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Sabermetrics enters its final frontier: the clubhouse

ST. PETERSBURG -- Sam Fuld was talking near his locker with Rays' TV producer Kevin Patterson, prepping for his debut in the broadcast booth during the next day's special sabermetrics-themed telecast.

As they ran through the main points of the broadcast and the advanced metrics they'd integrate, Fuld said he wanted to analyze the Tampa Bay staff's relatively low batting average on balls in play (BABIP), pointing out that part of it was due to the team's defensive shifts and range.

It was only one conversation, and you won't find many like it in the average Major League clubhouse, where batting average, RBIs and pitcher win totals still dominate the conversation, but yes, advanced statistical analysis has reached what Fuld essentially described as its final frontier.

"It's starting to make its way into the clubhouse," Fuld said. "Obviously it's prevalent in the front office and becoming more so in the media and stuff. This'll be the last place where we talk about BABIP."

But Fuld, who owns an economics degree from Stanford, was talking about it the afternoon of May 19, and he talked about it before a much larger audience the next day. He joined broadcasters Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson to explain statistics like OPS, WAR (Wins Above Replacements), FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and BABIP. The starting lineups were presented with the players' names, positions and OPS, not their batting averages.

Manager Joe Maddon and the Rays' front office are well known for their acceptance and use of statistics, and at least some of the mainstream media -- like the Sun Sports broadcasting crew -- have taken an increased interest in the subject. But even Fuld admitted it's not particularly important for the players to understand the numbers as long as they perform on the field.

Take Rays left-hander David Price, for example. He's young, sharp and attended Vanderbilt University on an academic scholarship. He has said several times that WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) is his favorite pitching stat because it best reflects dominance. He even made a relatively sabermetrics-minded argument about how ERA doesn't truly represent a pitcher's performance because he doesn't fully control it.

But he couldn't care less about FIP or WAR or any of the more obscure statistical acronyms. He'd never even heard of BABIP. And when a reporter mentioned that Felix Hernandez beat out Price for the 2010 American League Cy Young Award based partially on the strength of his advanced metrics, Price looked the other direction.

"Oh, it helped him win the Cy Young? Cool," Price deadpanned. "Cool."

Fuld, on the other hand, has always had a passion for the game's numbers. He looked at newspaper box scores as a kid, carried around a Baseball Encyclopedia as a 6-year-old and eventually held an internship with STATS, Inc. That led him to sabermetrics, where his greatest interest currently involves quantifying defensive value through advanced metrics like UZR.

Fuld has had a few conversations about those numbers in the Rays clubhouse with teammates like reliever Burke Badenhop, another former economics major at Bowling Green State University.

"It's just kind of the evolution of baseball. If you can do something and do it better, I think you want to be on that side of the trend," Badenhop said. "You can say batting averages and ERAs and stuff like that, but you know some guys' true value to the team isn't dictated by them, and there might be other metrics that quantify that better."

Maddon has championed that cause, and he's seemingly been even more vocal about it this season. He often talks about steering the standard away from batting average for hitters and win-loss records for pitchers, always stressing the value of on-base percentage and even dropping references to BABIP. He also believes advanced metrics will eventually become a more common topic of conversation in Major League clubhouses.

"Now, everybody else is providing the info in a very easily readable format. We're into it. Those that are not into it will be relatively soon," Maddon said. "They'll find the benefits. If the people on the field aren't, the general managers will make sure that they are. It's just the way of the game. I'm all for it."

Maddon balked at the opportunity to reveal his favorite advanced stat, instead saying the Rays have their "own way of presenting information." He has a give-and-take with the front office in terms of interpreting the data they collect, and that process has changed every year of his managerial career.

"It evolves constantly, and I think it has to keep evolving," Maddon said. "We're talking about it. Everybody else is going to get so much more involved, and the margins become even more important. We're always looking to make what we're doing a little better."

Of course, all this has to be balanced with traditional forms of scouting and, most importantly, execution on the field. That's part of the reason Badenhop said players don't need to keep up with the metrics or even the traditional stats.

Recently, there has been one notable instance of a player using statistics to change his game: A's right-hander Brandon McCarthy, who became the front-line starter he is today by seeking to improve his ground-ball percentage and keep fly balls inside the park.

That sparked him to implement more two-seam fastballs and cutters, lower his FIP to an American League-low 2.86 in 2011 and completely reinvent himself as a pitcher. His story received a great deal of attention as a sort of sabermetric success story, even landing him and his wife on the cover of ESPN The Magazine.

"But that's rare," Fuld said. "I think most of us are aware of what we need to do to be successful, but it is important. Maybe not everybody here is aware that we really value on-base percentage more than average, which I think every [front office] is aware of now. I think some players maybe aren't 100 percent aware of the fact that we care about that stuff as an organization."

"It's more for front-office stuff and things like that and evaluating players," added Badenhop. "As a player, you're never trying to hit .300 or whatever. You just want to go up to bat and get a hit. If you hit three out of 10, you're going to hit .300. The stats are more for fans, more for the front office to value the players."

In other words, understanding advanced metrics might not change a player's approach, but it might help him make a little more statistical sense of everything that's happening between the white lines, within the organization or in the free-agent market.

There aren't many players who utilize the numbers that way, and it's entirely possible those who do will never be more than a small minority. But the topic has at least entered its final frontier.

"The stats and the sabermetrics and stuff are more results. I'm going to keep my process," Badenhop said. "I guess it's a better way of understanding the process."

Sam Fuld, Brandon McCarthy, David Price