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Friday, January 27, 2012

Sabermetrics and the Plain Meaning Rule

I'm an attorney by trade, and I spend a lot of time reading and analyzing state statutes and judicial decisions. This post is a legal-baseball hybrid. Caveat Emptor. Many jurisdictions in the United States have enacted the so-called "plain meaning rule." It's a rule of judicial interpretation intended to guide courts as they review state statutes in their analyses of cases. Particular rules differ from state to state, but a typical plain meaning rule might go something like this: "In the construction of statutes, words and phrases shall be construed according to the commonly approved usage of the language. Technical words and phrases shall be construed, understood and defined accordingly."

The overarching goal is to prevent courts from interpreting statutes in a bizarre fashion, and to ensure that laws are read and applied word-for-word. In theory, it sounds great. In application, it sometimes proves difficult. Contrary to what one may expect, legislative language is not always clear, and statutes sometimes may be susceptible to multiple, reasonable interpretations. Nonetheless, the plain meaning rule serves as a general guide to courts and individual judges as they attempt to uniformly apply laws to unique cases and sets of facts.

The plain meaning rule is applicable in the baseball context, as well. For the record, I think that some advanced stats are very useful. Wins Above Replacement is fantastic for comparing one player to another. And although I don't have a great understanding of Ultimate Zone Rating, I believe that anything that can help us to better understand and compare defensive stats is noteworthy. After all, a shortstop with no range who commits 7 errors over the course of the season is not necessarily better than a shortstop with fantastic range who commits 20 errors. Sabermetric stats have helped baseball fans, and front offices, to better understand the minutiae of the game.

But for my money, I think that batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are still pretty great stats. The percentage of time that a player is on base has a substantial correlation with runs scored, which is how games are won. And sure, RBIs are largely a team statistic, but it's certainly hard to ignore a player that drives in 130 runs in a season, regardless of who bats in front of him. ERA still is a good, although imperfect, measure of a pitcher's effectiveness, as can be the average number of innings pitched per start. There's no heavy analysis needed for these stats: the players that hit more often and get on base more often, and the pitchers that allow fewer runs per innings and last longer into games. are generally more effective, and better players. Sure, we can -- and often should -- get more specific. But the "plain meaning" of these basic baseball stats is often enough for this fan.

Joe Mauer's 2009 season is a great example of why sabermetrics aren't always necessary. As a friend said to me yesterday when we were talking about Mauer, to over-staticize his 2009 season almost detracts from how great it was, and how great it looked in person (and on television). I think it's sufficient to cite the .365/.444/.587 slash line (1.031 OPS), 28 HR and 98 RBIs over 137 games primarily as a catcher, as well as the .996 fielding percentage and 26% caught stealing rate (though that, in itself, is somewhat dependent on the particular pitcher --- Carl Pavano I'm glaring at you). What more do we need to know about how great that season was? Using those stats only, we can accurately compare Mauer's 2009 season to the other historic seasons for MLB catchers. I don't need to know how much better Mauer played than a replacement level player, or even how much value the Twins got for the $12.5 million they paid him. And in any event, I think we saw the definition of "replacement" value in 2011 watching Drew Butera, Rene Rivera and Steve Holm, and then comparing that product -- with our eyes only -- to what Mauer brings to the table, even on a not-so-great day.

This post isn't intended to be an indictment on sabermetrics. To the contrary, advanced stats have their place, especially in front offices when teams need to compare similar players as they decide to whom, and under what provisions, to make a contract offer that could either be great for the team, or be an albatross for years to come. And I have no beef at all with fans and other bloggers that really get into sabermetrics. In fact, I like reading most if it, and have learned a lot along the way. I do, however, think that it's important to not forget to see the forest as we delve into the trees. A .300 batting average and .400 on-base percentage generally make for a pretty good player. Give me a team with 5 or 6 .300-hitters, and I'll show you a team that might have a chance in October. Give me a pitching rotation with a staff ERA under 4.00 and I'll show you a team that could dominate in the postseason. Sabermetrics can definitely advance the analysis of the game, but in some cases plain meaning is enough.

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