This is an article that was originally published on HardRockSports.com.
HardRock sports columnist Scott A. Ham takes a look at the most common statistics used in baseball and why they don’t tell the whole story.
About a week ago, Mark Smith, a fellow columnist here on HardRock Sports, wrote about a statistic called Offensive Winning Percentage (OW%) and it’s relative unimportance. Mark made some good points in his article, notably the uselessness of extravagant statistics like OW% to the common fan. After trading an e-mail or two with Mark, I got to thinking: while Offensive Winning Percentage is indeed pretty worthless to the everyday fan, how do the everyday statistics stack up for the stat lovers such as myself? More importantly, are the statistics that Major League Baseball broadcasts and other media sources ram down our throats as the most vital statistics in judging a pitcher really the best?
The main statistics I am referring to, offensively anyway, are batting average, home runs, and RBI’s – The Big Three. Home runs speak for themselves. There is no way to manipulate a statistic like home runs because it is simply a count of how many home runs a player has hit and in the world of offensive production, there is no feat larger or more effective in a single at-bat. Batting average follows a close second in the relative importance given to The Big Three. Everyone remembers the home run hitter before the scrappy guy who hits for a high average, evidenced by the relative silence Tony Gwynn has played in San Diego, amassing a certain Hall of Fame career. The batting champion is considered a dubious achievement, as it should be, especially in this offensive age. But simple average doesn’t tell the whole story in deciding what makes a good hitter.
More on that later. First, let’s take a deeper look at home runs. There is no doubt as to the importance of the home run in the game of baseball. Babe Ruth’s raw ability to hit home runs in an era where it was a minor factor in the game single-handedly propelled baseball into a major economical force. Fans loved it and marveled at Ruth and his ability to hit Mr. Spalding so darn far. The most hallowed records in baseball have been so appointed because of the fan’s fascination: 70 home runs in a single season and 755 career home runs.
As impressive as it is, the simple ability to crush the long-ball does not make the complete player. There was a long period in baseball where the prototypical power hitter clubbed 30 home runs a season but batted in the mid .200’s. Maybe the best example of this is Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson. Mr. October hit 563 home runs over a career spanned seasons that never featured the type of offense we’re seeing today. Reggie’s homers paid a price, though. Over 21 seasons, Jackson batted .262 and struck out 2597 times in 9864 career at-bats, or 1 every 3.8 at-bats. That number is so high that no one in the history of baseball has struck out more than Reggie has.
Still, he hit 563 home runs, right? That is a great number but was he getting the most offense out of his plate appearances? For the sake of comparison, take a look at Joe DiMaggio’s stats. Some of you may be thinking, “DiMaggio played in an offensive era,” which he did, but many of the years Joe put up solid numbers were very similar in league ERA to the era in which Reggie played. DiMaggio, over 8 less seasons and 3,043 less at-bats belted 361 home runs and hit for a career .325 average. That’s pretty good. If DiMaggio had the same number of at-bats as Reggie, he probably would have hit 500 plus home runs. But here’s where the two really separate. Reggie, in 3000 more at-bats, drove in 1702 runs, while DiMaggio drove in 1537. 3000 less at-bats, 165 less RBI’s. That’s quite a difference. True, DiMaggio played on the historical Yankees which scored a lot of runs, but if you look at a seasonal breakdown of the teams Reggie played on, they scored a lot of runs, too.
I love to see home runs as much as anyone, but simply hitting them isn’t enough. The modern baseball player has made this pretty apparent. Sluggers like Griffey, Bonds, and more recently Sosa have combined power with average to put together some truly dominating seasons that produce more for a team over the long haul. A better statistic for judging a player’s overall power is slugging percentage. Slugging percentage takes home runs into account, but also factors double, triples, etc., but places the most weight on home runs. What it gives you is a more balanced determination of how effective a player’s power is used. For instance, Mark McGwire’s slugging percentage in 1998 was .752, an extraordinarily high number. Conversely, this season Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter are posting great percentages without tremendous home run totals at .609 and .584 respectively.
