I’m an admitted stats nerd. I also know that stats can lie.
It’s important that we understand the value of stats while also appreciating their weaknesses. There is a mountain of ways that we can misuse them if we’re not careful.
One of the primary weaknesses of stats is that, when misused, they can tell virtually any story we want. You can cherry-pick stats. You can focus on one sample size over another. Or they can be improperly scored to favor your narrative.
There are multiple controls in place at the professional level that make stats valuable. Consistent and experienced scoring. No gaps. Large sample sizes. Technology. Those things don’t exist in youth baseball.
I value stats, but I also understand their limits.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the weaknesses of stats at the youth level…
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How the Scorekeeper Impacts Stats
Youth scorekeepers are volunteers. They aren’t paid. They hold bias. And they are imperfect.
1. Experience and Accuracy of the Scorekeeper
There are some situations that are often scored incorrectly. Some examples:
- Wild pitch vs. passed ball
- Stolen base vs. advanced on wild pitch/passed ball
- Fielder’s choice vs. hit
- Sacrafice fly vs. fly out
- Extra base hit vs. single plus advanced on error
- Defensive indifference vs. stolen base without a throw
How these things are scored can significantly impact your results.
2. Subjective Calls
One reason I hate the error stat, particularly at the youth level, is that they are subjective. Should the player have made the play? Was it a difficult play? Was it a bad throw or should it have been caught?
Subjective calls create a huge range of potential variations in how something could be called. It’s why I ask my scorekeepers not to call errors on the opposition when our batters reach base and no out is recorded. It removes all subjectivity.
Whether or not something is called an error has a significant impact on how we evaluate several things:
- Fielding percentage
- Batting Average and On Base Percentage
- Earned Run Average
It becomes problematic when we are evaluating and comparing players based on subjective stats that are easy to manipulate, particularly when sample sizes are small.
3. Objectivity of the Scorekeeper
This is an easy one. A scorekeeper, typically a parent of one of the players, needs to be objective and fair to all players. The risk is there to inflate statistics for some and deflate them for others.
This is one more reason to limit the scoring of subjective statistics at the youth level. Not only does it make the statistics more accurate and consistent, but it creates fewer opportunities for dispute.
Factors that Influence Statistical Quality
Even if you have an experienced and consistent scorekeeper (we do!) and you limit subjective scoring, there are opportunities to spin stories through stats. Here are a few of them…
1. Quality of the Opposition
We see a wide range of opposition at the youth level. Is a player padding their numbers while facing weaker competition? Do they whither against strong competition?
A good example is management of pitching. A coach is likely to reserve his best pitchers for important games against the best competition. He’ll use his less experienced pitchers against the weaker teams in less important games.
As a result of this, the stats can tell an odd story. Your ace pitcher may have comparable or possibly worse stats than your weaker pitchers. But does that mean the weaker pitchers are better?
2. Sample Size
Sample size is critical because there are so many factors that contribute to your stats being great, good, average, or below average. You can luck into some good or bad stats for a small sample size. Ultimately, these things will work themselves out based on your process and approach.
But that’s part of the issue with youth baseball. We often hear about professional baseball players being in slumps for 30 or 50 at bats, but they eventually get out of them. We can’t wait out a 30-50 at bat slump in youth baseball since that’s typically 15-20 games. That’s often a third of a season.
We’re forced to make decisions on lineups, positions, and rotations based on small sample sizes (and other factors, like approach and preparation). As a result, we need to be flexible to acknowledge when these assessments may have been wrong.
Something that happened recently, assuming a respectable sample size, is more valuable than something that happened a couple of months or a year ago. It’s important to spot trends and transformations while also doing so with sample size in mind.
For example, one good or bad game means very little in terms of what to expect going forward. Once again, many factors contribute to that, some that the player controls and some that he doesn’t.
Players develop and change. We should value a recent sample size over an older one of the same size because the two sets of data could represent what has become two completely different players.
Process vs. Results
Since stats lie or can be misleading, it’s important to value process over results, particularly in small sample sizes.
A player isn’t getting results right now at the plate. Is he swinging at good pitches? What’s his approach? Are his mechanics sound? Is he hitting the ball hard but getting out?
The same questions can be asked of a player who is getting positive results at the moment. Maybe they aren’t swinging at good pitches. Maybe the mechanics are flawed. Maybe they’re hitting the ball weakly and finding holes.
Multiple variables, including luck, contribute to results in small sample sizes. It’s important to recognize good process that isn’t currently leading to results, just as it is to monitor bad process that is.
Hitting and Pitching Stats that Matter Most
We’ve outlined plenty of weaknesses of stats above. But it doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up and abandon them entirely.
