Jeff Francoeur will never be separated from baseball’s statistical revolution, if only because of an ill-fated decision in 2009, when he opened his mouth and promptly inserted his foot. I refer, of course, to this immortal quote:
“If on-base percentage is so important, why don’t they put it on the scoreboard?”
It was a very silly thing to say. Even ignoring the fact that getting on base is half of the batter’s job, some ballparks were already putting on-base percentage on scoreboards by the end of the 2000s. Francoeur tried to be a smartass about something he didn’t know about, and he looked like a fool as a result.
The last few days have been big ones for those interested in baseball statistics. On Saturday, MLB Advanced Media revealed its plan for in-ballpark infrastructure to capture almost unfathomable amounts of data on fielders, data it says will revolutionize fielding metrics. And on Monday, Baseball Prospectus revealed a new model for measuring catcher defense, including (but not limited to, it should be pointed out) to pitch framing.
These developments sound like things the Francoeur’s of the world would dismiss out of hand, but perhaps we shouldn’t be so hasty. Francoeur’s statement, while plenty revealing of his ignorance to the importance of OBP, also says something about the way baseball players — and people in general, no matter how statistically savvy (or not) they are — play games and respond to measurement.
The last five years or so have seen a wide variety of new metrics put on the scoreboard. When I say scoreboard, I refer both to real, live scoreboards (like the Houston Astros, with run expectancy) as well as virtual scoreboards, like Baseball Prospectus, Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and most importantly, the databases kept within front offices. It’s clear that the game has responded — more and more players who fit a no-bat, all-glove profile are getting playing time and getting paid. More and more players with excellent plate discipline are getting paid as well.
The introduction of new statistics and new statistical processes into mainstream sources is will inevitably result in players tailoring their play styles towards these statistics. These statistics already drive salaries more than legacy statistics like batting average and fielding percentage. And that is because, above all, these statistics are the ones showing up on scoreboards, or in arbitration hearings, or at contract discussions. It’s a natural part of being a competitive human being — when confronted with a measurement, the competitive being will strive to improve upon it, an instinct that only pulls harder when the measurements drive salaries.
Some players might be slow to adjust. They might, like Francoeur, continue to play to the statistics that were drilled into their heads as youths. But this is the primary idea I take away from Francoeur’s quote: people will play towards what is on the scoreboard, if only because it’s a measurement everyone involved can see. The past few days have seen a number of new statistics added to the metaphorical scoreboards of the sports world. They might not change the way people watch the games, or talk about the games. But we can be sure, as long as we continue to take these measurements and put them out there for people to see and scrutinize, they will change the way the games are played.