Sports of all kinds have kept statistics since inception, but that doesn’t mean we should keep the most widely recognizable and used among them forever.
Baseball, football and hockey are team sports, yet individual players such as pitchers, quarterbacks and goaltenders are often measured by wins and losses. However, none of these players are ever solely responsible for a win or a loss. Not to mention a player’s win-loss record is no reflection on their actual performance.
Just look at the race for the NL Cy Young award. Max Scherzer has a 2.10 ERA and is striking out 35.5 percent of batters faced while walking 5.5 percent. Clayton Kershaw has a 2.18 ERA, a 31.4 strikeout rate and a 4.4 percent walk rate. Yet Kershaw is 14-2 while Scherzer is 10-5 despite inferior pitching metrics. The difference? Run support. Kershaw is getting more than a run more per game (5.71) than Scherzer (4.56) per nine innings.
Russell Wilson, quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, completed 64.7 percent of his 546 passes with 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions in 2016, and went 10-5-1 during the regular season. Andy Dalton, meanwhile, had the same completion percentage on 563 attempts with an 18 to 8 touchdown-to-interception ratio but just a 6-9-1 record. Almost identical passing performances, but two very different records.
Vancouver Canuck’s netminder Ryan Miller posted an average save percentage last year (.914) and was credited with a 18-29-6 record. Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets had a below-average save percentage for the season (.907) but was credited with eight more wins (26-19-4).
If we must assign individual credit for wins, win shares or wins above replacement are preferable and more accurate measuring sticks. To go back to the MLB pitching example from above, Scherzer is credited as being worth 4.4 wins above replacement, almost a win more than Kershaw (3.7), which is a better reflection of each player’s contribution to their team.
While we are at it, here are five other outdated statistics that should be put out to pasture.
In 1967, the NHL decided to award a player a “plus” each time he was on the ice for an even-strength or shorthanded goal and a “minus” for an even-strength or shorthanded goal scored by the opposing team, with the difference between the two resulting in his plus-minus. A higher plus-minus is supposed to indicate a better player, but it actually indicates a player surrounded by better teammates, with goaltenders influencing the statistic quite a bit.
Phil Kessel, forward for the Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins, was on the ice for 32 even-strength shots for and 34 shots against per 60 minutes of ice time last season. Buffalo Sabres forward Evander Kane was on the ice for 32 and 33 shots per 60 for and against, respectively. Yet Kessel ended the season with a plus-3 plus-minus thanks to superior linemates and netminders whereas Kane ended his campaign with a negative plus-minus (minus-17).
And that’s assuming the players on the ice are all equally responsible for the goals for and against, which they aren’t. According to a five-year study (2008 to 2013) of every goal scored for and against the Edmonton Oilers by David Staples, video analysis showed that approximately “one third of the plus and minus marks handed out under the official plus-minus system are assigned to players who don’t deserve them.”
A better method for evaluating players is to use shot percentage, the ratio of shots in the team’s favor with that player on the ice. By this method, Kessel (48.6 percent) and Kane (49.1 percent) are closer in talent level. You could even use expected plus-minus, which is based on where the shots are coming from, compared to the leaguewide shooting percentage for that shot location. By this method, Kane (plus-0.4) is superior to Kessel (minus-5.1) because of his ability to create higher-quality chances while limiting the same.
Holds and Saves
A hold occurs when a relief pitcher enters the game in a save situation and maintains his team’s lead for the next relief pitcher, while recording at least one out. There’s only one problem: It does nothing to tell us how good a reliever is.
Colorado Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino has 19 holds this season, one more than Andrew Miller of the Cleveland Indians. But Ottavino’s above-average ERA (5.74) and high walk rate (16 percent of batters faced) pale in comparison with Miller (1.42 ERA and 6 percent walk rate), making Ottavino’s value lower than that of a replacement player (minus-0.3 wins above replacement) and Miller one of the most valuable relievers in baseball (plus-1.9 fWAR).
Saves are just as unreliable — it makes little sense to reward a pitcher for three outs with a lead of one, two or three runs.
Using context-neutral wins (WPA/LI), a measure of a player’s offensive contributions via win expectancy regardless of the leverage, is a more accurate barometer of reliever talent. And it also rewards elite late-inning relievers who are just as important to a team’s success as a ninth-inning closer.
Player efficiency rating
John Hollinger created this catchall NBA metric in an attempt to measure a player’s per-minute performance — such as field goals, free throws, three-point attempts made, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, along with missed shots, turnovers and personal fouls — while adjusting for pace.
The challenge with PER is that it largely measures offensive performance, with the two defensive stats it incorporates, blocks and steals, unreliable in terms of evaluating a player’s defensive acumen.
Using Box-Score Plus-Minus — a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team — incorporates a player’s defensive acumen, giving us a more-rounded view of his overall contributions. Plus, it has the added benefit of historical data, allowing us to compare players on different teams and eras.
To stick with this past season, centers Rudy Gobert and Enes Kanter had similar Player Efficiency Ratings (23.3 vs. 23.7), but Gobert, by virtue of his defensive abilities, was named to the all-NBA and all-defensive teams, giving him a much higher BPM (plus-5.8 vs. minus-1.2).
Runs batted in, or RBI
This one might surprise you, but RBI is not the best way to evaluate hitting ability. In fact, it is more of a team-centric stat. To produce a high number of RBI, a batter needs players to be on base, and that is dependent on a hitter’s spot in the lineup and the hitters who bat in front of him.
It’s better to look at which players are good at driving in men on base when the opportunity arises. This validates Nolan Arenado (tied for the major league lead with 70 RBI, 22.8 percent of others batted in) and Nelson Cruz (70 RBI, 22.5 percent of others batted in) at the top of the leader board, but it also shows that Aaron Judge (66 RBI, 16.1 percent) and Carlos Correa (67 RBI, 16.7 percent) could do better at the plate with men on base.
Have another stat you want to see retired from sports? Let us know in the comments.