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Don't Squander® That Opportunity

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As a fan of the National Game and a card-carrying member of the Society for American Baseball Research, I have long loved the statistics that surround the game. Just ask any young fan for the current batting average of her favorite baseball player, and I bet you will get an answer that is correct within a few hundredths of a point. As a baseball salary arbitrator starting in 1986, I have had to dwell on the statistics the parties put forward - at least for 24 hours until the judgment was rendered selecting either the player's final demand or the club's final offer.

The advocates in salary arbitration - both player agents and team representatives - demonstrate remarkable creativity in devising player statistics. If a player had a measurable weak point - batting average with runners in scoring position, for example - rest assured the club would let you know about it in some mathematical way. Likewise, a player who has accumulated a commendable performance against relief pitchers starting in the seventh inning would also have an agent ready to tout his league-leading totals.

I remember my first case involving the Mets' Ron Darling who, the club pointed out, had a bad habit of allowing the first batter in an inning to get on base. A base runner on with no men out is likely to score. Darling, however, became a tiger when facing such circumstances. His agent offered a new statistic - opponent's batting average with a man on first and no out. Yes, runners would get on, but Darling would not let them score. Nonetheless, Darling lost the arbitration. His agent compared him with Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden, the premier junior pitchers of his day. Although he had effectively rebutted the negative of putting men on base, Darling's complete pitching record did not compare favorably with those
number-one pitchers.

Sports statistics gurus in SABR, such as leading light Bill James, have turned these numbers into magic formulas that serve as apt comparators during and between baseball eras. Few clubs these days can prevail in salary arbitration simply by pointing to a pitcher's poor won-loss record, a measure that says a lot about his club and his run support, but not much about his work as a pitcher. Earned run average and opponent's batting average - things a pitcher can control - are preferable, as are strikeouts, especially when compared with walks. For a position player, batting average is not as useful an indicator as on-base percentage, slugging percentage and the more esoteric measurements offered by James, et al. They are always inventing new comparators.

My colleague at Northeastern University School of Law, Jeff Smith, has designed a new team statistic that caught my interest. He calls his measure "the squander®." This is the offensive team's statistical equivalent of a pitcher's "blown save." It would reflect a serious blown scoring opportunity and would measure a team's offensive abilities in the clutch. When a team "squanders" or lets slip away a golden scoring opportunity, it goes well beyond the more general "left on base" statistic. It may, in fact, be the measure that determines whether a team wins or loses. Jeff is seeking to have the term trademarked, much as Lakers coach Pat Riley registered his made-up word "three-peat."

Under Jeff's proposed rule, a team would receive squander® every time the club failed to drive in a run when it had a runner on third and less than two outs (or runners on third and second or bases loaded). This presents a relatively easy scoring opportunity, and thus a squander® is a stat that fans can enjoy in their misery. Unlike simply counting men left on base, the squander® measures the severity of the lost opportunity. Leaving a man on third is far more disappointing than leaving a man on first or even second. In this way, the squander® reflects the shortcomings of a team's offensive play much as blown saves and the total number of fielding errors measure defensive deficiencies. It is not just a single player's "fault," however, because two players have to fail in order to achieve a "squander" unless the first batter hits into a double play.

Any group of fans -- say the loyalists of the Pittsburgh Pirates who this year set the all-time record for most consecutive seasons below .500 - could take out their frustration by posting online the team's growing number of squanders®. (I doubt that the Pirates organization would want to put this entry on the terrific scoreboard they constructed at PNC Park.) Certainly, my friends in SABR could have a field day with the new stat, comparing MLB clubs on that basis and correlating squanders® with team standings. (My guess is that the correlation is significant.) The name of the game is victories that come from runs. A squander® negates the run potential, which, in turn, impacts club victories and post-season appearances. I await the next SABR publication which will confirm my intuition and the value of the statistic my colleague has devised.