Bill James says something to the effect that, contrary to being impersonal and antiseptic, numbers/stats can actually be very helpful in constructing a narrative for the player to whom they belong. I forget the exact examples he cites – it’s in Scott Gray’s The Mind of Bill James, if you’re a literate English-er – but the idea is that, especially in the context of a career, numbers have the ability to reveal something concrete about a player that we might have only suspected anecdotally.
But first, a little history. When Michael Lewis’s Moneyball came out, and when sabermetrics began to really make it big, what everyone in the whole world began to realize is that certain players – players who, before, maybe didn’t seem so valuable – well, now they seemed really valuable. Why? Because these players were taking walks and, as a result, they owned on base percentages well above their batting averages. Not overnight – but maybe, at least, over a long fortnight – people (including Carson Cistulli) realized that there was actually this group of players out there who, because of their patience at the plate, were actually way better than they seemed. Because OBP was not a part of TV broadcasts, though, and because the internet was a little less cool, their (ie these players’) talents were somewhat hidden.
Case in point, the Greek God of Walks Kevin Youkilis. Despite batting only .317 in his first year in the Red Sox organization, he actually sported an OBP of .512. That’s about a 200 point difference! Compare that to Stuffy McInnis, for example, who in 1915, playing for Philadelphia, batted .314 but with only a .339 OBP. That’s only a 25 point difference. Of course, this is not to pick on Stuffy McInnis, who I’m sure was a decent man and good with children. What it does suggest, however, is that these players possess a skill set (ie plate discipline) that is both totally peculiar to baseball and not immediately apparent given traditional metrics. This select group of athletes have figured out a way (were preternaturally destined?) to be good at their sport in an unexpected, but still totally relevant, way. It’s an attractive, very Enthusiastic quality we’re talking about here.
Well, it was around the same time as Moneyball, maybe a little later, that I began to play WhatIfSports (WIS) Baseball. WIS, in case you don’t know, is basically like World of Warcraft for baseballing nerdbones. In the original incarnation of the game (which has become a little more complex in the meantime), you got 80 million “dollars” to build a team of 25 players from all over history. Each season of every player’s career was assigned a worth, in dollars, and you (the General Manager!) were able to pick from all of these to build an uberteam.
Quickly, my favorite type of players to draft became those who sported the biggest difference between their AVGs and OBPs. Eddie Stanky, Max Bishop, Mickey Cochrane: these are the players who I salvaged from years past and who became, to me, emblems of a new archetype: players who, not out of sheer athletic ability (represented by AVG) but by something more smarty-pantsy (represented by OBP minus AVG) saved the day and got (to first base, via a walk with) the girl. Whether these players were actually the most valuable in the WIS universe was of little concern to me after awhile. Rather, they began to represent something to me – something I aspired to become, if not by means of baseballing excellency, then at least in the things I myself was working on. Like video games. And, sure, poems-writing. And, my all-time fave, spirited banter.
Well, what I want to tell you is that this type of player is not unique only to baseball. You see, thanks to its own recent breakthroughs in quantitative analysis – thanks largely to Dean Oliver and John Hollinger – basketball now offers up an analog archetype. Of course, while there’s no OBP in basketball, there is something close, and it’s called True Shooting Percentage (TSP). TSP is a metric that accounts for a player’s three point and foul shooting, on top of his FG%. Three pointers and foul shots made are sort of like the base on balls of basketball. Until recently, fans have recognized their importance, but there’s been no way to express their worth in any meaningful way. Thus, the players who, to date, have excelled at both of those skills while posting low FG% (compare to low AVGs in baseball) have seemed, perhaps, a little underwhelming and have received, perhaps, less attention than they deserved.
The formula for TSP is [PTS / (2 * (FGA + 0.44 * FTA))], the 0.44 accounting for the fact that, in this stat that’s based on PTS/Possession, free throws sometimes come in the AND-1, or other, varieties. League average for TSP is about 8 points better than FG% (around 53%), but some players – those aforementioned players who excel both at drawing and making free throws and also making three pointers – can exceed that 8 point gap considerably. Those are the players who, like their baseballing cousins, possess a skill set both peculiarly appropriate for their sport and, until recently, totally ignored by the basketballing community.
To derive the best of these sorts of players, we can do a similar thing as for baseball. Just as, before, we took AVG from OBP (OBP – AVG), we can take FG% from TS% (TS% – FG%). For lack of a better term, and just because I like how it sounds, let’s call this a player’s Crunk Quotient (CQ).
Well, guess who’s gone and posted himself an all-time-great CQ in his short tenure in the NBA? I’ll give you a hint: his name rhymes with Beauty Gernandez, he plays for the Portland Trailblazers, and I’ve already confessed my undying adoration for him. Can you guess? Did you say Rudy Fernandez? If you did, you were correct!
So far this season, Rudy Fernandez – a.k.a. the Majorcan Rocket – owns a .426 FG% to go along with a .616 TS%, for a 19 CQ. Only one (1) player in NBA history who’s played more than 500 minutes in a season has surpassed a 19 CQ, and that was Brent Barry with a 19.11 in 2005/06. Of course, Barry (whom I also unabashedly champion, by the way) only averaged 17 minutes and 5.8 points per game for San Antonio that season. Our Little Rudy is currently averaging 26.7 and 11.7 through 16 games played. The only player to really challenge that mark is Chauncey Billups, who twice has posted 17+ CQ seasons, averaging 36.1/18.5 in 2005/06 and 32.3/17.0 in 2007/08.
In other words, were he to continue playing at his current level, Rudy Fernandez would have basically the Crunkest season of all time – a fact which I think we all knew was true, but just didn’t necessarily know how to prove.