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The men in uniform assembled at Dodger Stadium looked like great baseball players. They walked like great players, talked like great players and wore their jerseys like great players. And in this case, they were all great baseball players, since they had gathered for Tuesday night’s MLB All-Star Game. How did we really know, though? It wasn’t their bodies, wasn’t even their batting practice or their bullpen sessions. At the highest level of the sport, we need statistics accumulated over the grind of a season to separate the cream of the crop.
The difference between a pristine .300 batting average and a glaring .200 batting average is less than three hits a week. And that’s batting average, an easily calculated number ingrained in baseball lore. In a game where the stats that sway decisions are diverging from the ones shown on TV, there are a lot of ways to measure success.
Fans have their own preferences. Broadcasters and writers and front offices do, too. But what about the players themselves, the ones who are putting up those numbers at the major-league level? When they pull up their own numbers, which column do they gravitate toward?
We asked 2022 All-Stars what statistics they use to gauge their own performance.
A lot of All-Stars love advance statistics
On July 1, Milwaukee Brewers ace Corbin Burnes took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Pirates. He finished the day with 6 innings, 5 Ks, 4 walks and 1 run allowed. The Brewers won 19-2, and when Burnes looked back at his numbers he saw his worst performance of the season.
The defending NL Cy Young winner has a sparkling 2.14 ERA this season. Since the start of the 2020 season, he leads all qualified MLB starters with a 2.27 ERA. He’s second to Gerrit Cole with 466 strikeouts over that span. An ace of aces.
And while he’s surely aware he’s doing well, he’s not looking at any of those numbers.
“So I don't look at any of the big stats,” Burnes said. “I evaluate my performance based on how well I'm executing pitches.”
High standards and a slim margin for error at the MLB level fuel the ever-escalating prominence of analytical thought in the sport. Burnes is a shining example of how that can manifest in a best-case scenario. Sure, everything worked out for him in that start against the Pirates, but to keep up his dominance, Burnes spent the next four days making sure he adjusted to get his arsenal back under control.
He didn't name any specific stat, which means he's probably using proprietary numbers you can't find on Baseball-Reference.
“So it's basically, you know, if I'm throwing a cutter, I want to make sure it's in the area that I'm trying to throw a cutter,” he said. “So for me it's not really a stat based on ERA or strikeouts or WHIP — that's not really something I think that I can evaluate my performance on.”
That level of thinking nods at a reality of 2020s baseball: We can measure so much about a game that you can go beyond the runs and hits, to see how fast a ball was hit, how efficiently a pitch was spinning, how many feet it broke on its way to the plate. The difference between All-Stars and Triple-A players is usually found in those numbers first, before it shows up on the big leaderboards.
Reliever Devin Williams, Burnes’ Brewers teammate, also makes sure to look deeper than ERA. He said he often looks at batting average on balls in play, a metric that usually levels out around .300, to see when a pitcher or hitter is getting lucky or unlucky. He checks hitters’ average exit velocity against him, and in general, to dig into what’s really happening.
“It's a crazy game,” Burnes said. “You can have your best stuff and go out and give up eight runs and have your worst stuff and throw a no-hitter.”
The Brewers hurlers aren’t alone in diving deeper than the box score does. San Diego Padres second baseman Jake Cronenworth said WAR — the all-encompassing value metric that dominates analytical conversation but turns off some fans because of its complex formula — would be the stat of choice to gauge his performance. Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ was focused on his on-base percentage.
New York Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton — the king of Statcast’s exit velocity metric — said he checks his barrel rate, which measures how often a hitter achieves a high exit velocity at an optimal launch angle to hit homers and collect extra bases.
San Francisco Giants starter Carlos Rodon starts his look at opposing hitters with OPS — which stands for on-base plus slugging and has become a more common appearance on TV broadcasts since it incorporates walks and power where batting average does not, a step closer to what teams are actually looking at. He’ll look at FIP — fielding independent pitching — for pitchers. And he looks at WAR.
“A lot of things are really surface level, right? But it's funny, I talked to someone yesterday and they're like, ‘What are the results? We just care about results.’ Yeah, that makes sense. Like, that is true,” Rodon said. “But if we dive into other numbers, we get an idea of who's actually really good at this game.”
'I like whatever's on the back of the baseball card'
Don’t worry, there are some traditionalists left. New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso, who had made it very clear how much he loves the home run, casts a skeptical eye toward newer metrics.
“To be honest, I don't really look at those advanced stats because they can be manipulated,” he said, echoing his unsubstantiated idea that MLB intentionally alters baseballs based on the game. “To me, I like the bubble gum stats. I like whatever's on the back of the baseball card.”
Atlanta Braves third baseman Austin Riley has a more grounded reason for caring about a simple counting stat.
“I think RBIs are a huge deal,” he said. “I mean, you have RBIs, you're helping the team win and at the end of the day, that's all that matters is trying to help your team win. So I pay a lot of attention and I put a lot of pressure on myself in games on stuff like that — driving guys in. That's what I'm getting paid to do is score runs and I think it's very important.”
Others have priorities that shine through in their games. Seattle Mariners first baseman Ty France, who played for Tony Gwynn in college, cited batting average. This season? It's a hearty .308. Young Toronto Blue Jays star Alek Manoah, an advocate for starters going deeper in games, mentioned both ERA and innings pitched. Atlanta Braves ace Max Fried acknowledged that he “might be a little old fashioned” in his preference for ERA, but nonetheless finds it carries the day.
“You go out there and your job as a pitcher is to try to give up the least amount of runs to give your team the best chance to win,” Fried said.
And Yankees ace Gerrit Cole said his guiding light was team wins and losses. But he couldn’t help revealing some of the ways that 26 players turn into one winning team.
“I mean, we have internal metrics. We're always looking for objectiveness. And so we have, you know, good pitch, good delivery, the hitter puts a good swing on it. You ask yourself, was it the right pitch? We just try to find the most objective way to evaluate those types of things,” he said, ticking off elements of the game teams can and do quantify, like pitch quality and sequencing.
He called it “self-maintenance monitoring.” Ensuring that he is doing his part.
“And then really, the rest of that is just honestly wins,” Cole said as the Yankees sit atop baseball with 64 of them. “Like, that's it.”