January 25, 2013
In A Pickle
My pet peeve as a consumer of writing on and analysis of baseball is a failure to properly employ a sensible baseline. This frequently occurs via the writer not applying any baseline at all, instead presenting statistics or other performance indicators denuded of context. In Hall of Fame arguments, what does it mean that Bert Blyleven won 287 games? Is that a lot, given the era he played in, the teams he was a part of, the number of games he started? What about Fred McGriff's 493 home runs? What do these numbers mean?
Or think about the ways MVP arguments sometimes proceed, where one candidate has a .390 on-base percentage and another has a .580 slugging and a third stole 42 bases at an 82 percent clip and a fourth had a 2.30 ERA in 210 innings. Do you know who to vote for in this scenario? It depends on what year it is, right?
Sometimes the second scenario arises because the writer is unsophisticated and does not recognize that numbers are meaningless without an anchor. Sometimes, though, there's an implied baseline that's theoretically common knowledge among readers, which is fine if you know who your readers are. A lot of us basement blogger types don't feel the need to reiterate every time we write what a good TAv is or how many WARP is enough WARP to be happy.
I've cheated. In that last sentence, I intentionally chose stats that are entirely designed to be comparable across eras. The baseline for TAv, for instance, is defined rather than empirically determined. For other stats, however, the league context changes. If we're not careful, if we don't keep our eye on the ball, offense can nose-dive and strikeouts can shoot through the ceiling and we can find ourselves impressed by Wei-Yin Chen's 7.2 whiffs per nine while missing that his strikeout percentage was actually below average for the year. Or we could get frustrated at Mark Ellis's mediocre .258/.333/.364 batting line without recognizing that he was actually seven points above the league average for second basemen in True Average.
Luckily, we have a report right here on this website that tells you positional batting lines back to 1950 so you can always figure out for yourself whether that first baseman in 1974 was a stud or a doofus. (Probably doofus. Have you seen 1974?)
What that report doesn't do is put a recognizable human face to the batting lines, and that's the service I'm here to provide. In this article, then, is 2012's All Mr. Average team, where I've chosen players as close as possible to the MLB-average line for their position by TAv, with an emphasis on finding someone who fits the average slash line, because the shape of average performance matters and because players in extreme parks who have perfectly average TAvs can confound the mental model more than they clarify: if I tell you that Everth Cabrera is a league-average shortstop with the stick, you might get the impression that league shortstops slugged .324. Shortstops can't hit, but they're not that bad. More importantly, Cabrera isn't that bad, either—Petco Park is just killer, especially for someone who bats lefty (or who, like Cabrera, bats lefty more than 70 percent of the time).