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How I Use Our Custom Leaderboards

I get asked a decent amount of questions on Twitter, and while I try to answer as many of them as I can, I don’t really have enough time to get to all of them, unfortunately. However, a question I received yesterday contained the magic formula to not only getting his question answered, but getting a longer answer in the form of a full length FanGraphs post:

@d_a_cameron When using fangraphs custom leaderboards, what stats do you typically use? Anything that doesnt appear normally?

Why am I answering @jjdouglas1’s question here? It’s quite simple, really – this is his profile picture.

I’m not above admitting that anyone who dons a FanGraphs t-shirt in their Twitter profile picture is going to get special treatment. So, Mr. Joe Douglas, we salute you and your wardrobe choices, and this post is for you. Besides, the Custom Leaderboards are awesome, and they’ve quickly become one of my favorite parts of the site, so giving them a little more attention is certainly warranted.

If you just click on “leaders” from the home page, you’re greeted with a nifty list of the top 35 position players in baseball last year, sorted by their 2011 WAR. While you can then use the different sections of the leaderboards to delve into all of the various metrics we have here on the site, perhaps the best way to use them is to scroll down to the bottom.

There, you’ll find two separate Custom sections – one titled “Custom Leaderboards” and one titled “Custom Players”. The Custom Player list is a really great tool for showing several player’s statistics side by side, as I did with Frank Tanana and Jack Morris on Saturday. I love the Custom Player list and use it all the time. However, it’s the Custom Leaderboard that has become my time sink du jour as of late.

For instance, here’s the default leaderboard that I’ve created for when I want to look up various pitchers over the last decade, which gives me the following list of statistics.

Season IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB LOB% BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP- FBv
2011 43527.1 8.1 % 18.6 % 44.4 % 9.7 % 72.5 % .291 100 100 100 91.5

Since I have set it start out on League Stats, I begin by getting the league averages for each of those numbers from last year. This is a nice little reminder of context, so that when I start browsing through various player leaderboards, I have a recent memory of what the norms are for each number that I’m looking at.

Overall, I think that these numbers give me a pretty good idea of what pitcher-type I’m looking at in a package that is pretty easy to see. I get the three core stats (BB%, K%, GB%) that determine a large amount of a pitcher’s abilities to prevent runs, and then also get to see the variables that usually drive the differences between a pitcher’s expected runs allowed and his results in a given timeframe (BABIP, HR/FB, LOB%). From there, we get these numbers essentially distilled down into their results relative to the league average thanks to the minus categories, allowing us to see the collection of those various components. Finally, I include fastball velocity at the end, just to get a better idea of what kind of stuff a pitcher was working with to get the results from the previous nine categories.

These 10 numbers sum up the majority of what I want to know about a pitcher in most circumstances, especially when comparing past performance between multiple players. And they do it a nice, clean, easy to understand manner that lets me play around with the data in interesting ways. For instance, with just a couple of clicks, I can go from League Stats to Player Stats, adjust the minimum innings filter to 100, then sort by average fastball velocity, and there we can find interesting tidbits like just how similar Jeff Francis and Mark Buehrle were in their core stats last year.

I have a similar list for hitters, which also focuses on their core skills and the results of those skills. However, I don’t use this one quite as much since so many of these numbers overlap with the standard FanGraphs Dashboard. More often with hitters, my use of the Custom Leaderboard focuses on looking at a player’s approach at the plate, such as how low contact hitters can succeed if they also have patience and top-notch power, but Miguel Olivo explains why swinging and missing a lot can make a hitter pretty terrible if he has neither.

Beyond just looking at the leaderboards on the site, however, the Custom Leaderboards and Custom Player lists are also extremely useful tools when we want to play around with the data in Excel. Since you can export any leaderboard from the site into a CSV with one click, it’s super easy to create a custom report with just the numbers you want to look at, then dump it into a spreadsheet and filter to your heart’s content. For instance, if I want to see what other everyday players have matched Olivo’s combination of low contact rate and absurdly high swing rates in a single season, I can simply export this list and use Excel’s filters to view all players with a contact rate below 70% and a swing rate above 55%.

Within seconds, I’ve learned that the only other full-time player with that profile in the last 10 years was the 2002 version of Jacque Jones. Perhaps we shouldn’t be overly surprised, then, that Jones wasn’t able to sustain his performance for long and fell off a cliff at age 29, since opposing pitchers can easily exploit that kind of aggressive approach at the plate.

And, if I want to share the findings of what I’ve filtered after exporting the leaderboards into Excel, there’s a fantastic CSV to HTML table tool that simply lets me copy my tab delimited data from Excel right into the box, set my desired table width, and one click later, wham, instant HTML table.

Using the Custom Leaderboards and Custom Player Lists, anyone can essentially run their own specialized queries on the FanGraphs data set, then share the results with the world, all without any kind of database knowledge required. You can find players with similar skillsets, compare and contrast their results over multiple years, run correlations between different variables, or do nearly anything else your heart desires.

Essentially, the Custom Leaderboards turn FanGraphs into your very own queryable database. It’s perhaps the best kept secret on the site, but it’s also one of the very best tools available to anyone who wants to play around with the data and see just how different types of players can produce value on the field. Even if you’re just interested in tweaking the lists to give you specific pages to follow the results of your fantasy team, I highly encourage you all to take advantage of the customization options that David Appelman has provided here on the site. They’re amazing, and you’ll quickly fall in love with them as I have.