Baseball is stacked with stats. Old stats like average. New stats like barrels. Controversial stats like WAR. Funny-sounding stats like BABIP. There are rudimental stats like hits, environmental stats like wRC+, judgmental stats like errors and, to be sure, experimental stats being dreamed up by the savviest minds front offices have to offer.
With so many stats swirling around, it can be difficult to know which stats to hone in on, but, like all else in life, it comes down to a matter of personal preference. And because Major League players are judged by -- and ultimately paid because of -- their stats, we thought it would be interesting to see which numbers they value above all others.
So we posed the following question to a bunch of ballplayers from a variety of teams:
When you look at your stats at the end of a given year to evaluate yourself, what number do you gravitate toward and why?
We didn't get any Wins Above Replacement votes ("I still wish I understood WAR," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said.), but we did get a handful of "team wins" votes, which we will strike from the record because they run counter to the emphasis here on the individual.
In some cases, we didn't get a vote at all.
"I hate 'em all," Brewers starter Jimmy Nelson said, "because there's always another stat that will make you look bad."
In the end, we got 70 usable responses -- 35 from position players, 35 from pitchers. As is always the case with our player polls, the results are unscientific, but they shed some light on what today's players pay attention to.
Position players (35 votes cast)
OPS (10 votes)
Overly analytic to those who still kneel at the temple of the Holy Trinity of batting average, home runs and RBIs, and overly simplistic to those who feel on-base percentage is too valuable on its own to be lumped together with slugging percentage, OPS seems to settle into a happy medium for a generation of players who grew up with it branded on Topps baseball cards and scoreboards.
"It tells you a lot about how much of a complete hitter you are," said Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham, who had a .931 OPS in a breakout 2017.
Added Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon: "If you're an on-base guy, it accounts for that. If you're a slugging guy, it accounts for that. If you can do both, you get rewarded, big-time."
"People get paid on OPS," Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo said. "So that's a really big one."
On-base percentage (six votes)
The "Moneyball" mindset became so pervasive in baseball when today's players were growing up or coming of age that it's probably no surprise a handful of them proudly proclaimed to be down with OBP.
"The other numbers are cool," Rays utility man Daniel Robertson said, "but if you're getting on base, you can't go wrong."
Added Indians first baseman Yonder Alonso: "Anytime we're on base, that means the lineup is moving. For me, there's nothing better than being a tough out."
RBI (five votes)
"Money lies in RBIs" was a phrase once popular among players. It was even branded on some T-shirts in the 2000s. You don't hear that phrase much anymore, because analytical front offices have changed the scope of what gets you paid in free agency, and there is wider recognition of the failings of the RBI stat.
"Not everybody has the same opportunities in a year," Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin said. "I wish there was a better stat for the percentage of baserunners driven in."
Until then, some guys still subscribe to RBIs.
"The most important thing in baseball is run production," Brewers catcher Stephen Vogt said.
Which brings us to our next answer …
Runs scored (four votes)
As noted above, we didn't include the survey responses of the players who said "team wins" was their favorite stat. But this response was probably second on the "keeping it simple" scale. And for all the numbers -- advanced or otherwise -- that Michael Trout has led the Majors in at various points in his stellar career (including that 2012 season when he set off a national discussion about Wins Above Replacement), this, he said, was the stat that means most to him.
"That's big from an offensive side," he said.
Like we said, keeping it simple.
"You score runs to win games," Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts said. "That's how you do it."
Batting average (three votes)
If this isn't the outright most famous statistic in all of professional sports, it's got to be in the conversation. It's also famously flawed, ignoring non-hit-related means of getting on base and treating all hits equally. The difference in votes for OPS and batting average in our little poll is indicative of the evolution of thought that has occurred in the industry, and it would be interesting to check in on this in another 10 years and see if batting average gets any votes at all (and, for that matter, to see which stats might have superseded OPS by that point).
Until then, here are three votes for batting average, none of which came with any introspection beyond the vote, unless you count the shrug and the smile from Joc Pederson -- a career .222 hitter prior to 2018.
"It's not very high, but that's what I look at," the Dodgers outfielder said.
Games played (three votes)
Those who have missed significant time to injury attach an added value to what it means to simply suit up night after night.
"I couldn't do that last year because I broke my wrist," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "My goal every year is 158 games played. You want to play all 162, but there's always a few days off here and there."
Jones cast the same vote, along with a catchphrase that works both for baseball and the singles scene.
"Being available," he said, "is awesome."
Stray votes (one apiece)
Jed Lowrie on hard-hit percentage: "Once you hit the ball, there's not a whole lot else you can do … It's something that's become more readily available and, honestly, more objective, too. In the past, you used to have a video guy determining whether you hit the ball hard. There was no exit velocity that was being tracked. So until Statcast™ came around, it was a little subjective. You could hit the ball hard, and the video guy didn't think you hit it hard and he would put, 'Well, that was a medium hit as opposed to a hard hit.'"
Tim Anderson on walk percentage, which holds special significance for him after drawing just 13 walks in 606 plate appearances last year: "I've been working on that. That's probably the only thing I care about is having good ABs and getting that walk ratio up."
James Dozier on runs created (times on base, multiplied by bases advanced, divided by opportunities): "It's what baseball is all about. I know people like to look at on-base percentage or OPS or nowadays WAR, but the runs created stat is the biggest one for me."
