"Pasta Diving" and Baseball by the Numbers

Pasta Diving Jeter
It is summer – the time of year to start thinking about baseball! The Mercer County Library System has the resources to help you get serious about America’s Pastime.

In the late 1970s, a baseball fan and numbers geek named Bill James began self-publishing an annual book titled The Bill James Baseball Abstract. James’s Abstract slowly gained an audience and his statistical approach (sabermetrics, which “uses statistical analysis to analyze baseball records and make determinations about player performance”) became massively influential, revolutionary even, in the baseball world. James counted and measured just about everything that could be counted and measured in baseball and attempted to assign a value to the numbers in terms of runs created and, hence, wins. Baseball has always been a games of numbers and statistics, but the James Revolution led to a far more focused application of those numbers in evaluating both teams and individual players.

One measurement that was unheard of thirty years ago, but is now frequently cited when evaluating players, is WAR, for “Wins Above Replacement.” (It is also called WARP, for “Wins Above Replacement Player.”) James did not invent WAR, but it is a statistic that is derived directly from his approach. WAR attempts to capture “a player's total value [… by] considering playing time, position, batting, baserunning, and defense for batters, and role, innings pitched, and quality of performance for pitchers.” WAR is meant to be an all-in-one stat to show exactly how many extra wins a given player is worth for his team.

Not everyone has been receptive to this new, stats-based way of evaluating player talent. So-called “old school” baseball people still prefer less sophisticated “counting stats” (e.g., number of hits, home runs and runs batted in for hitters; wins for pitchers) and a more “seat-of-the-pants” way of assessing player talent, the latter being an approach that puts emphasis on the unreliable “eye test” evaluation of player performance.

That brings us to “pasta diving”, which, despite the sound of it, has nothing to do with eating or watersports or some new Olympic-Games hybrid of the two.

In 2010, Derek Jeter, the shortstop for the New York Yankees – a great player by any standard you choose to employ (Baseball Reference puts his career WAR at 71.8, third among active players) and a no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famer once he retires – won his fifth Gold Glove (the MLB award recognizing fielding excellence given out annually for each position). To Jeter’s credit, he made only six errors in 2010 and thus had the best fielding percentage of all starting shortstops in the American League.

But does that necessarily mean he was the best defensive shortstop in the American League?

Jeter is what some statistically-inclined wags call a “Pasta Diver” – that is, a player about whom you will often hear, during a baseball broadcast, the words “past a diving Jeter and into left field for a base hit.” To those who employ the eye test, the emphasis in this description is on the “diving” part: They feel it shows how much effort Jeter puts into getting to the ball – which, to be fair, it does.

But to those who pay attention to Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved stats – the former of which measures how much ground a defensive player covers and how effectively; and the latter of which measures how many runs a player’s defense saves or costs his team – the emphasis, for Jeter, is on the “past a” part. To them, the explanation for Jeter’s low error rate in 2010 was his poor range: He managed to get to fewer balls and cost his team runs by allowing those batted balls to become hits.

Simply put, a shortstop who made more errors than Jeter because his superior range enabled him to field more balls than Jeter, one who turned most of those fielded balls into outs – such a player would be a more valuable defensive player than Derek Jeter. In 2010, this hypothetical shortstop describes nearly every other starting shortstop in the American League, all of whom had worse fielding percentages than Jeter, but were nonetheless better fielders. In fact, Bill James’s choice for the 2010 Gold Glove shortstop, Alexei Ramirez, made more than three times as many errors as Jeter but was still an elite defender.

By the eye test, Jeter looked great – Wow! What a dive! Great effort! Almost had it! But there were many other shortstops in the league who were making – getting outs on – the plays that “Pasta Diving” Derek Jeter was unable to make.

Available objective fielding metrics convincingly showed that Jeter was among the worst fielding shortstops in the major leagues in 2010; the same stats show that Jeter, far from being an elite fielder, had always been a bit of a defensive liability, a sub-mediocre fielder. Bill James’s take on Jeter’s winning a fifth Gold Glove in 2010 can be found here:
AL Shortstop Gold Glove Winner: Derek Jeter
Should Have Been: Alexei Ramirez
[…] Teixiera, Cano and Derek Jeter all win Gold Gloves this year when they shouldn’t have. […] Jeter now has five Gold Gloves and he should have none. The trio of Teixeira, Cano and Jeter cost their team a total of seven runs defensively in 2010. By comparison, the Oakland A’s trio of Daric Barton, Mark Ellis and Cliff Pennington saved 37 runs. The AL shortstop Gold Glove should have gone to Chicago’s Alexei Ramirez who saved 16 runs defensively, the best total in the league. Compare that to Jeter, who cost his team an estimated 13 runs. It comes down to who makes the plays, and it’s not Jeter.
To paraphrase an old Richard Pryor routine: “Who are you going to believe? The objective stats? Or your lying eyes?”

I should emphasize, once again, that none of this is meant to detract from Jeter’s actual abilities or considerable worth to his team. He has amassed the third-highest Wins Above Replacement among active players, has a career On-Base Percentage of .381 and an OPS+ of 117, which represents a massive 17 percentage points above league average. Jeter is, simply put, one of the most elite players ever to play the game. The numbers bear this out.

But the numbers also show that his reputation as an elite defender is undeserved.

When evaluating player performance, your eyes may well fail you. The numbers will not.

Selected Books available in the Mercer County Library System

Baume, Benjamin. The Sabermetric Revolution: Assessing the Growth of Analytics in Baseball. 2014.

Click, James. Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong. 2006.

Costa, Gabriel B. Practicing Sabermetrics: Putting the Science of Baseball Statistics to Work. 2009

Costa Gabriel B. Understanding Sabermetrics: An Introduction to the Science of Baseball Statistics. 2008.

James, Bill. The Bill James Handbook. 2014.

Lewis, Michael. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. 2003.

Selected DVDs available in the Mercer County Library System

Moneyball (DVD). 2011.

Baseball's greatest games. Derek Jeter's 3000th hit (DVD). 2011.

Baseball Websites

Baseball Reference
Bill James Online
Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)


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