If you use FanGraphs regularly, you’re probably aware of the WAR framework, and the general ideas behind it. Basically, WAR attempts to sum up the value of a player’s hitting, baserunning, and defense and then compare it to what a replacement level player would have done with the same amount of playing time. While WAR is certainly not perfect, it works pretty well, and it tries to answer the question that baseball fans are frequently asking.
But it doesn’t every question, of course, and sometimes, we ask questions that WAR wasn’t designed to answer. For instance, questions of context are outside the scope of the metric, as it was intentionally created to be context neutral, identifying just the number and value of positive and negative events without including the situation they occurred in. WAR considers every home run to be equally valuable, whether it comes with the bases empty in a blowout or the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth.
When doing player comparisons, you’re usually better off with a context neutral metric, since history has shown that there’s no real tangible skill being measured in “clutch” or “unclutch” situations. Context specific metrics include a measure of randomness, basically, and we’re more often concerned with how good a player is rather than how good a player is and in what manner his events were randomly distributed. If a team is trying to decide whether to sign a free agent or make a trade for a certain player, they are better off with context neutral measures that more directly measure what the player did without the influence of his teammates.
However, there are times when we’re not as concerned about isolating a player’s individual contributions to run scoring, and are more concerned with telling the story of what actually happened in the past. After all, a three run homer counts for more runs than a solo home run, and a team who hits a bunch of three run homers will score more runs than a team that hits a bunch of solo home runs. While it might not be a skill, the distribution of events matter. Single-single-homer is better than homer-single-single in terms of outscoring your opponents.
This is, essentially, why RBIs are still so popular. While the metric itself has all kinds of problems, it measures context-specific performance, and specifically, quantifies our memory of a specific hitter doing a thing that created runs for his team. We can talk all day about how it fails to measure the disparate number of opportunities that players receive, but we’re never going to take away the human desire to quantify how well a player did when he had a chance to put runs on the board for his team.
Thankfully, David Appelman has coded a bunch of statistics into this site that do take context into account, and there’s one stat in particular that does a fantastic job of measuring the idea that drives the popularity of RBIs; that stat is (unfortunately) called RE24. I say unfortunately because, while the name does tell you that it’s based on the run expectancy of the 24 possible base/out states, it still sounds like an error code that your oven gives you, which results in a very expensive service call from the one remaining appliance repair guy left in town. While people make fun of our affinity for acronyms, even I don’t like saying RE24, even though I really like the stat itself.
So, of late, I’ve taken to calling RE24 by another name: Context Batting Runs. This isn’t any kind of official name change announcement for the site or anything, and I’m pretty sure everyone else will go on calling it RE24, but I like the term context batting runs. It says what it is in plain english. I guess if we were being technically, it would be Context Batting Runs Above Average, and maybe I should start referring to CBRAA that so we can all pronounce it Cobra. That would be a fun conversation to have around people who have no idea what’s going on: “His WAR is +5, but once you adjust for the Cobra, he’s off the charts!”
Anyway, enough of that rabbit trail. This post isn’t about renaming RE24 — though I’m in favor of that, I think — but about promoting the idea of what it measures. Too often, I think the mainstream audience and statistically inclined writers end up talking past each other simply because one side puts a large value on context specific metrics and the other does not. Instead of telling them why their context specific metric is lousy, we can instead just offer them a better one.
For instance, here’s a plot of the 150 qualified MLB hitters from this season, with the batting runs component of WAR and then RE24 (Cobra!) on the same graph. Because both of them go negative for below average performances, I’ve stripped out the axis labels, so this plot is more just to show the relationship between the two measures.
That’s a pretty linear relationship — the r squared is .86, for those who are into such things — and shows that most players offensive performance with context included is nearly identical to their context neutral numbers. It also shows just how far ahead of everyone else Miguel Cabrera is (he’s on the far right), which is kind of fun. But you’ll note that there are some points that are pretty far from the line, which tells us that those players have been either significantly better or worse in specific base/out situations than their raw batting line would suggest. Let’s dig into a few of those outliers.
First, the positive.
You’ve probably heard about Allen Craig’s crazy performances with runners in scoring position during his career, and RE24 rewards him for his absurd skew towards hitting in scoring opportunities, as his RE24 is twice as high as his batting runs total. It isn’t predictive, and it’s almost certainly not something Craig can keep doing in the future, but the Cardinals have benefited heavily from Craig’s performance in those situations. If you’re wondering why they keep winning even with a line-up of guys that don’t look to be having amazing seasons from first glance, it’s performances like Craig’s that are driving the Cardinals offense this year.
The rest of the list is fun too. The controversy in Cincinnati about Brandon Phillips or Joey Votto feels contrived, but the people advocating for Phillips aren’t incorrect about the fact that he’s been a fantastic run producer this year. Same thing with Freddie Freeman in Atlanta and Paul Goldschmidt in Arizona. While mainstream writers are going to use RBIs to tell the story of their clutch hitting, the story in and of itself isn’t wrong just because the metric they’re using is poorly designed. Freeman and Goldschmidt have been significantly better in those situations, as has Adrian Gonzalez, whose context neutral numbers make him look like a disappointment.
Now, for the other side of the coin.
Congratulations Josh Hamilton, you’ve been even worse than people think! As we talked about yesterday, the Angels have been much worse than you’d think based on their raw performances, and Hamilton’s struggles in run producing situations are one of the reasons why.
However, no one has been less effective at creating runs relative to their overall batting line than Carlos Gonzalez. If you look at his numbers, along with the stats being put up by Troy Tulowitzki and Michael Cuddyer, it’s hard to understand why the Rockies aren’t leading the Majors in runs scored. Instead, they are tied for 13th, and the struggles of Gonzalez to replicate his overall line when there are people to drive in is one of the factors in their relative struggle to score runs.
Now, I would not make a leap from this data to say that Carlos Gonzalez is “unclutch”, or that you should intentionally walk Allen Craig every time he comes up because he’s just going to drive in all the runs otherwise, but if we’re trying to describe what has happened in the past, the gap between RE24 and a player’s Batting Runs gives us a pretty good indication of the value added or lost due to situational performance.
So, if you’re talking with a friend who likes to quote RBIs, point him towards RE24 instead. It’s getting at the same idea that he’s trying to measure, only it provides a more effective way of valuing those performances than simply counting up all the players who scored. And if someone wants to tell the story of Allen Craig or Brandon Phillips or Carlos Gonzalez this year, well, you can make a pretty good case that the story is better told with context batting runs than just looking at their raw lines.