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July 30, 2015

Baseball Analytics Yields MVP Contenders

As the Major League Baseball trading deadline approaches on Friday (July 31), one sabermetric statistic is ubiquitous in all trade rumor reports: WAR.

WAR stands for “Wins Above Replacement,” and the metric is touted by baseball’s statistical weenies as among the best ways to evaluate a “player’s total contributions to their team.” But other factors are being added to the mix to determine, for example, which is the Most Valuable Player in each league.

According to the website, “The idea behind the WAR framework is that we want to know how much better a player is than what a team would typically have to replace that player.” WAR practitioners “start by comparing the player to average in a variety of venues and then compare our theoretical replacement player to the average player and add the two results together.”

The metric is promoted as looking beyond who has the most home runs or has pitched the most shutout innings. In the latest example, the polling aggregation website made the case for San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey as a potential National League Most Valuable Player. This was despite the fact that statistically Posey is not among the league leaders in hitting.

In a twist, FiveThirtyEight declares Posey an MVP candidate for a skill even the WAR framework does not account for: Posey knows how to remain still when catching, an esoteric defensive skill known as “framing” pitches.

Posey “possesses a secret skill that WAR doesn’t detect: He’s the league’s best pitch framer,” FiveThirtyEight declared.

While Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels are regularly knocking the cover off the baseball, the statistical website maintains Posey is winning games with his catcher’s mitt as well as with his bat. By framing pitches, Posey makes it easier for home plate umpires to call strikes. Those called strikes keep his Giants’ pitchers “ahead in the pitch count,” as in balls and strikes. That translates into runs saved by Posey. Ultimately, FiveThirtyEight argues, Posey’s skills translate into more Giant wins. Hence, it concludes, Posey is a serious MVP candidate. (Posey won the National League MVP award in 2012.)

So far this season, FiveThirtyEight reckons Posey has racked up 11.8 “runs in value” through his ability to frame pitches (and in so doing, convincing umpires that the pitcher threw the ball where the catcher wanted it).

Using the “runs in value” metric, Posey trails only the American League slugger Trout.

The key to Posey’s success in framing pitches, the statisticians note, is his ability to remain motionless while receiving a pitch. That, along with the way Posey craftily shifts his glove upward on low pitches—and catchers usually want the pitch “down”—makes its easier to convince (some would say “manipulate”) umpires to call a “strike” even though the pitch was out of the strike zone.

To confirm Posey’s ability, a trait not accounted for with WAR, FiveThirtyEight looked at 24 pitches caught by Posey and six caught by a “league-average [pitch] framer.” It estimated the catcher’s statue-like stance behind the plate has translated into extra 80 “stolen” strikes.

When the data analysis is combines with Posey’s WAR rating, he’s a clear National League MVP candidate.

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