Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Case Against BABIP

Danville, Kentucky – Folks, by now you’re all quite familiar with my positions on sabermetrics and advanced statistics with regards to the wonderful game of baseball. After all the divorces, all the altercations at Applebees, all the jobs lost in Danville because of NAFTA, my basset hound Barry Goldwater and baseball are about the only things left in this world that bring me joy. But my fourth wife won Barry in our divorce settlement, and now the nerds are trying to take baseball from me too. 20 years ago a man could go to a baseball game, buy a hot dog and a Miller Lite, sit down in the sun and talk to the locals, reveling in the glory of America’s pastime and conversing about the boys of summer and the latest catchy Hank Williams Jr. tune.

These days, one is assaulted from all directions by nerds. Nerds bring laptops to the game, checking on the leverage index or some such nonsense in real time. 

They’ve even put OBP and OPS on the scoreboard in some parks. Presumably nerds like to be able to chat about such things as they sip craft beer and talk about Game of Thrones.

I can’t even go to watch my nephew lay down a perfect sac-bunt in a little league game without other parents heckling the poor kid for lowering the team’s run expectancy. It’s enough to make a man cry, cry for the by-gone days of packing into a heated car on a sweltering summer day with only your dad and your glove for a day of magic at the ball-park.

I should be up front that I don’t hate all numbers. The Triple Crown stats never hurt anyone, and neither did pitcher wins or saves. What really irks me is these new-wave stats, the ones that try to rob the game of its mystery and charm. Stats like BABIP.

Ah yes, BABIP. Batting Average on Balls in Play. It’s been described as luck, magic, or even a fairy, sometimes all at once. BABIP is one of the chief metrics nerds use to proclaim the imminent regression of a player; a pitcher with a low BABIP is begging to get shelled, and a batter with a high BABIP is just getting lucky, nerds will say. I’ve never heard a bigger load of crock. BABIP is the perfect example of nerds trying to remove the human element from the games by turning everything into a mathematical simulation.

Nerds assume that a pitcher is powerless to influence their BABIP; once a ball is put into play, everything comes down to chance -- whether or not a ball finds a gap, a glove, or the grass is just a matter of luck in a cruel and uncaring universe, devoid of any higher meaning or significance. Taken to its logical endpoint, BABIP would suggest that pitching to contact is a futile enterprise. It would dismiss the winning habits of pitch-to-contact types who have mastered the art of pitch location and changing speeds, from Jeremy Guthrie to Greg Maddux, as nothing more than luck and statistical variance. Once we accept this logic, the notion that some pitchers are just better than others at limiting hard contact is thrown out the window, like my television after an argument with the ex-wife.

The same goes for batters. Like the attorney who prosecuted me for racketeering at the Danville pawn-shop, BABIP only tells part of the story. Some guys are just good at getting on base, or stroking a hit to the sweet part of the field, but you wouldn’t know that from the way BABIP is thrown around in baseball conversations. Quicker players will simply have a higher BABIP because they can beat out throws to first, just like I beat out that drunk & disorderly conduct rap I got for scrapping with a Giants fan at Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.

In sum, nerds love to rub their BABIP crystal ball and pronounce the inevitable of doom of any of a number of players, but it just goes to show you how far removed all this math stuff is from what actually happens on the field. Not only does BABIP have very little explanatory power; it strips players of the credit they deserve for their performance.

Lately, lots of stuff gets called unsustainable by the chicken-littles of the world. Global energy usage, industrial farming practices, and my finances, for starters. There’s really no need to add “Dee Gordon’s .495 BABIP” to the end of that list. Instead of worrying about whether what you’re witnessing is a statistical anomaly, nerds should just grab a beer, kick back, and soak in the sublime aesthetic experience that is a Major League Baseball game.