That leads us into batting average. Batting average is a great way of judging how many hits a player will get over a period of time but it doesn’t always tell you if a player is a good hitter. On the surface, that doesn’t seem to make much sense, but I’ll explain.
A hitter has a number of different jobs, all of them depending on their placement in the order and the situation in the game. If you hit in the third spot, your job is to drive in runs and hopefully keep the rally going. If you’re a lead-off or number two hitter, your job is to get on base and give the guys behind you a chance to drive you in. But for almost every given situation, the main purpose of the batter is to get on base. Driving in runs at the expense of an out is sometimes necessary, but it is the least efficient way to win a ball game. Ideally, you want as many players to reach base as possible to maximize your chances to score.
Batting average doesn’t give you all of the details in deciding who gets on base. A great example of this is Rickey Henderson in 1996. Rickey hit a mere .241 in 148 games that season, which would impress nobody. That fact alone would prevent most people from allowing him to bat in the lead-off spot. However, Rickey’s OBP was .410, a very good number for a lead-off man. He wasn’t hitting great, but Rickey was getting the job done and that’s all that matters.
Likewise, a good batting average can be somewhat deceiving as well. Blue Jay fans have been singing the praises of second baseman Homer Bush this season and his .328 batting average. What they don’t mention or fail to notice is Bush’s OBP is a mere .358, very weak for hitter with that average. This, of course, is the result of Bush’s 12 walks in 317 plate appearances. Yes, Bush does get the bat on the ball, but he’s not hitting for power and therefore not positioned to be a power hitter, so his OBP is very important to his overall success. In Bush’s defense, he’s 26 years old and is playing his first full season in the majors so it will take him some time to adjust. When he does, with his speed he could become a valuable lead-off hitter.
The On Base Percentage discussion segues perfectly into our talk on Runs Batted In for the simple reason that the two are directly related. Outside of the solo home run, there is no way to drive in a run without having a runner on base. It’s impossible, which makes RBI’s the least effective statistic in judging the individual because it relies so much on the performance of the team. Yes, you do need to be a good hitter to drive in runners, but being a good hitter isn’t enough. A good example of this is Vladimir Guerrero last year with the Expos. Guerrero batted .324 with 38 home runs, but he “only” drove in 109 RBI’s. I say “only” because that is the lowest total of RBI for a player who batted at least .250 and hit 37 home runs. Why? Montreal scored 584 runs in 1998 with Guerrero driving in 109 and scoring 108. Vlads was responsible, in one form or another, for 37 percent of the Expos offense. Imagine what he would have done surrounded by players with high OBP.
Don Zminda created the most convincing argument regarding important individual stats in STAT’S Baseball Scoreboard 1998. Zminda compiled the statistics of every single game played between 1993 and 1997 and compared the numbers of the opposing teams. By comparing who led in each category over the course of 1000 plus games, Zminda was able to calculate a winning percentage for each statistic.
For example, the team that led each game in On Base Percentage won at a percentage rate of .824. Tops on the list was a statistic I swear by called OPS, which is simply On Base Percentage plus Slugging Percentage. The team that led in OPS won .852 of their games. Next came OBP (.824), then slugging percentage (.820), batting average (.804), and fewest errors (.669). RBI’s were purposefully left off this list because the team that drives in the most runs will obviously win the game. The interesting thing about these statistics is the lower placement of batting average compared to slugging percentage and on base percentage, and the huge gap between batting average and the first non-offensive statistic, fewest errors. If there is any determining factor over what statistics are important, it is what leads your team to the most victories.
Does all this mean that batting average, home runs, and RBI’s are worthless stats? Hardly. All three are great determiners of the skill of a player. But like almost everything, they have their flaws and benefit from the help of other stats like On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage to round out their overall impact.