Hopkins Researchers Analyze Stat-Padding in Baseball

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Baseball would benefit from a new statistical category designated for “meaningless” moments in ballgames that are lopsided beyond repair, according to a team of computer science researchers from Johns Hopkins University.

The researchers — JHU sophomore Evan Hsia, recent graduate Jaewon Lee and Anton Dahbura, an associate resident scientist at the university — came to that conclusion in their unique study titled, “Padding the Stats: A Study of MLB Player Performance in Meaningless Game-Situations.” (The paper wasn’t published by any major journals, but is available courtesy of JHU.)

The trio tackled an issue well known to many sports fans: The concept of garbage time. These minutes are universal for any sport in which one team’s lead is so comfortable that victory is nearly unreachable for the losing team.

The authors write that in baseball in particular, teams will traditionally sub out their best pitchers if they’re up and avoid taking easy runs so as not to show poor sportsmanship or risk verbal and physical attack by the other team on the field. Losing teams, meanwhile, might tamp down their aggressive play if the game is out of reach, or will watch individual players play more aggressively to show their heart in a moment when they’re down.

The researchers dubbed these instances “meaningless game-situations” (MGS). By their definition, these are cases in which one team has a 95-percent chance or more of winning at a given moment based how many runs they are ahead.

They concluded that almost 15 percent of home runs in the 2016 season were hit at “meaningless” moments, up several percentage points from the year before. They also found 11 percent of plate appearances happened MGS’s, and that batting averages rose from .255 during all situations to .271 during the allegedly meaningless ones.

According to their research, the biggest culprits for taking advantage while blowing out their opponent in 2016 were the World Series-winning Chicago Cubs, the Washington Nationals, the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox, all of whom made the playoffs.

They singled out Cubs slugger Kris Bryant in particular, finding he hit a whopping .500 in MGS’s when his team was ahead (and .400 in all MGS’s in total) on his way to winning the National League’s MVP award. In all, he hit six of his 39 home runs and 21 of his 102 RBI’s in those “meaningless” situations, though those weren’t broken out on his stat line at the end of the year. “As a result of his MGS prowess, Kris Bryant is the undisputed MGS MVP for 2016,” they wrote.

Another one of their examples that hits home is Orioles first baseman Chris Davis losing out on the American League’s RBI title to Toronto Blue Jays thirds baseman Josh Donaldson by five RBI’s in 2015 because Donaldson hit 10 more of them during MGSs.

While ballgames must go on regardless of the odds of one team making a comeback, the study argues those moments should be counted differently. After all, at the end of the year, the final numbers are what go into the books in the statistically obsessed world of baseball.

In conclusion, the authors write that they hope MGS’s “will one day be incorporated into statistical database splits, so that the performance of major league baseball players under more or less game pressure is brought under the light.”

For baseball fans, regardless of how you feel about the matter, the findings are intriguing. Additionally, the paper is filled with some raw emotion and humor, along with pages upon pages of broken-out stats to compare. Click here to read.

Ethan McLeod
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