clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Twinkie Town Analytics Fundamentals: Introduction

Using the Twins to learn the basics of baseball analytics

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins
Under Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the Twins organization has increased its emphasis on advanced analytics
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Introduction

As I hope you have gathered from reading my work since I joined Twinkie town in February, I have an interest in the analytic aspects of the game. I was brought on board to bring an analytic angle to our writing about the Twins. More than just analyzing the game, one of my personal passions is to make the thinking behind the way baseball is played more accessible to fans of the game (and people who might one day become fans of the game… more on that in a bit). With that in mind, I thought it might be useful and interesting to put together a series of education-oriented posts about baseball analytics. I had been anticipating doing a series like this for next off-season, but as we are all adjusting to our “new normal” in the face of the worldwide pandemic I thought it might be a good idea to adjust my plan.

I figure people adjust and cope with unexpected events and the fallout from them in different ways. They use different things as outlets for their stresses and anxieties. Some pick up a new hobby. Others complete a multitude of DIY projects. Some people exercise more. Many binge watch TV shows. And some people might choose to try to learn something. Perhaps some of you will want to spend some of your quarantine time upping your game about the game.

A Quick Personal Story

My experience helping others learn about baseball really begins about twelve years ago. At that time, I was beginning my junior year in college and, like so many other stories begin, I met a girl. She would eventually become my wife and the mother to our twin sons. But at that time, she could be fairly characterized as having been skeptical of me. You see, I was a baseball player for the university we both attended. And my wife was not a fan of baseball – she had not really even given it a thought. Beyond that, she had not always had the most pleasant experiences dealing with baseball players in college to that point. If you have ever spent any time with amateur baseball players, you might be able to relate. Just know they can be a rowdy bunch. So, the odds were stacked against me from the start. Nonetheless, she gave me a chance. After cramming for finals together in the library and a few dinner dates we made it Facebook official. But she still didn’t like or even care about baseball.

So, I decided to work on that. Through some careful discussions I pieced together that it wasn’t so much that she did not like baseball – it was more that she did not know anything about it. Now that’s a problem I could help with! I knew if I could help her to learn about the game, without overwhelming her with the sheer volume of baseball history and my personal passion for it, maybe there was a chance I could turn her into a fan. Luckily for me, she again was willing to give it a go. It was then I began my role as baseball educator and for the past twelve years I have been devising ways to help my wife learn and understand the game.

In that time, I’ve learned that using tangible examples is the best way to make the learning real instead of just conceptual theories. We’ve watched countless games together over the years. Of course, as a lifelong Twins fan, I would most often use the Twins as the textbook for course of study. They have proved a useful curriculum, enabling us to breakdown what we are seeing on the field to build the fundamental knowledge, to analyze the decisions being made to understand the thinking that goes into it, and to observe the patterns and habits of the people playing the game and making the decisions. Beyond what happened in the game, we also started a regular game of “baseball quizzes” where I would test her knowledge. It’s an approach that worked for us, but I’m not sure I would recommend it for everyone!

I can safely share now that I was successful in converting her into a knowledgeable fan of baseball (and the Twins). We had fun with it, and it was one of the ways we came together at the beginning of our relationship. It’s a good thing it worked too – if it hadn’t, I’m not sure how well she would tolerate 162 games on TV every summer or the nearly endless hours I spend reading and writing about baseball. My wife proved to be a good student too – she is now a major (volunteer) editor for my writing on this site – helping me to sharpen and clarify my points so others can understand.

I hope to be able to do something similar with this series.

The Syllabus

If you’ve made it this far, and might be interested in continuing, here’s what I hope to cover over the next several weeks:

  • Part 1: Why batting average isn’t enough
  • Part 2: Why pitcher wins don’t tell us very much
  • Part 3: Why RBIs give credit to the wrong player
  • Part 4: Why managing for saves hurts the team
  • Part 5: Why fielding percentage is a terrible way to understand defense

I am also very interested in hearing from you about the topics you might be interested in covering. If there is something of interest that you’d like me to do a segment on, please leave a comment and let me know. I’d be happy to try to include them in future parts.

As others have tried to do before me, in many excellent books and blogs helping people with these topics, I’ll try to start from the ground floor – assuming you are starting without much knowledge of baseball analytics – and build up the fundamental foundation for the more detailed and complicated concepts. In each post, I’ll be trying to use the Twins (team and players, past and present) to explain why the traditional stat in focus is limited or flawed and then dig into a more advanced concept (or multiple concepts) that improves upon it. And, like I did for my wife, I will throw in some quizzes for fun and to let you test your knowledge.

Disclosing my Ideology

Now might be a good time to make clear that I’m not one of those baseball analysts that thinks all traditional baseball statistics and thinking are obsolete and wrong. And I’m not of the camp that thinks all the new analytics and approaches are right. I believe we should be curious and learn all we can to make better decisions – whatever the information and methods might be. Sometimes the best information is something old school that is tried and true. Other times it might be some much more complicated mathematical approach. In any event, my baseball ideology aligns very strongly with a quote from Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey’s introductory press conference in October 2016. He said, “We will root our decision making in evidence-based practices, both subjective and objective in nature, which means a commitment to understanding the metrics, but always making human decisions.” To me, this means there remains a valuable place for both approaches in baseball today.

In a competitive field such as professional baseball, it’s just a good strategy to keep an open mind about anything that might have potential to give you an advantage. All of that is a long way of saying, while I have an analytic orientation, you won’t find me using this series to bash the “old school” approach just for the sake of doing so. What I hope to accomplish is to bridge the old school and new school to make us all better students of the game. I want to help us to move past any traditional stats and thought processes that have been disproven and to better understand the newer metrics that tell us more and better information.

Wrap-Up

Many of you already know plenty about the game, its history, and its statistics. And you probably know plenty about the analytic concepts that have become so prevalent in the way the game operates today. But others might not. The way I look at it is if I can help just one person learn something new or understand something more deeply, then I will have done my job.

If you’re interested in what I’m proposing with this series, I hope you’ll check back next week for part one. It will focus on batting average, why it’s an incomplete way to measure and value a hitter’s performance, and the better measures we have today. If you have topics you’d like to be explored in this series, please leave a comment and let me know!


John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.