Baseball fans from the “Baby Boomer” generation learned all they knew about statistics from the backs of Topps baseball cards. If someone said “SABR”, it was really the word “saber”, referring to a swashbuckling movie starring Burt Lancaster or Stewart Granger. With the advent of Fantasy Baseball, the Internet and advanced metrics for the sport, everything has changed. The real question is, are you still judging player performance by those same stats that were on the baseball cards?
Looking at the back of a 1959 Topps baseball gives us a starting point for this analysis. Obviously, the stats are from the ’58 season and tell you the most basic information. For hitters, you find BA, HR, RBI, Runs, Games Played and a few other categories but not even SB. For Pitchers, it gives you IP, W & L, Strikeouts, BB & ERA. In order to bring the performance up-to-date, let’s see how the new age categories play out, as we review the best of 2018.
> OBP (On-Base %) – Mike Trout led the majors with .460 followed closely by AL MVP Mookie Betts with .438…in ’59, it was Cardinals 1B Joe Cunningham with .453
> SLG (Slugging %, determined by Total Bases / At Bats) – Two teammates led the way with Betts at .640 and J.D. Martinez at .629…Hank Aaron was the only player in ’59 over .600 at .636
> OPS (OBP & SLG)) – Maybe the most telling of the new numbers, as it explains how many bases a hitter has accumulated for his team…only four big leaguers exceeded at least 1.000 with Trout, Betts, Martinez and NL MVP Christian Yelich on the list. Aaron was the only player in that category for ’59 with 1.037 but look at the names filing out the top five…Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks & Willie Mays.
> OPS+ (Adjusted to the ballpark factors with a mean of 100) – Trout was #1 at 199 followed by Betts, Martinez, Yelich and Alex Bregman. In ’59, Aaron was again the best at 182 but names in the top ten that might surprise you included Cunnngham, Harvey Kuenn & Gene Woodling.
> WAR (Wins Above Replacement) – A single number that estimates the number of Wins a player was worth to his team above the level of a replacement player…four players achieved a number of 10 last season with Betts & Trout joined by Aaron Nola & Jacob deGrom. 60 years ago, Ernie Banks led the offensive players with 10.2 and Senators Pitcher Camilo Pascual topped the Pitchers with 8.6.
> Offense Winning % (The percentage of games a team with nine of this player batting would win. Assumes average pitching & defense) – Trout (85.4%) & Betts (84.6%) were the best in 2018 while Aaron was #1 in ’59 at 79.3%
> WHIP (Walks & Hits /IP) – This stat had its genesis from Fantasy Baseball and has now become mainstream. It essentially calculates how many base runners a Pitcher allows per inning pitched…the best for ’18 was Justin Verlander at 0.92 while five others came in at less than a baserunner per inning…Max Scherzer, deGrom, Blake Snell, Nola and Corey Kluber. The top three in 1959 were Art Ditmar (1.03), Harvey Haddix and Don Newcombe.
> Strikeouts per 9 IP – This stat tells you about pitching dominance in the modern era and the modern hitter’s reluctance to put the ball in play instead of swinging for the fences…last season’s leader was Gerrit Cole at 12.4 while Scherzer & Verlander also exceeded 12…1959 was certainly a different environment as Herb Score led the way with 8.2 and Don Drysdale was the only other hurler above 8.
> ERA+ (Once again, adjusted to ballpark factors) – Snell and deGrom were the only two over 200 and Trevor Bauer was 3rd with 198…Hoyt Wilhelm of the Orioles was the best in ’59 at 173.
> Fielding Independent Pitching (similar to ERA but eliminates fielding from the equation) – deGrom, Bauer & Patrick Corbin were the best in 18…Pascual and Larry Jackson of the Cardinals were the top two in ’59.
That’s probably more than enough for your introductory lesson…if you can’t wait for more, try baseball-reference.com