Austin Hedges on high-leverage offensive stats (he had a .901 OPS in high-leverage spots last year but a .525 mark in medium leverage and .642 in low leverage): "[The Padres] showed me a stat of how I performed in clutch situations. I thought that was cool. Anytime the situation was a little bit tougher, I seemed to rise to the occasion, so I was proud of that."
Pitchers (35 votes cast)
Innings and/or appearances (10 votes)
No, it isn't sexy. But with the pitcher attrition rate as high as it is, perhaps it should not be a surprise that workload itself (because the basic point of the vote was identical, we decided to count votes for "innings" and "appearances" as one and the same) was the "stat" our poll respondents valued above all others.
"Games started or innings pitched are the things you actually have control over," Indians ace Corey Kluber said. "I mean, innings you don't necessarily have full control over. But over the course of a full season, you probably do."
Starters and relievers alike cast this vote with the same rationale: If you're compiling innings and opportunities, that quite likely means you're not hurt and you're not routinely getting shelled. So what's not to like?
"If you can get over 70 appearances as a reliever, it usually means you've had a successful season," Astros reliever Will Harris said. "They're putting you out there over and over again because you're getting the job done."
Added Red Sox ace Chris Sale: "When you can make your starts and fill up innings, that's half the battle of being a starter. I don't think a lot of guys are throwing 200 innings anymore, so it just makes it all the more important to fill up innings and save your guys in the bullpen, too."
ERA (seven votes)
This is the ol' standby, and the increasing prevalence of context-driven stats that are less susceptible to the judgment of official scorers hasn't caught on enough with today's players to greatly influence our voters.
"The better I can limit the damage," said A's starter and part-time ERA advocate Sean Manaea, "the more I'm helping my team."
Manaea helped his team and ERA that night he no-hit the Red Sox, although perhaps that outing, which took place after he submitted this vote for our poll, has him looking more closely at opponents' average.
In any event, ERA still holds sway, even among those who acknowledge its limitations.
"It's hard not to look at ERA even though it's not as coveted as it used to be," Dodgers starter Alex Wood said. "End of the day, the reason people moved away from it a little are the factors you can't control. That's why I've also been learning about some categories, like ERA+, WHIP and WAR. But to pick just one, I'd start with ERA."
WHIP (seven votes)
What's the one thing pitchers hate more than the DH rule? Baserunners, of course. So they love it when the WHIP comes down. WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) was particularly popular among the relievers we surveyed.
"I love WHIP," Blue Jays reliever Dennis Tepera said. "I think ERA can kind of get blown up sometimes, especially in the bullpen. You have one bad outing, and it kind of messes your ERA up. And sometimes, you might leave one runner out there and you don't even give up that run. You're not given a chance to get out of the inning, somebody else gives it up. I think WHIP is a little bit more of a personal thing and a better gauge of how your year went."
Phillies reliever Pat Neshek appreciates the advanced metrics but said there's a pretty simple way to gauge how his season went.
"If you have a WHIP under 1," he said, "you're going to have the strikeouts and all that other stuff, too."
Inherited runs scored percentage (two votes)
Obviously, both of these votes came from relievers, who are often asked to clean up other people's messes.
"ERA as a reliever is hit or miss," Padres reliever Kirby Yates said. "Sometimes I could let in somebody else's runs, and that jacks up their ERA. So for relievers, ERA can be skewed. But if you combine it with inherited runners, it's huge."
Strikeout-to-walk ratio (three votes)
Coming off the first month in Major League history that featured more strikeouts than hits, it seems every pitcher in today's game has an inflated strikeout rate. So it's sometimes hard to know how much weight to put on stats like strikeout percentage or strikeouts per nine. But when considered in the context of walks allowed, that's a greater gauge.
"You want to be punching guys out, and you don't want to be giving guys free passes," Padres reliever Craig Stammen said. "So I'll kind of monitor that more than others. If you're not walking guys, that's the right recipe for success."
Holds (two votes)
Yep, two more relievers weighing in here. It was interesting to get two votes for holds and zero votes for saves. But in voting for holds, Nats reliever Ryan Madson came up with a new stat he'd like to see.
"SCAP, or scoreless appearance," he said. "You came into the game and you left the game and nobody touched home plate. That's a SCAP. And on top of that, you can have an inherited runners SCAP. SCAPIR or IRSCAP. I've been thinking about that one. Why not? There's a million stats already."
Stray votes (one apiece)
Brad Ziegler on opponents' hit probability: "I may think, 'I didn't think he hit that well, am I right?' Obviously, if you're getting hard contact, hard contact, hard contact, then you need to make an adjustment. But if you're getting soft contact and it just turns out that bad contact is turning into hits, you are really not doing a bad job as a pitcher. Hopefully you can turn it around quickly because the game has a tendency to even itself out. … I pitch to contact, but I'm trying to get bad contact."
Brewers starter Chase Anderson on ERA+: "The reason I like things like ERA+ is it plays into the parks you pitch at. Are they friendly or not friendly? That sort of thing."
Yankees starter Jordan Montgomery on strikeouts: "The more strikeouts you have, it shows your stuff is playing."
Paul Sewald on Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP): "Singles, they happen. Earned runs happen maybe when they shouldn't happen, or you maybe don't give one up when you should have. So I try to stay away from those. And I've heard that front offices are not looking at those quite as much. So [I'd rather look at] things I can control myself."