Context Rules All

Baseball statistics mean absolutely nothing without context.

Without the ability to place numbers in the appropriate context it’s impossible to seriously parse meaningful information out of data points. Unfortunately, context is often forgotten or ignored when talking about various aspects of the game, leading to inaccurate assessments and faulty conclusions. While there are numerous uncertainties surrounding  statistics, there’s at least one sure thing: we can’t know much of anything without factoring in the appropriate baseline.

When looking at a slash line, context most certainly matters. Otherwise, there would be no way to determine if a .255/.320/.375 is good or not. In a .270/.340/.420 league, it isn’t; but the numbers look mighty fine if the league is hitting .250/.320/.360.

Fans intuitively get what constitutes a good or bad line, because their knowledge of the game builds a subconscious understanding of the league average. We might not be able to rattle off the league batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage, but the general vicinity for each is more commonly known.

This season, however, the league averages for each of those stats is significantly lower. In 2005, the National League hit .262/.330/.414. This season, the senior circuit dropped to an average of .253/.319/.391. In 2005, Angel Pagan‘s .264/.324/.385 would be considered below average. Now, his line looks right in line with the rest of the league. The problem is that it becomes tough to adjust our mental barometers. Pagan’s line is judged in the context of what the league used to be, which can lead to the misguided conclusion that he isn’t hitting well this season.

Mark Teixeira is another interesting player. He has a .345 OBP and .515 SLG for the Yankees right now, compared to a .365/.481 a year ago. Given the importance of on base percentage, relative to slugging, it would seem that his numbers are worse this year. Appropriate context clears things up, though. Teixeira posted a .367 wOBA last season. Despite his 20-point drop in OBP, his current wOBA is .371.

In addition to adjusting numbers based on the context of the specific league and year, parks loom large when evaluating player performance. Take Eric Hosmer and Jason Heyward as examples.

The former is being lauded as having a solid rookie season for the Royals, while the latter is lambasted for his sophomore slump in Atlanta. Hosmer is hitting .272/.322/.423, while Heyward is putting up a disappointing .222/.311/.397. Now, I’m not going to defend Heyward’s performance — even though he deserves to play every day he isn’t performing up to expectations — but it should be pointed out that the two players are not far apart when looking at general productivity. Using wRC+, which adjusts for both park and league, Hosmer’s 100 isn’t too far above Heyward’s 96.

Lastly, splits prove troublesome because context is used incorrectly. If Carlos Gonzalez hits vastly better at Coors Field than in road stadiums, his self-split on its own isn’t anywhere near as relevant as that split compared to the league H/A split.

Still, stories will compare his home production to his overall production. Similarly, when judging the hitting prowess of a player against same-handed pitching, comparing the split wOBA to the overall mark of the player isn’t the appropriate way to properly understand that player’s productivity. To get a handle on how the player fared, the league split for batters against same-handed pitchers must be introduced. Individual splits are meaningless if they aren’t compared to the league split.

Contextualizing numbers when making arguments or evaluating players is extremely important relative to choosing the appropriate metric. Without context, even the right statistic can be wrong.



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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.


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Biased Fan
Guest
Biased Fan
5 years 1 day ago

This is why I’d love to see Fangraphs have a Leauge Average Player Page. It’d allow quick reference to the average values in-season, as well as allow readers to look at overall trends from year to year.

Eric R
Guest
Eric R
5 years 1 day ago

Well, you could do OK just going to the team totals and picking out the median… NL median this year is .254/.316/.396, almost dead even with the averages listed in this article, .253/.319/.391.

Sure, printing the average on the page would be easier :)

AK707
Member
AK707
5 years 1 day ago

Well, going to the team totals and picking out the median isn’t the same as “quick reference.”

gdc
Guest
gdc
5 years 1 day ago

You can name this character “League Average Player;Nominal Average, Just Offense In Era” or Lap Najoie. A step up from Pecota.

Kevin S.
Guest
Kevin S.
5 years 10 hours ago

On player pages, you can click “Show averages” in most sections to see what the league-average is.

kick me in the GO NATS
Guest
kick me in the GO NATS
4 years 11 months ago

How about a league average by position page!!!! it is unfair to compare SSs to 1Bs in purely offensive terms.

