To quote a well-know Hanna-Barbera cartoon, Sam Fuld is smarter than the average bear. The Cubs‘ outfielder not only holds an economics degree from Stanford, he also thinks about the game of baseball analytically. A 10th-round pick in the 2004 draft, the 27-year-old Fuld certainly made the grade this season after earning a mid-season call-up, displaying excellent plate discipline while hitting .299/.409/.412 in 115 plate appearances over 65 big league games. Prior to joining Cub’s outfield mix, the left-handed swinger hit .284/.358/.415 with 10 triples and 23 stolen bases at Triple-A Iowa. Fuld recently got together with BP to share his views on advanced stats, baseball’s salary structure, the PED scandal, and the 2009 postseason.
Sam Fuld: Pitchers have an advantage, because they have the ball in their hand. They’re the ones making the decisions, essentially. But you can certainly get a little bit of an advantage if you’re aware of certain pitchers’ tendencies in certain counts and certain situations. But I guess that you can also…for instance, if you were to see a statistic that shows you’re hitting .450 if you swing at the first pitch, you might trick yourself into swinging at first pitches a little more often. So, at times it can be advantageous, but I think that pitchers definitely have more of an advantage when it comes to looking into things like that.
DL: Do most players care about, or even know about, advanced statistics?
SF: I think that, for the most part, the guys just still pay attention to the basic statistics. Obviously, you get a little variation on that, but I think guys mostly try to keep it pretty simple. Certainly, you see an increased awareness of on-base percentage and OPS with the average fan, and in a way, the players reflect what that average fan pays attention to and cares about. Some guys do get into it a little further, and there’s certainly a lot of access to it, so they’ll take advantage of our resources regarding video and numbers. But mostly they like to keep it simple, and in a lot of ways I think that helps, because the simpler it is, the easier it is on us.
DL: Simplicity aside, why do you think most hitters are hesitant to look at advanced stats?
SF: I think that a lot of hitting is instinctual, and personally, I feel that the clearer my head is, the better off I am as a hitter. I’m aware of a lot of statistics out there, but I don’t use them at all, really, as a hitter. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say at all, but I don’t use them a whole lot, because I know that with hitting there’s not a lot of time to prepare. I think it might be a little more advantageous in the outfield, where there’s just more time to think about it, and it’s less reactionary in the field. It’s kind of tricky, but to me, if you have a clear mind at the plate, you’re going to be better off.
DL: Using data to improve performance is one thing. Using it to assess performance is another. Do you see value in looking at your numbers for the purpose of better understanding your own game?
SF: Yes, I think so, but ultimately it comes down to what the people who are employing you think. If they’re not aware of it, it may not be too beneficial for you to worry about it. If they’re more worried about the basic statistics like batting average, slugging percentage, RBIs, and runs, maybe that’s all you need to worry about as a hitter. Ultimately, they’re the ones who make the decisions, so you have to worry about what they care about, essentially.
DL: Do you feel the Cubs organization is at all hindered by what some people feel is a relative lack of progressive thinking on their part?
SF: Well, that’s a tough question. I don’t really know, personally, how much they have advanced in that area. I do think that, all in all, it’s a good thing to be progressive in that area, but there’s certainly not just one way to do things, either. Teams have had success by employing more of an old-school technique. But I can hardly even comment on that, because I don’t even know how advanced they are in the area of statistics.
DL: How important is on-base percentage within the organization?
SF: It’s certainly important. Like I said, you can’t help but have an increased awareness of the importance of on-base percentage. Over the last 10 years or so, it has certainly gotten a whole lot more attention. I certainly think it’s important. I don’t know exactly how much they weigh it in comparison to RBIs or some other statistics like that, but they’re definitely aware of it.
DL: You led the Cubs in OBP this season, hitting mostly eighth in the order. Do you think you might have more value hitting ninth, in essence giving the club a second lead-off hitter?
SF: No. I think there’s a lot of value in having a high on-base-percentage guy in the eight hole, because sometimes it’s the difference between rolling over a lineup or having a pitcher lead off. It’s tough to start off an inning nine-one-two in the National League. There’s a lot of value, even if I get up as the number eight hitter with two out and nobody on. If I can get on base somehow, that’s a great way to kick start the next inning. It’s not just about that one inning, necessarily.
DL: You’re not a proponent of the pitcher-hitting-eighth strategy that a few National League managers have employed?
SF: I guess I see the argument there, but if I were making out a lineup, I’d just do the normal pitcher batting in the ninth spot.
DL: Is that because you’re a traditionalist, or because you’re a position player who might feel stigmatized hitting behind the pitcher?
SF: Well, you’d certainly have to find the right guy to bat ninth. Personally, it wouldn’t bother me; I wouldn’t feel offended if a pitcher was hitting in front of me, but that can be a tricky thing. It’s an example of how, just because something is a good idea on paper, it may not necessarily play out well on the field. Baseball is obviously more than just what looks good on paper. There’s also a mental aspect to it. So, while I wouldn’t mind doing it, there is certainly the element of ruining that nine-hole hitter’s confidence. But even throwing that aside, I still think that batting the pitcher ninth is the best thing to do.
