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Stats 101: Why it’s time to re-educate players in meaningful statistics

07.22.13 at 6:57 am ET
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Gabe Kapler spent parts of 12 years in the major leagues from 1998-2010, playing for the Tigers (1998-99), Rangers (2000-02), Rockies (2002-03), Red Sox (2003-06 ‘€“ with a brief interlude in Japan), Brewers (2008) and Rays (2009-10). He also spent a year managing the Red Sox’€™ Single-A affiliate in Greenville. Follow him on twitter @gabekapler.

On a recent flight out of LAX, I searched for a copy of the LA Times near my gate. I was hoping to dive into some local stories on the climb to 10,000 feet. To my dismay, I marched out with the USA Today.

It had been a while since my last perusal. During my playing career, every visiting clubhouse in major league baseball had fresh copies of the publication daily, readily available for interested parties. The once-familiar staple of travel life has become a less visible presence in recent years, as iPads and smart phones dominate available hand and eye-space for players.

But the same statistics that we read in the early 2000s in the pages of USA Today are easily accessible on our mobile devices. And even though the technology for accessing them has changed, among players, the focal numbers haven’€™t ‘€“ something that is becoming an issue that can and should be changed.

In September of 2005, I tore my Achilles tendon rounding second base in Toronto on a home run hit by Tony Graffanino. I was out until mid-season in 2006, and when I came back, I had lost my explosive first step. I was disturbed that I was not the defender that I wanted to be. Because the Red Sox relied upon me to come into games late to play the outfield for a few of our guys — primarily Manny Ramirez — my lack of range was unacceptable.

That offseason, I was approached by Ben Cherington (then a Red Sox vice president of player personnel) and Mike Hazen (then the farm director) about managing in the organization and it seemed at the time like the perfect fit. The job changed the way I understood the game.

At some point, Ben opened my eyes wide when he sent me a study on the sacrifice bunt and the value of the out in major league baseball at the time. I considered myself to be a student of the game, but this was the first time I had a baseball man illuminate such a study. It was at that point that I realized that baseball players are not the most educated people in our game — far from it.

Doubles, batting average, RBIs, wins and losses, strikeouts — we grew up tracking them all on the backs of the baseball cards of the players that graced the diamond before us. I remember my 1984 Don Mattingly baseball card and his .343, 23, 110 line on the back (I traded that card for a skateboard — a story for another day). Hell, when we watched the A’€™s battle the Angels on TV from the Red Sox clubhouse, we wanted to know what Garret Anderson‘€™s average was up to and were served that information every time he walked to the plate in the form of a graphic beneath a shot of him staring down Tim Hudson or whoever the Oakland pitcher of the moment was.

To take it a step further, when we discussed our numbers with our agents, it was in the form of the traditional verticals, the ones we used for decades prior. We correctly assumed that our reps were using these statistics in conversations with the general managers of our clubs. We stood in the truth that our value — our worth as baseball players — was wrapped up in these metrics.

Times have changed, but substantially less among players. While progressive front offices have altered the way they evaluate us, we have lagged far behind in the way we grade ourselves. It’€™s akin to unhealthy communication in a relationship.

Imagine a husband taking out the trash everyday and feeling pretty good about handling his obligation. Meanwhile, his wife thinks, ‘€œI wish that lazy bum would wash the dishes once in a while!’€ If expectations aren’€™t discussed regularly, they become mismatched. And we are in that place now in baseball.

The player still thinks he’€™s going to make a boatload of money because he’€™s hitting .300, and he might … but not because he’€™s excelling in that statistic. He may be shocked to find that he’€™s not in as high demand as a guy dominating a peripheral measurable.

What consistently makes my senses tingle is the relationship players have with their statistics, and the fact that they are focused on the wrong ones. I can recall a conversation with a stressed-out Rusty Greer, who had gone a few weeks without driving in a run.

What he didn’€™t consider was a) his lack of opportunity, b) the defensive impact on his ability to get hits with runners on base, c) the plate appearances in which he walked, d) the times he did have an opportunity, got a hit and the runner still failed to score for myriad reasons. Perhaps the most important element that he overlooked was the possibility that he wasn’€™t being evaluated on this statistic. The reason he didn’€™t know is because nobody informed him. Rusty can’€™t be blamed for this.

But when a player goes a week without a hit, or a pitcher has a four-start stretch without a win, panic sets in. That anxiety can affect the following performance. It can drive a player to the brink of insanity, and in turn impact the energy of a team. A negative ripple effect inevitably occurs the moment a player begins to feel anxiety about a metric almost completely out of his control.

I went through a hitless stretch as a Detroit Tiger that had my teammates asking to confiscate all of my sharp objects. We were playing in Toronto at the Sky Dome and I finally lined a ball to right field for a base hit. Between innings, Shawn Green approached me and said, ‘€œIt felt like you were ill, right? Like you just threw up and now you feel better.’€ He was spot on. I was floored to realize that a player I respected on the other side of the field could sense my anxiety.  Moreover, I was mortified that I was so obvious.

Why didn’€™t anybody approach me and tell me that I wasn’€™t being evaluated on my batting average (I’€™m talking to you, Brad Ausmus!)? As it plummeted, I pondered my career ending at any moment. That’€™s not the best energy to bring to the clubhouse or to the batting cage or to the batter’€™s box.

So, what if players were to understand better what they were truly being evaluated on?  Would there still be panic? Absolutely. The common clubhouse joke about taking away teammates’€™ shoestrings upon the arrival of a prolonged struggle would still have a home.

But at least the upset would be related to something meaningful. If, for example, we taught pitchers about Fielding Independent Pitching — which truly spotlights what a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts and homers) and removes balls in play, thereby eliminating a fielder’€™s ability to have an impact on the outcome of a play and consequently a pitcher’€™s line — we place the responsibility right where it belongs. If we show a hitter how well hit balls and exit velocity/speed off the bat are being examined more and more closely, then the hitter will freak out less when crushing a ball off the pitcher’€™s forearm and having it ricochet safely into the glove of the first baseman for an out. He may walk back to the dugout thinking, ‘€œKa-ching!’€ instead of throwing a water cooler and forcing some nearby cameraman to change clothes.

It’€™s a stretch, but the result might be better baseball in general for us fans. After all, there isn’€™t a single element of this game outside of talent more responsible for success than confidence. Ask even the old school men in baseball and they’€™ll tell you the same.

Teaching baseball players about new performance metrics is not the lesson here. Instead, the lesson is embracing education. Thinking that, because we play or played the game, we know the game best is a dangerous proposition. I’€™m certainly not trying to discredit anyone. The players will always be the only ones on the planet to know what it feels like to square up a CC Sabathia fastball or to trot in from the bullpen, walkout music blaring from the speakers on sacred ground.

Players simply need to stay in ‘€œbaseball school,’€ pay attention, keep an open mind and evolve with the decision makers. At the end of the day, the powers that be may not mind our confusion.

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