Alex Rios, Juan Pierre & Adam Dunn
Guest
Alex Rios, Juan Pierre & Adam Dunn
5 years 1 day ago

How does this context apply to us??

tdotsports1
Guest
5 years 1 day ago

You three are still awesome, any way you slice it.

kick me in the GO NATS
Guest
kick me in the GO NATS
4 years 11 months ago

You can blame it all on Ozzie

mike wants wins
Guest
mike wants wins
5 years 1 day ago

Agreed, context is hard to get from most any set of numbers. It’s why I never get the argument over the ONE PERFECT STAT. There is no such thing, and won’t be in my lifetime.

Telo
Guest
Telo
5 years 1 day ago

“Using wRC+, which adjusts for both park and league, Hosmer has created 100 runs. Heyward has created 96.”

For a “Saber 101” article, this line is is very poorly worded. I’m sure half of the people reading knew what you meant and didn’t think twice, but those half also took absolutely nothing away from this article, which could be boiled down to one sentence – “context matters when looking at any statistic” – something we knew on day 1 of serious saber thinking.

I’m not saying it’s not an important thing for people to read, but FG should really consider an article level system – 101, 201, 301. So we know which ones to skip. This was useless to at least 50% of the readership.

Telo
Guest
Telo
5 years 1 day ago

And honestly, hopefully more than 50%.

PatsNats28
Member
PatsNats28
5 years 1 day ago

lol yeah that caught my eye immediately. Might wanna fix that… it’s wRC+, not wRC.

TK
Guest
TK
5 years 1 day ago

It needs to be further fixed. It’s confusing when you say “Heyward created 96 runs” It would be like saying a guy with an OPS+ of 150 was “slugging 150”

I think it is best to avoid confusing language, regardless of whether or not your readers will figure it out.

Richie
Member
Richie
5 years 1 day ago

Agreed on the conclusion. Just not the proffered solution. Just gives the newbies another number re ‘just what the heck is that supposed to mean??’ Doesn’t take too much such stuff to simply drive people away.

I suspected from the title this article was aimed below me, and knew it was by the 2nd paragraph. Just stop reading at that point.

Telo
Guest
Telo
5 years 1 day ago

Fair enough. I still think there is room for some categorization at least.

Ben Hall
Member
Member
Ben Hall
5 years 1 day ago

I’m curious, Telo, if you’re aware of your reputation. I often read comments, but I skip over yours. Have no idea what you said about this article. I’ve read enough to know you’ll likely criticize the author, either his writing or his argument. You’ll likely do it rudely. But your argument will probably be flawed, as will be pointed out by the commenters below. I don’t think I’ve ever found your comments useful or enjoyable.

Do you enjoy it? It seems more like you’re compelled to do it.

DJLetz
Guest
DJLetz
5 years 1 day ago

I think the perceptions to which you refer regarding Pagan, Hosmer, Teixeira, and Heyward have less to do with the sorts of contexts you cite than with the law of first impressions. Pagan, Tex, and Heyward started out the season very cold; it could accurately said of Pagan that he was having a dreadful hitting season as recently as a few weeks ago (.239/.308/.343), before he started going on a tear. Hosmer, on the other hand, came up in May slugging up a storm and got everyone excited.

hunterfan
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hunterfan
5 years 1 day ago

Tex actually started out the season decently this year. There were a slew of articles about his new offseason workouts.

Hurtlocker
Guest
Hurtlocker
5 years 1 day ago

I don’t think the context is between stats, I think the context is between what you see and what the stats say. If you watch a team every day, like I do with the Giants, you can see why they are struggling even without knowing the stats. Players look like they lack confidence, thye look like they are trying not to lose instead of trying to win.

bill
Guest
bill
5 years 1 day ago

If you watch a team every day, like I do with [Team X], you can see why they are [catch-all verb explaining performance] with knowing the stats. Players look like [hyperbolic conclusion], [meaningless sports catch-phrase].

Mad libs!

Andrew
Guest
Andrew
5 years 1 day ago

If you watch a team every day, like I do with Atlanta, you can see why they are making a run without knowing the stats. Players look like they are dialed in, batter’s are putting the barrel on the ball and the pitcher’s are hitting all their marks.

