When you’re active on a site like FanGraphs, it’s easy to forget the majority of baseball fans don’t consume the game the way you do. Most people don’t know nearly so much about baseball analysis; most people don’t have the foggiest about UZR. More people, though, are writing about the game in an analytical fashion — meaning more people are being exposed to such analysis. Meaning more people are taking an interest in such analysis, and more or less are just getting started. It’s daunting, because there’s a lot of information out there, but contemporary baseball analysis comes with a handful of fairly basic principles. Principles that are easy to get accustomed to, and principles that can take you most of the way.
We could probably spend several hours coming up with the starter set of analytical principles with which one should be familiar. That’s even without getting too advanced. For pitchers, probably, one would begin with DIPS, or that would at least be near the start. But there are principles for hitters, too, and there’s something convenient about the 2013 version of Raul Ibanez. On Wednesday, Ibanez slugged his 18th home run of the season. In one year — in one half of one year — Ibanez by himself can teach three important lessons. Maybe more. But here are three of them.
I don’t mean this, incidentally, to be a criticism of Ibanez, who’s having an incredible season for a 41-year-old who was supposed to be a pinch hitter. But this is a weird and instructive season, for the reasons you’ll see. Maybe Ibanez can teach a fourth and even a fifth lesson that I’m missing. For the time being, though, this’ll do.
There’s more to offense than homers
Nothing’s sexier for a hitter than a home run. A home run is always the best possible outcome of any given plate appearance, and because of that, because it’s the biggest possible event, home runs are memorable. People will most remember the biggest achievements, and home runs instantly put at least one run on the board. The best hitters tend to hit a lot of dingers. The worst hitters tend not to. There’s a definite correlation between being a power hitter and being a good hitter.
But take the case of Ibanez. Out of players with at least 100 plate appearances, Ibanez ranks 22nd in slugging percentage and eighth in isolated slugging percentage. Let’s take wRC+ to be basically the best measure of offensive value. There are 24 players within 30 points of Ibanez’s slugging percentage. They are averaging a .530 SLG, and a 144 wRC+. Ibanez has a .533 SLG, and a 127 wRC+. That’s a good number, that’s a productive number, but it’s a lower number than Ibanez’s immediate peers.
Ibanez also has an on-base percentage of .289, while his peers are at .362. A home run is more valuable than a single or a walk, but not by four times. Goal No. 1 is to not make an out, and Ibanez has made outs more than seven-tenths of the time. This means that, while he’s supplied a bunch of valuable dingers, he hasn’t supplied much outside of them. That keeps his contribution more modest. It’s just that people remember the homers more than they remember the non-homers, despite the lopsided sums.
There’s more to value than offense
O.K., so Ibanez’s low OBP limits his wRC+, but his wRC+ is still good. He’s hanging out with guys like Jay Bruce and Ian Kinsler and Giancarlo Stanton. If you have to specialize in something, home runs aren’t a bad idea — and those dingers have kept Raul a productive offensive force. And offense, of course, is the most visible way for a position player to help his team win. Hitting directly leads to runs, runs directly lead to wins, and wins are the whole point.
But we’re going to play with some numbers again. There are 36 players within five points of Ibanez’s wRC+, including Ibanez. They’re averaging a 126 wRC+, and a 3.3 WAR per 600 plate appearances. Ibanez has a 127 wRC+, and a 1.1 WAR per 600 plate appearances. Ibanez is on pace to be worth more than two fewer wins than guys who have been similarly productive with the bat, at least over a common full-season denominator.
And that is because of the other parts of baseball that are not hitting. Baserunning matters a little bit, and Ibanez is 41, so, yeah. And, of course, there’s defense, which is what position players usually do half the time. Ibanez has spent some time as a designated hitter, making no defensive contribution, but because he’s not playing the field, other players have to. Guys who do not play the field need to be able to hit. Ibanez shouldn’t play defense, and when he does play defense, he isn’t particularly good at it. He costs runs, even if that process is less visible and less individually impactful than going deep from the batter’s box.
Because defensive metrics are not as reliable as offensive metrics, they are often quibbled with and sometimes ignored. But I think everybody understands Ibanez is a pretty bad fielder — including the Mariners, who regularly replace him with a better defender when protecting a lead — and the most common criticisms of defensive metrics don’t really apply here. Raul Ibanez has played over 12,000 outfield innings during the “UZR era”, and despite changing teams, parks, and leagues, the data keeps coming up negative. You can quibble with defensive metrics if you want, but “Raul Ibanez is a terrible defensive player” shouldn’t be one of the conclusions you quibble with.
But maybe you don’t think he’s been quite as terrible this year as UZR and DRS think. So, hey, cut that number in half, just because you’re uncomfortable thinking he could really cost a team 34 runs over 150 games with his defense. Doing that makes him something in the area of an average overall player.
It might seem surprising that a WAR rates a player hitting home runs at a rate of 47 dingers per 600 plate appearances as a below average performer. It might be hard to believe, even. But just because the result does not match what we expect it to does not mean that it is inherently wrong. WAR produces some surprising results. Not every surprising result is incorrect.
Baseball is nuts
This could’ve been phrased as: “Over big sample sizes, baseball is fairly predictable; over small sample sizes, it is very much the opposite.” But that would’ve been much too bold. Before the year, usually, we can have a pretty good idea of the teams that will be good and the teams that will be bad. We can have a pretty good idea of the coming league-wide statistics, and we know most of the good players will keep playing like good players. But we can’t know what’s going to happen over a small window, and we can’t know what one player is going to produce. We might know if that one player were to replay the season a million times — but that can’t happen for a bunch of reasons — and individual futures can’t be predicted.
All the analysis we do has to do with probability, and everything then happens with a sample size of one. Ibanez, last year, slugged .453 as a Yankee, which means he played half the time in Yankee Stadium. Before that, he did worse at younger ages with the Phillies, and Seattle plays in a bigger ballpark. Ibanez is one off last year’s homer total. He owns the best isolated slugging of his career. He’s got a higher ISO than Miguel Cabrera, Adam Dunn and Paul Goldschmidt.
And six of Ibanez’s homers have come against left-handed pitchers, who were thought to be Ibanez’s big weakness. Last year, in the regular season, he didn’t hit a home run off a lefty. The year before that, just four. The year before that? Four. Ibanez is near the league lead this season, and it’s perhaps equally meaningful that the current league leader is Jeff Baker — with Cody Ransom tied for second. Overall, we all know a lot about baseball. When you break it down, we can easily be made to look stupid. While we know baseball isn’t random, it can look that way often and convincingly enough that one should never dare say too much with too much certainty. With this sort of analysis, baseballs keeps you humble.
Raul Ibanez is not having a good season, for the reasons discussed above. He’s made too many outs, and he doesn’t play good enough defense. But Ibanez is having a very good season at one particular thing, and it is the thing that people pay the most attention to, while being really quite bad at the things that people pay less attention to. 2013 Raul Ibanez is the ultimate mixed bag. There are fundamental lessons to be learned here. And perhaps Ibanez isn’t a mentor only for other players.
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