DL: What is your opinion of the designated hitter rule?
SF: I’d prefer we get rid of the DH rule. Having played without a DH over the last three years, I’ve really come to enjoy the strategy involved in having the pitcher bat for himself. Plus I’m just a proponent of having athletes be well-rounded and I think specialization within a sport should be avoided when at all possible. I really don’t like the idea of placekicking in football, for example. So I think teams should be rewarded for having their pitchers perform well in the batter’s box.
DL: During a recent postseason game, the announcers listed the hitters who put the most balls into play this season. Is that a list you’d like to see your name on?
SF: Absolutely. I think that the key to my game is putting balls into play. I can’t afford to strike out a whole lot. I mean, if I’m not in that top five because I’m working a lot of deep counts and walking a lot, in addition to striking out a lot, then I could deal with that. Strikeouts, in a lot of respects, aren’t too bad. They certainly beat hitting into a double play. Still, ultimately, it’s important for me to be able to put the ball in play as much as I can.
DL: Between Triple-A and the big leagues this season, you had 58 walks and 37 strikeouts. Is that representative of your game?
SF: Yeah, I think so. I’ve always felt like I’ve had good control of the strike zone, and a lot of that just comes with having a shorter swing. The shorter your swing is, the longer you can track the ball, and the better eye you’re going to have. So, it’s important for me to keep a short swing; I’m not going to hit too many balls out of the ballpark. It would be nice to be able to do that a lot, but I just don’t think that will ever be a big part of my game. Something I always look at is my walks-to-strikeouts ratio, and if I can keep it above one, I’m usually pretty happy.
DL: Is batting average on balls in play [BABIP] a meaningful statistic to you?
SF: Sure. As long as you’re working with a sample size big enough, it’s a useful tool to discover a batter or pitchers luck, or lack thereof. I think it’s much more meaningful when you break it down into ground ball, fly ball and line drive percentages in order to help account for a player’s change in BABIP.
SF: Those would certainly play a large role but they wouldn’t be the only factors. I think there is some real value in looking at those numbers, but there is still a very significant role in evaluating intangibles, like a player’s character, injury history, etc.
DL: What are your views on defensive metrics?
SF: I think it’s great that they’re advancing, because it’s certainly an undervalued part of the game, and as long as we continue to find a better statistic, measuring range and overall defensive ability, you’ll start to see a correct value of a player’s ability to play defense. Right now I’m not too familiar with anything beyond the range-factor statistic, which is a great start, although there are possibly a few flaws in it. But, for the most part, I think that they’re onto something with that. The more advanced technology is, the better ability we’ll have to measure it. I’m a big proponent of that one.
DL: From what you’ve seen of your defensive metrics, do they mostly agree with your perception of how you’ve performed?
SF: You know, I haven’t even looked at those statistics. I’m kind of afraid to look at my own numbers too much. I just don’t like looking at them, certainly not during the year, but maybe if I’m bored this offseason, I will. So, I can’t tell you if they reflect, but I feel that I’m a pretty good defensive outfielder. I guess I’ll have to look at the numbers to see if maybe that’s a false perception.
DL: Perception and reality are often two different things when it comes to who deserves a Gold Glove. Should defensive metrics be an important factor in that award?
SF: The more reliable defensive statistics become, the more we should use them in deciding defensive awards. Since defensive statistics have traditionally been so meaningless, often times a player’s batting numbers have indirectly played a part in winning a Gold Glove. Hopefully someday that will seem as inane as having a player’s defense affect their winning the Silver Slugger.
DL: Switching over to economics, are high salaries bad for baseball?
SF: Baseball as a whole? No, I don’t think so. I think that ultimately they should reflect how much revenue the game is producing, and I think they pretty accurately do that. There’s seemingly little injustice. You get these star players, like Ryan Howard, for instance. He was the league MVP and making the minimum, but ultimately he’s going to earn that salary pretty quickly. He already has, I guess. But no, I think that the way salaries are now…players get a bad rap from the average fan, saying that they’re overpaid, but at the end of the day, I think it’s a pretty fair salary structure.
DL: What about the impact salaries have on competitive balance?
SF: This year isn’t a great example of it, but we’ve seen in years past that smaller to mid-market teams can succeed. If you look at the Twins, they’re a pretty middle-of-the-road team in terms of their payroll, and they continue to have success year in and year out. So, I think that the parity in the league is pretty good. It’s not even a bad thing, as much as it may be a struggle to be a Pittsburgh Pirates fan right now. For the league as a whole, it wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing if there was more parity. When you have a team like the Yankees, that dominates year in and year out, essentially, I think it’s good for the league. You wouldn’t have a huge following of the Yankees, or the Red Sox, if there weren’t teams like that which were so dominant. It can be frustrating on the other end of it, if you’re a Pirates or a Royals fan, but for the game as a whole, I think it’s a pretty good thing.