There are hitting stats that you should focus on. Here are a few of them:
- Strikeouts Looking Rate
- Contact Rate
- Hard Hit Percentage
- Line Drive Percentage
- Adusted OBP (including ROE)
- Slugging and OPS
Here are a few of the pitching stats to focus on:
- Strike Percentage
- WHIP ((Walks + Hits)/Innings Pitched)
- Strikeout to Walk Ratio
- Hard Hit Percentage
- Strikeout Percentage
As discussed, I’m not a fan of the defensive error. That’s easy to address offensively. If you reach base and no out is recorded, it’s a hit. Errors can apply if you advance after that (for example, a single and a three-base error instead of a Little League home run).
Where this becomes tricky, of course, is defensively. Do we ignore errors here? If so, how do we evaluate defensive performance?
I try to create a balance. I instruct my scorekeepers to be very generous when ruling on errors.
Here are a few times when we would rule an error for our fielders:
- A player is camped under a fly ball, pop-up, or lazy liner and drops it
- A player drops a throw that would have been an out
- The first baseman lets a grounder get by him that if he had merely knocked it down and stepped on first
- A player makes a clearly wild throw that results in runners taking extra bases
I’m less likely to rule a ground ball that isn’t fielded cleanly as an error because of the moving parts involved. Was it hard hit? How much time did he have to field and throw it?
There’s also the matter of double standard related to fielding a ball on the ground. A middle infielder is expected to field a ball cleanly. But if his throw hits the dirt, the same standard isn’t applied to the first baseman.
The other question is always about range. Player A makes it to a ball and boots it when Player B couldn’t get to the ball. It’s not particularly fair that only Player A gets docked for it.
All that said, these plays are covered when you track outs recorded by position. We use iScore, which allows you to isolate the number of innings, assists, and putouts by position.
Why is it important to isolate by position? Because these stats mean nothing if you lump everyone together. First basemen will get a ton of putouts simply by catching throws at first. Catchers get putouts by catching strikeouts or tagging a batter after the third strike hits the ground.
Outs executed by position equalizes players. The more outs you generate, the more valuable you are.
Stop Obsessing Over Stats
Stats matter. But they need to be looked at in the proper light. You can tell different stories with stats based on the stats and sample sizes you choose to use. They can lie.
The main thing is to understand the value of stats without obsessing over them. This applies not only to coaches but to parents and players as well.
1. Scouts Don’t Care
Your son reached on an error instead of being awarded a hit. His ERA went up because the defense couldn’t make a play and errors weren’t given. So what??
First, trust that your coach looks beyond these stats. He has eyes. He should understand process and results.
Second, stop caring about what other people see when looking at the box scores. Scouts certainly don’t care about your youth stats. High schools don’t even care. And if other parents and coaches care? You’re obsessing over the wrong things.
2. Source of Drama
Unfortunately, stats tend to be a source of drama. Parents get mad that their kid isn’t getting the credit they feel he deserves. Scorekeepers feel as though they are under fire and are uneasy about how to score — or about whether they should do it at all.
It’s not worth it. Appreciate that it’s not easy to be a scorekeeper. Understand that it won’t be perfect. Trust that the coach looks beyond surface-level stats that often lie.
How to Handle Stats?
I’ve been coaching for more than a decade now, and I’ll admit that I’ve gone back and forth on this one — even since the beginning of this website.
I was initially in favor of having all stats public to parents. This would allow them to get a better idea of why certain kids have the roles they have.
But this is far from foolproof. Then parents start comparing kids and cherry-picking stats. Players start talking about their stats and use them to put down teammates.
Or at least, there’s potential for all of this to happen. Is it worth it?
Something I’ve started doing is using two different scorekeepers. The first scores with Gamechanger, which is easiest for parents to follow. Everyone is able to see the stats of their son, but not of the rest of the team.
I also have an official scorekeeper in the dugout. This person scores using iScore, which provides deeper stats (especially defensively) that Gamechanger doesn’t have. This person is there to help coaches know where we are in the order, what the hitter did before, tendencies, etc.. These stats aren’t public.
That’s what we do, but I wouldn’t say it’s foolproof.
My older son plays for a team that handles stats in a very interesting way. They, too, have official stats that no one else sees. And they also use Gamechanger for the parents to follow. The twist: It’s scored by players!
They have a large enough roster, particularly with pitcher only players, that they always have someone to score. And you can just imagine how bad and inconsistent that scoring can be.
But that’s kind of the beauty of it. You can’t get bent out of shape regarding how something is scored because it’s all pretty bad. It’s done for one reason: So that parents generally know what’s going on.
I’d love to hear how other teams deal with these issues. How do you use stats? How does your team handle them?
Let me know in the comments below!