than he would on a weak hitting team with big holes in their lineup. Without looking at the circumstances under which a hitter is shining you can’t truly judge the effectiveness of that hitter using RBIs as a guide.
Saves – There are all sorts of reasons why a save is a ridiculous stat that is grossly overvalued these days. I’ll just pick one to focus on here, though. If a closer had 35 saves it would seem impressive, and that guy would automatically be viewed as a very solid closer. It’s meaningless without one other key piece of information, though – how many opportunities has he had? If a guy had 35 saves in 36 tries then he is indeed a very good closer and should be regarded as such by handicappers. You’d probably be comfortable betting on his team if you viewed it as a likely close contest. If those 35 save had come in 50 tries, though, then the guy is a total disaster who is killing his team, and you wouldn’t want to touch him. You can judge nothing at all by looking just at the number of saves a guy has.