Sports Statistics: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

Sports statistics can be a lot of fun. They help bring many fans to the games, who otherwise would not be nearly as interested. They are also helpful for teams in assessing their players and the areas they need to work on as a team in order to be successful. Sports statistics can be a highly useful tool. However, through mistakes like not looking at the true meaning of a statistic, these numbers can cause more harm than good.

The Good

There are many highly useful sports statistics that are properly tracked and tell a full story. When the data represented is well interpreted, the value of these statistics for a team is incalculable. The importance of correctly assessing statistics has grown dramatically in the past few decades.

A combination of better statistical models, and people in management roles within organizations becoming more open to the usefulness of these statistics, has led to a revolution in sports. While the statistical revolution is something that has affected every sport, we will focus our look on baseball. After all, it may be the most statistically rich sport on the planet.

Many of the teams that were ahead of the game in valuing statistics have had great success since they began to adopt these new models into their gameplan. Even teams that have not found championships have managed to greatly increase their ability to compete. A great example of this was in the movie Moneyball which showed how an underfunded team was able to contend with a disproportionately small budget.

Sports statistics continue to evolve as better models are created for determining what is truly valuable to a team and which players possess those assets.

The Bad

Historically, there have been many major flaws in sports statistics. Some of these flaws revolved around statistics that were misleading. Others involved too much value placed upon a specific statistic. Some statistics did not take outside factors into consideration. In many cases, the problem was with focusing too much on one statistic and ignoring others.

Misleading Statistics

There are many misleading statistics in baseball. One example is fielding percentage. A player who never makes a single error in a season will have a perfect fielding percentage. However, there may be much more valuable fielders who commit a few errors. That is because a fielder’s range is a vital factor that is not factored into fielding percentage.

A centerfielder who catches everything they get to, but cannot get to balls hit to the warning track, is going to be far less valuable than a centerfielder that reaches the warning track every time, but drops a ball or two once out there. All of the balls hit to the warning track will hit the ground for the first player, while only a couple will for the second.

Overvaluing Statistics

Another problem is that, in many cases, people overvalue a statistic. Batting average is a statistic that often faces this dilemma. A high batting average is good, but a high on-base percentage is typically better. A player who has a .311 batting average but almost never walks and has a .330 on-base percentage probably is not as valuable as a player with a .273 batting average and a .385 on-base percentage.

At the same time, though, on-base percentage can also be overvalued. Looking at the first player again with a .311 batting average and .330 on-base percentage, they are likely more valuable than a player with a .261 batting average and a .340 on-base percentage. You have to look far beyond either of these statistics when making this evaluation.

That is because the player with the higher batting average likely puts more balls in play. By putting the ball in play more, they can make productive outs, moving the runner along even when they do not reach base. They also make the fielders make a play, which can result in extra bases, especially if they have speed. Speed can force many mistakes.

Statistics Out of Context

Another major problem is statistics that do not take outside factors into consideration. Almost all statistics in baseball are difficult to compare because they are viewed out of context. A pitcher’s ERA can be greatly affected by things beyond their control.

Pitchers for the Colorado Rockies often have skewed ERAs because they play in a hitter-friendly park where the ball carries in the high elevation. At the same time, pitchers for the Seattle Mariners play in a sea-level stadium, often with cold air and what used to be a very deep ballpark before they moved in the walls.

Pitchers playing with good defenses behind them will also benefit greatly, while those with poor fielders need to strive for as many strikeouts as possible.

There is also the problem of looking at historical statistics. Comparing the ERA of a pitcher during the Steroid Era versus the ERA of a pitcher during the Deadball Era is like comparing apples and oranges.

The Long Ball

Focusing too much on one statistic can also be a problem when evaluating a player. The statistic that tends to get the most attention in baseball is the home run. However, viewing a player as great simply because they hit a lot of home runs is a bit absurd. While there are many phenomenal players who hit a lot of home runs, there were also some pretty mediocre players with the same claim to fame.

Many home run hitters also strike out a lot. You have to look at how a player performs in every facet of the game to truly appreciate their quality. Fortunately, with a sports statistics platform, you can see the entire statistical record of a player and properly evaluate their value.

The Ugly

Some of the ugliest statistics in baseball belong to pitchers. Two of the most arbitrary and pointless statistics to track for a pitcher are Wins and Saves.

A pitcher can pitch four and ⅔ innings of perfect baseball, get injured, and have to come out of the game with a 10-0 lead. The pitcher that comes on in their place can struggle and only make it through ⅓ of an inning while allowing six runs. If the team goes on to win 10-9, the pitcher who gave up six runs would get the win.

At the same time, a pitcher can pitch 10 innings in a 0-0 tie and get the loss when their team makes a couple of errors in the 11th inning to allow the other team to score a run.

With saves, you can have a pitcher who comes into the game in the ninth inning with a three-run lead and nobody on base every night and allows the other team to score two and gets the save.

Another pitcher could come into the game in nobody out, bases loaded, and a one-run lead each night. They could strike out the first batter then get the second batter to hit a sacrifice fly for the second out that allows the runner on third to score before recording the third out. Even if their team went on to win every time, they would be charged with a blown save.

Sports statistics can be very helpful. However, if not properly evaluated, they can lead people to draw many incorrect conclusions.