If you've ever watched a broadcast of a baseball game you've almost certainly heard something to the effect of: "All that matters is the win." That's not completely true. Yes, wins are the ultimate goal in baseball (and all sports), but how you get those wins are also important. The problem is a lot of people take that quote to heart. These people watch Pitcher A give up five runs, have his offense bail him out with six runs, get a winning decision and proclaim Pitcher A did his job. These people are wrong.
Let me state that I am not cheapening the value of a win. Instead, I'm placing more value on processes than results. Refer to this chart, courtesy of the great Paul DePodesta:
What are some of the processes in baseball, well...
- Means of evaluating talent. Focusing on the things that matter and ignoring those that don't (cough wins, ERA, saves, cough)
- Approach to each at-bat, either pitching or hitting (not swinging out of zone, winning the first three pitches, ect)
- Outcome of each at-bat, either pitching or hitting (line drive, swinging strikes, ect.)
As the chart shows, these processes don't always result in success. No batter is ever going to reach base 100% of the time, or hit a homerun in each plate appearance, and no pitcher is going to throw perfect games in 35 starts. At the same time, good processes are more likely to lead to sustainable results than bad processes. This applies to roster management as well, a few moves for smart teams haven't worked out (Julio Lugo to BOS), meanwhile some moves for dumb teams have (Randy Wolf to HOU).
Over the course of a 162 game season you're less likely to see a fluke than during the course of a five-to-seven game series. This is why the playoffs are a crapshoot, and why the playoffs aren't completely void of luck. The ultimate goal is reaching the playoffs, the ultimate results is winning the tournament.
This is also why not all six inning, one run outings are not truly created equal. A James Shields two hits, one walk, four strikeout performance is not equal to an Edwin Jackson three hits, five walks, one strikeout performance. In the long run, one of those lines will maintain success, the other will not.
Further, look at Nick Swisher's 2008. If you say "Aw, man he sucks." Odds are you think in results based terms. If you say, "Aw, man he was unlucky. Good buy low candidate for the Yankees." Odds are you think in processes. What are some metrics you should look at that tell you more about the processes than results?
Third Order Wins
What does all of this do for our views of baseball? It makes us more aware of deserved success, luck, bad luck, and deserved failure. Things are not always as black and white as "pass/fail". For example, Line drives are a good thing, and since batters haven't learned the art of aiming their liners, line drives sometimes turn into outs. Understanding that a line drive out is better than a blooper hit -- since liners are the batted ball type most likely to turn into a hit -- is an important step to thinking in processes.
Results based analysis is simpleton thinking.