It is rare for me to get overly excited when watching regular season baseball. The season is 162 games, and over that long season, there are some ups, and there are some downs, and I know that generally speaking, things smooth themselves out by September. The good teams make the playoffs, and the bad teams finish with mediocre records. I realize that individual plays, the type that generate excitement in other sports(this is particularly true in football), just do not have the same impact on a team’s likelihood of making the playoffs in baseball.
Last night I had the opportunity to watch my first San Diego Padres’ game of the year. For most of the evening I watched the Padres struggle to get on base, and listened to Vin Scully’s fascination with Rob Johnson’s home state of Montana. Scully’s soothing style, the lack of action in the game itself, and my personal tendency to not get too emotional while watching baseball contributed to an incredibly relaxing, yet somewhat dull evening. Until the bottom of the seventh inning.
Trailing 0-3, with nine outs to go, the Padres had only an approximately a 10 percent chance of winning the ballgame. However, when Jason Bartlett started the inning with a walk, and Brad Hawpe and Chase Headley soon followed with singles to load the bases with only one out, I started to perk up a little bit. Sure the Padres still had a win expectancy under 25 percent, but the optimist in me estimated their chances of winning at a much higher rate.
That optimism was short-lived. Chris Denorfia grounded into an inning ending double play, and in a rare emotional outburst, I smacked the cushion of my couch, let fly a few choice words, consulted my Fangraphs iPhone app, and saw that the Padres win expectancy had plummeted to about 5 percent.
Win Probability Added (WPA) is a stat that I feel is misused all too often. It doesn’t really tell us who the best players are (although cumulative WPA totals do tend to be correlated with WAR), and frankly, I don’t love its use in supporting MVP candidacies. That said, it does have its place. It is a stat that tells a story. It does a great job quantifying the emotion of games on the daily level.
Denorfia’s double play reduced the Padres chances of winning by about 18 percentage points. By WPA, it was the single most impactful moment of the game, and somewhat justifies the emotion I felt at the time.
A frequent complaint by people less familiar with the complete array of new baseball statistics is that stats are taking over the game. That somehow the stats are removing the human element from the game, and reducing baseball to an emotionless matrix of numbers.
I beg to differ.
For me, the stats tell the story of what happened during the games and what transpired over the course of a season, or even multiple seasons. Many of the newer stats simply tell those stories more accurately and more completely than some of the traditional statistics.
Last night, the existence of Win Probability Added did not suck the emotion out of the game. It simply helped me describe the emotion I felt.