Old-school MLB stats shouldnt be dismissed: Sherman

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I want to discuss my dad, .300 batting averages and wins. But first, a quiz that will be answered below (no peeking):

Name the seven players who have appeared in a game this season, have at least 5,000 career plate appearances and have a .300 career average or better.

So back to my dad, who hasn’t been doing well health-wise recently. When not in the hospital, he was mainly staying with me. Which means we have watched a lot of baseball together recently. A lot.

And I realize that no matter what I explain or how many times, my dad is not going to get WAR, or understand why Jacob deGrom is out after five innings (he will yell at the TV about that one), or stop saying that this would be a good time for Aaron Boone to order a hit and run, and be disappointed when it never comes. My dad wants to know what a guy is hitting and how many wins a pitcher has.

I want to encourage the current tastemakers that there are still a lot of fans like this and not to make them feel stupid by dismissing parts of the game that matter to them. I would say, in fact, that downgrading the importance of easy-to-understand counting stats, like batting average and wins, has hurt the sport.

It was once part of the day to track whether a player would reach 100 RBIs, 20 wins or bat .300. It would particularly help keep interest in a losing team late in the season to forecast whether a favorite player would hit a round number. You could watch and know the player was two runs short of 100 or that he needed to go 2-for-5 on the final day to reach .300. No fan was sitting and thinking: He is just a rangy defensive play, one double and a stolen base away from going over 5.0 WAR.

This is a good moment to tell you I like modern metrics and the attempt to better understand what is most valuable on the field. I would suggest, however, that the front-office obsession to maximize desirable metrics while being indifferent to the entertainment element of the game has produced a less enjoyable product to watch (think the endless relief parade, for example).

Many metrics reveal more about the quality of a pitcher than do wins and more about the quality of a hitter than does average. Yet sitting with my dad, I have wondered if those stats are now underappreciated.

Let’s take the win. We know better than ever that the win depends on much that is not the pitcher — namely the support of his offense and defense. But a starter does have to pitch at least five innings and be ahead at time of exit to qualify for a win.

Don’t dismiss that guideline. Teams carry at least 13 pitchers and are not shy about the conveyor belt up and down to restock fresh arms. Yet not infrequently, managers are shorthanded with pitching. Thus, starters who protect the pen by consistently getting 15 or more outs and handing the ball off with a lead are as valuable as ever.

The Cubs’ bullpen has been perhaps the most surprising unit in the sport this year. Protecting that unit is vital, and you might note that Kyle Hendricks has won his past eight starts and pitched no fewer than six innings in all of them.

Again, there are other ways to show how well he has pitched in this streak. But the buildup of wins (Hendricks has 10) does provide a personal accolade to a starter doing what has become rarer — toting the ball consistently late into a game and giving his team a chance to win.

Plus, MLB is contemplating rules to limit the number of pitchers on a roster — which would motivate longer starts, which should also elevate the importance of starter wins. In addition, the war on sticky stuff could lead to fewer pitchers who “grip it and rip it” on every pitch. Could we be heading toward craftier starters asked to navigate a lineup more than once or twice and be in line for — drum roll — wins more regularly? Sounds a lot like Kyle Hendricks.

About the absence of sticky stuff, since word surfaced from the June 3 owners meetings that enforcement was coming, batting averages were .244 MLB-wide, compared to .236 before. Not great, but an uptick. That even with less spin, averages were still just .244 (what Miguel Andujar and Dom Smith were hitting entering the weekend) shows how tough it is to get a hit.

Some of that is swing philosophy, often emphasizing launch and seeking homers. But that is a result of how hard it is to score runs by getting hits in a field of play with so much pitcher velocity, even natural spin, better defensive positioning and more detailed charts to expose hitter weaknesses to pitch variety and location.

So to have a .300 batting average now is impressive. When, for example, Vladimir Guerrero Sr. won the MVP in 2004, he hit .337 when the MLB average was .266. His son, Vlad Jr., was hitting .340 this year when the league average was .238. So though batting average does not paint the picture that we thought it did for most of the game’s history, the ability to produce batting average in the current forum is significant.

The AL-best Astros, for example, were hitting an MLB-leading .281 — only one point worse than in their 2017 championship season, after which it was revealed they were illegally stealing signs. Two of the four main remaining core position players from that title, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel, were over .300.

It is not a fun corner to be on — defending the Astros — but it suggests that title team had terrific hitters even without illegal help. A third from that core, Jose Altuve, was at .295.

Altuve is part of the quiz answer. He entered the weekend hitting .310 for his career. The only active player with 5,000 or more plate appearances and a better average is Miguel Cabrera (.311). The others in the 5,000/.300 club were Mike Trout (.305), Joey Votto (.303), Charlie Blackmon (.302), Buster Posey (.302) and Michael Brantley (.300), an Astro who reached .300 by leading the majors in hitting this year (.355).

Note the absence of two New York second basemen. Robinson Cano (.303) is not listed because the question read who “appeared in a game this season.” Cano is suspended in 2021 after failing a PED test for the second time. And DJ LeMahieu (.302) is not listed because he entered the weekend 12 plate appearances shy of 5,000.

But getting there and staying there are not the same. Albert Pujols, for example, left the Cardinals as a .328 lifetime hitter after 11 seasons and is now at .297 in his career. Mickey Mantle famously fell under .300 (.298) with four sub-par years to end his career.

It is a reminder, then and now, how tough it is to hit .300. We should respect that achievement.

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