Statistics Lie… Kind of

Although admittedly unquantifiable, statistics seems to pervade the game of baseball and softball more than all other sports. On the surface, this should be a positive thing. Objectivity and analytics can provide meaningful insight and help mitigate many of our inherent biases. When used properly, statistics and objective analysis also helps exploit inefficiencies in markets – well those in which inefficiencies can exist. For information on statistics being used to exploit inefficiencies in the baseball market read: this, this and this. Despite the advances in technology and analytics, we are still plagued by misleading statistics. From the time we first start playing the game, batting average and earned run average (ERA) are the most widely noted and the most important statistics available. Players obsess over their batting average and ERA and coaches obsess over their team’s aggregate batting average and team ERA. The reasoning is simple – Batting Average/ERA provides a consistent measuring stick while being easily calculable and readily understandable. However, these age old metrics are deceiving at best and detrimental at worst. Because of the importance of batting average, a swinging bunt single is celebrated by parents and coaches alike despite the player possibly having an inefficient swing. The “hit” is viewed as a success and unfortunately players are provided with the misinformation that their swing is “successful.” Because of the overinflated focus on batting average – the player, coach, and parents focus on the outcome of the swing (base hit) instead of the process (inefficient swing). In reality, this “hit” was an anomaly based purely on luck. But that doesn’t matter – because little Johnny is now “batting 1.000.” Over the span of a little league or high school season, the sample size of at-bats (ABs) can be limited and luck can play a huge role in a player’s batting average. So, the inefficient swing may not be readily exposed at younger levels and the efficient swing may be concealed because of poor luck. Since the player’s batting average is high, coaches are very hesitant to implement changes in the player’s swing (if they can even notice any inefficiencies). “Why fix what isn’t broken?” “He’s batting .XYZ so he must be good.”

However, since baseball – like gambling – is a numbers game, the more ABs a player gets, the less luck will come into play. Which is why many good high school players – read “those with high batting averages” – get exposed at the collegiate level as pitching and defensive talent increases exponentially and flawed swings become apparent. Unfortunately, because the player was “successful” on a smaller scale, most players don’t see the causal relationship between inefficient mechanics and declining performance. And besides, their guru high school hitting coach always told them they had a good swing. Common excuses for poor performance include bad luck, bad coaching, self assessed injury, etc. Unfortunately, by the time the player reaches this point, the mechanics of the swing are essentially unchangeable. So the player is left telling the stories of his all-star little league days or how “if coach put me in the 4th quarter we’d be state champions, no doubt, no doubt in mind.”

Another victim of the misplaced focus on batting average or ERA, is the player with efficient mechanics but less luck in the small sample size. In 10 ABs (which could be a 1/4 of the season in high school), a player with efficient mechanics may not get any hits because of poor luck. This player gets constant coaching – “change your grip, move up/back in the batter box, swing earlier in the count, take more pitches, take a shorter stride,” etc. All of this misguided advice is due to the misguided focus on batting average. Unfortunately, many times these players are benched, change their mechanics, or never get the opportunity to mitigate luck over a large sample size.

To conclude, statistics can be useful. They can also lie. And many times, they do lie because the interpretation of them is flawed. Stop focusing on batting average or ERA. Stop listening to people who say you are good/great/perfect because you are successful at some level. Start focusing on efficiency in movements. Because only those who are efficient will be successful in the long run.

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