What’d’ya know!? It works!

Let’s do more of these!

uberfatty
Guest
uberfatty
5 years 1 day ago

If you watch a team every day, like I do with Milwaukee, you can see why they are breaking away from the Cardinals without knowing the stats. Players look like they are having fun out there, they look like they are really enjoying the game and playing with a lot of passion.

Sitting Curveball
Member
5 years 1 day ago

If you watch a team every day, like I do with Cleveland, you can see why they are slipping out of the race without knowing the stats. Players look like they don’t really want to win, and they lack both the heart and the experience to succeed.

Yay, now I have the thesis for an ESPN article!

TK
Guest
TK
5 years 1 day ago

If you watch a team every day, like I do with the Astros, you can see why they are poised to win the Central next year without knowing the stats. Players look like they are going to turn the corner, they really want to give the fans something to cheer for.

Eminor3rd
Member
Eminor3rd
5 years 1 day ago

If you watch a team every day, like I do with the White Sox, you can see why they are horribly disappointing with knowing the stats. Players look like they are frustrated and disenchanted, and they haven’t been able to hit on all cylinders all season.

Jeremiah
Guest
Jeremiah
5 years 1 day ago

With regards to Carlos Gonzalez, not only are his home/away splits relative to league average home/away splits relevant, but his away splits relative to an average Rockies player should be considered. Hitters going from altitude to sea level are going to produce at a different rate than those who don’t have to make the adjustment.

Mr wOBAto
Guest
Mr wOBAto
5 years 1 day ago

I would like to see splits by Home/Road as well so we can see if Cargo and Upton’s low road BABIP has something to the way they are seeing pitches. Upton and Gonzalez play in the two highest altitude stadiums in baseball(Colorado obviously much more so) both players have dramatic splits but when compared to their teams as a whole it looks a lot less awful.

Welp
Guest
Welp
5 years 1 day ago

In light of LD and GB %s, Upton’s BABIP looks more like ‘bad luck’ than Gonzalez’s. There’s also the fact that Upton had almost no split at all last year, while Gonzalez’s have always been extreme.

Drew
Guest
Drew
5 years 1 day ago

Call me a Saber 101 idiot, but clear this up for me: wOBA is based on adjustments for league average?

Sitting Curveball
Member
5 years 1 day ago

wOBA is not adjusted for league average, and I don’t think it’s park-adjusted either.. However, wRC+ is another linear-weight offensive stat and is both park-adjusted and set on the same scale as other “+” stats where 100 is league average and 110 is 10% better than league average.

DHRjericho
Guest
DHRjericho
5 years 1 day ago

Missed opportunity for a Wu-Tang reference.

Context Rules Everything Around Me

Resolution
Guest
Resolution
5 years 1 day ago

Let it be known that on 8/26/2011, you won.

SeaWolf
Guest
SeaWolf
5 years 1 day ago

I couldn’t agree with the opening sentence more! Context is evertything!

However, I think the judgement of the contetx is frequently based upon expectations (emphasis on expectations). Take your Heward/Hosmer comparison for example. It seems, to me, that you are saying that they are fairly equivalent this year, when measured by wRC+, therefore, the lauding of Hosmer and the lambasting of Heyward is flawed. However, the context is not Heyward vs. Hosmer. The people lambasting Heyward are doing so becuase of their expectations of Heyward (i.e. he put up a 134 wRC+ in his rookie year, therefore, in that context, his 96 sucks!

Hosmer, on the other hand, is a rookie, and the expectations of him, for this year, are lessened becuase he is a rookie. In that contetxt, his wRC+ of 100 meets or exceeds expectations, therfore, he is lauded.

The context for the lauding and lambasting is not Heyward v. Hosmer (or even Heyward or Hosmer v. a league standard) , but is Hosmer v. the expectations for Hosmer as a rookie, and Heyward v. the expectations for Heyward follwing his superb rookie season.

(please pardon any spelling errors above)

ecp
Guest
ecp
5 years 1 day ago

Thank you for beating me to it, this is exactly the point I was going to make.

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