DL: It has been said that baseball’s PED scandal, at its core, has been an economic story. Do you agree with that?
SF: I think so, yeah. It’s hard for me to knowingly say, one way or the other, but that argument makes sense. Baseball was in a bit of a rut in the mid-90s, and I’m sure that some people were aware of this growing steroids problem and maybe turned a blind eye to it. And you really can’t blame them, in a way, because the game found huge economic success from that. It’s just what happened, and it’s a shame that it all kind of blew up in the last couple of years, but in a way it helped dig baseball out of a rut, so in a bit of a perverse way, it helped the game.
DL: Do you feel that baseball has turned the corner and pretty much put the scandal behind it?
SF: I think we’ve seen the worst of it. I guess that my worry is the same as a lot of people’s worries, which is that the science will always be ahead of the testing, and that there will always be drugs available that are some sort of undetectable steroids. The testing policy that we have in form right now is good, and I feel that it’s weeded out the strong majority of steroids in the game. Going forward it will be a smaller factor, because we’ve made a lot of progress in the past two or three years.
SF: No, not really. He probably just thought that he was a good hitter and that he’ll be able to help the team. I think that was his first thought. It’s probably good that somebody like him can be hired and we can start to look past the whole steroid issue, because it’s just such a hard thing to define. I mean you can’t… you don’t know who took steroids and who didn’t, and there will never be concrete proof one way or the other. You don’t want to completely forget about it, but at this point we need to move past it, and his hiring is hopefully a sign of that to come.
SF: I think the steroid era will be viewed as just another era where some statistics were skewed for some reason. Not a lot different from the Dead Ball Era or the period before integration. There is so much uncertainty regarding who used PEDs that it does no good to predict what any proven user’s numbers would have been had they been clean or had everyone been clean. So, yes, I think they belong… but maybe with an asterisk.
DL: Why didn’t the 2009 Cubs advance to the postseason?
SF: A lot of things went wrong. We certainly had our fair share of injuries. And we were actually in pretty good position around the beginning of August; things looked like they were going well. You know, St. Louis just played really good baseball at the end of the year. If you look at our record compared to a few years ago when we won the division, there’s not a whole lot of difference. I think that maybe we won two more games that year than we did this year. But we were certainly a failure in the eyes of fans, and the media, and our expectations were really high this year, probably higher than any of the years previous. We finished above .500, we had a decent year, battling a lot of injuries, but we just never seemed to get into any kind of flow. I think that our pitching was pretty strong all year long; we just had a few guys have uncharacteristically bad years for them. I guess that’s just the nature of the game. The year before, guys had great years, career years. Geo won Rookie of the Year, DeRosa had a great year, Fontenot… guys just had what appeared to be their best years. This year seemed to be the opposite.
SF: No, I thought that they were two pretty evenly-matched teams. I was surprised that Carpenter and Wainwright lost back-to-back. I thought that if those guys pitched well, the Cardinals would have a chance, but the Dodgers were a pretty solid team. Their bullpen didn’t come through in their next series, against the Phillies, like it had during the regular season, but that’s a good team.
DL: What were your expectations going into the World Series?
SF: That there might be a lot of offense, because those are two good lineups. Philly has done a great job getting A-Rod out of his rhythm these first two games, so that will be huge for them to maintain. I think it will come down to Game Six or Game Seven, with a lot offense and a lot of four-hour baseball games.
DL: In Game One, Charlie Manuel left Cliff Lee in to pitch the ninth inning, even though he had a six-run lead and Lee was already over 100 pitches. Given the number of innings Lee has thrown this year, and the fact that the Phillies may need him to pitch two more games in the Series, did that make sense to you?
SF: I think it was the right move. Lee was obviously cruising at that point and a change in arms may have been exactly what NY would have needed to make it an interesting game. I’m sure Manuel hopes that Lee can just grind it out the rest of the series, knowing that he has all offseason to rest.
DL: With hindsight being 20/20, was it inexcusable for Grady Little to not lift Pedro Martinez in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS? Just as importantly, should his pitch-count numbers have played a major factor in that decision?
SF: I don’t think it was inexcusable at all. Like any other number in baseball, you have to put it in context. Pedro pitching with a high pitch count may have been better than using a rested bullpen, and it’s tough to pull the best pitcher in baseball in a clutch situation like that.
DL: Before fate intervened, the Red Sox and Cubs were seemingly on a collision course to meet in the World Series that year. What would have it meant for baseball had that happened?
SF: Culturally, it would have been incredible. Knowing that one of those teams was going to break a curse… it certainly would have been great for the game.
DL: Whatever curse there might have been, in Boston it’s now gone. Are the Cubs cursed?
SF: I don’t believe in curses, but it sure feels like something is working against us. Cubs fans are long overdue for a World Series championship, so hopefully we can reward them in the very near future.