Jonathan Hahn ’10: Hoodwinked by Howard, count on Cust

Sports Columnist
Monday, April 13, 2009

Imagine you had to choose one hitter over the course of the season: Philidelphia’s Ryan Howard, San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez or Oakland’s Jack Cust. Who would contribute the most offensively? We’re not factoring defense or Subway sandwiches into our decision. Which hitter do you pick? 

Let’s just go to 2008 statistics:

Hitter A: 103 runs (R), 119 runs batted in (RBI), 36 home runs (HR), .296 batting average (BA), .871 On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS), .368 weighted on-base average (wOBA).
Hitter B: 105 R, 146 RBI, 48 HR, .251 BA, .881 OPS, .366 wOBA.
Hitter C: 77 R, 77 RBI, 33 HR, .231, .851 OPS, .371 wOBA.

While all three hitters’ OPS and wOBA look to be around the same range, it looks Hitter B absolutely destroyed the other two hitters, beating them in runs, RBI’s, and HR’s. Pick him, right? Not so fast — brace yourselves Phanatics. Hitter B is obviously Howard, while Hitter A is Gonzalez, and Hitter C is Cust. Turns out, Cust is the better offensive player than either Howard or Gonzalez.

I know what you’re thinking. Who in the world is Jack Cust and how is he better than my boy Howard? Cust beat Howard and Gonzalez in one key sabermetric statistic (no, not strikeouts): Cust had a higher wOBA. In essence, wOBA assigns run values to a player’s different batting outcomes and incorporates the run production ability into an easy-to-use stat. A single is worth a certain number of runs, while walks, and other extra base hits would be worth different run values. So while the difference isn’t incredibly large, according to wOBA, Cust is the better offensive player.

But what does wOBA number mean? You can think of wOBA as basically on-base percentage, where .340 is around league average, anything north of .370 is good, .400 and above is awesome, and anything .300 and below is terrible. For comparison’s sake, Albert Pujols led the majors with a .458 wOBA (silly junior college hitters) while Michael Bourn led the bottom with a .276 wOBA (but he’s got speed!). Basically, Howard and Gonzalez are worth less offensively than Cust.

Okay fine, but Howard has the ability to change the game in a flash. He’s had monster hits that have helped improve his team’s chances of winning. Let’s look at another statistic: Win Probability Added (WPA). WPA looks at a plate appearance and captures how much the outcome helped or hurt a team’s odds of winning. The theory behind this statistic is that hits (like a home run) or outs are worth more in different situations, like the 9th inning of tie game versus the 3rd inning of a blowout. Hit a home run in a tie game and your WPA increases drastically if you’re a hitter (or falls if you’re a pitcher since you blew it). Ground into a double play and the odds of your team winning, and the thus the players’ WPA, falls (or increases for a pitcher). 

Howard had a 2.39 WPA last year. Pretty good! A zero WPA is average, which means the hitter neither hurt nor helped his team’s chances of winning. However, when compared to Cust (2.55 WPA) and Gonzalez (3.97 WPA), Howard had a lower impact on changing the odds of his team winning. Basically, all his HR’s and RBI’s didn’t really affect the outcome of a game — instead, they just padded his stats, and his arbitration award. Statistically, a team of Custs or Gonzalezes would outperform a team of Howards. 
And finally, beyond the different statistics, beyond the fancy catches, majestic hits, the adoring fans or the boxscore numbers, we sometimes get lost in baseball. There are some events that make the game seem so far away and the tragic death of Los Angeles rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart reminds us that baseball’s just a game, brings us closer to the important things in life and teaches us to cherish each day.

Jonathan Hahn ’10 is can we fast forward to September already?