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Why numbers don’t always tell the whole story

Numbers never lie directly, but sometimes they can commit lies of omission.

Kansas City Royals v Colorado Rockies Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Analytics and smarter baseball have taken Major League Baseball by storm over the last couple of decades. Big league broadcasts have started using stats like FIP and OPS in their broadcasts instead of/or in junction with ERA and BA and RBI etc. Numbers don’t lie. If a batter goes 1/10 in a three game series, that batter went 1/10. His batting average will read .100 and that is matter of fact.

What the box score won’t tell you is the quality of that hitter’s plate appearances. Did he hit six screaming line drives right at somebody? Did he also draw seven walks? That’s where xwOBA and other advanced stats help to clear up the nuances within the game. People much smarter than me have done a great job of creating statistics to help clear up the randomness that happens in baseball.

The problem with baseball is that there isn’t a number for everything. There are subtleties that live within the game that simply can not be counted. If you haven’t been around baseball long (which is totally fine), it may be hard to identify instances in which mathematics can’t help to tell the story of a game. Here was one such instance that occurred Sunday during the Royals game:

One of the things that frustrates me most during baseball games is when simple, low-level, well known aspects of the game are blundered by major league players. In the case above regarding Jorge López, it gets worse when you consider that it was his own catcher that went up to the plate hacking on the first pitch he saw.

After a 17 pitch third inning in which López really had to grind through three outs, Martín Maldonado stepped to the plate and made an out on the first pitch he saw. In no way should Maldonado have been swinging there. If it’s Mike Trout? Swing away. Adalberto Mondesi? Sure. Martín Maldonado? Never. The inning ended for Giolito after eight pitches and López was forced to go straight back to the mound.

After recording the first out of the fourth inning, López gave up home runs on back-to-back pitches to José Abreu and Yonder Alonso on pitches that stayed up in the zone. The box score will read that Jorge López surrendered two home runs in Sunday’s outing. At the end of the year is HR/9 will reflect them as well. But what will be forgotten is the “how we got there” aspect of the home runs. No one will remember Maldonado chasing a borderline first pitch and popping out to begin the bottom of the third inning.

What I don’t want to happen after this next paragraph is to read a ton of (serious) comments about how numbers don’t matter, analytics are a sham, and any other of that nonsense. Played out over 162 games the numbers almost always catch up. Incidents like what happened on Sunday aren’t the norm and the law of averages will certainly catch up to López as the season goes on. However.

It’s important to acknowledge nuances like this. Part of a scout’s job is to watch a game play out and decide how much of what happens is directly in a particular player’s control. Anyone can read a box score, or a FanGraphs page, etc. It doesn’t take a genius (speaking from experience) to interpret data. What is often times tough to see though is the game within the game. Pitch sequencing. Cross ups. Lack of communication. Lack of discipline. This is why some “old heads” gripe on social media about analytics, because there are some things we just don’t have a number for.

But the beauty of baseball lies where analytics and scouting meet. Somewhere in the middle of these two places is a beautiful game that no one man can fully understand. It takes a team, a scouting department, an analytics department, old guys, young guys, baseball lifers, and computer nerds to crank out the best team possible. Some do this better than others, and some lean too far in one direction.

My caution to you is this: don’t ever take either party too seriously. Whether you lean heavily on analytics, or heavily on old school scouting, take time to find some middle room. In every game you’ll find examples of both taking precedent. Baseball is a much more difficult game than some like to make it, which is the beauty of the game if you ask me. Take time to appreciate the nuances that exist within the sport. You might find yourself worrying less about the length of the game and wishing they played 10 innings on a daily basis instead.