average. Home runs. Runs batted in. These three statistical categories
make up baseball's "Triple Crown" an
honor given to any player who leads his league in all three over
the course of a full season. Triple Crowns are rare Carl
Yastrzemski earned the most recent one back in 1967 yet baseball
fans across the nation watch these three categories religiously.
The lure of statistics and the easy availability of the data
and over a century of complacency make these three categories
the holy trinity of batting prowess.
Talk about a false messiah. We can measure batting ability much
more accurately. And we should.
Home runs are easily the best measure of the bunch, yet are still
to be avoided. A player who slugs forty long-balls is a more attractive
hitter than one who cannot seem to get the ball out of the infield,
but in the end, homers are a one-dimensional stat. Last year, Blue
Jays infielder Tony Batista was tied for fourth in the American
League with 41 home runs. He also managed to strike out 121 times
while failing to walk 40 times. The happy-medium label of "good
player" fits nicely. Going by home runs alone, he's a superstar;
by some of his other numbers, he's a benchwarmer.
What of those other categories? Batting average is the third rail
of common baseball statistics local radio hosts will laugh
at those who doubt the statistic's utility. Its simple formula,
hits divided by at-bats, attempts to depict how often a player will
do his job; that is, how often the batter will successfully procure
a hit. It fails by not considering the times when a player draws
a walk or gets hit by a pitch. In either of those cases, the batter
does not record an out, and deserves at least some credit. After
all, does it make a difference if a batter leads off an inning with
a long single or a six-pitch walk? Not in the slightest either
way, he gets the job done.
Finally, there is what the Simpson's grumpy comic-book salesman
would likely call the "worst stat ever": runs batted in. Players
are awarded RBIs almost any time their at-bat ends with a runner
scoring. If Mark McGwire were to hit a grand slam, he'd be credited
with four RBIs one for himself, and one for each of the runners
previously on base. The problem with RBIs is clear; McGwire had
no control over the fact that the bases were loaded. Hitting a home
run with no one on base is no easier than doing so with the bases
full (in fact, it is arguably more difficult to hit the solo
shot but that's an entirely different topic). Yet Mac gets
extra credit anyway. Make any sense? Didn't think so.
These notions are hardly original. In 1954, twelve years before
Yaz hit the trifecta, Branch Rickey penned an article for Life
magazine titled "Goodbye to Some Old Baseball Ideas." Rickey, the
former Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, was not discussing his
decision to sign Jackie Robinson; rather, he was defenestrating
hard-and-fast categories while introducing two new metrics: "On
Base Average" (now "On Base Percentage," or OBP) and "Extra-Base
Power" (EBP). The former attempted to measure a batter's ability
to get on base; the latter takes a stab at showing how hard the
batter hits the ball. One could add the two numbers, Rickey reasoned,
and the end result would show how effective a batter was in relation
"On Base Percentage" takes into account only a few more criteria
than does Batting Average, but OBP conveys far more information.
With little exception, a player's OBP tells you at what rate he
successfully reached base, whether it's due to a fluke single or
a 400-foot home run. As a corollary, OBP also shows how often a
player gets out: simply subtract the number from 1.
One of the best statistical tools ever developed, OBP has not earned
widespread respect. In 1999, more than fifty years after Rickey's
article, Topps issued its annual set of baseball cards, but omitted
the stat from the back of their card.
Thankfully, EBP has earned some respect kind of. Over the
years, Rickey's gauge has morphed into what us stat-heads call "Slugging
Percentage," whose abbreviation is the somewhat cumbersome SLG.
(Baseball number crunchers are not only enamored with numbers, but
acronyms too. Baseball
Prospectus, the ultimate stat-head resource, has categories
called everything from "EqA" to "WAA." Bill James, the father of
modern-day "sabermetrics" a.k.a. the scientific study of
all things baseball has dozens more.)
Slugging percentage has a very clean formula: total bases divided
by at-bats. A single is worth one toward the numerator; a double,
two; a triple, three; and a home run, four. Walks are omitted, but
in this case, that makes sense. Slugging percentage only cares about
how hard a player hits the ball, paying little heed to how often
he hits it. This makes a lot of sense in the end, as a player who
slugs a home run in one at bat but flies out the next is roughly
equal to one who rips back-to-back doubles.
And, as Rickey prophesized, adding OBP and SLG makes good statistical
sense. There are people out there who do not need a wallet insert
to figure out how much to tip a waitress, and some of them decided
to see if there was a correlation between this sum (it, too, has
an acronym, OPS, short for "On-Base Plus Slugging) and runs scored.
Ninety percent of the time, OPS is a good proxy for runs scored.
Batting average weighs in at slightly over 75%. Wow.
The baseball world is making its way slowly toward
accepting OPS as a reliable way to rate batters. Rob Neyer, a senior
writer for ESPN.com, is most responsible
for popularizing the statistic, referring to it in his column more
often than Darryl Strawberry gets arrested. In fact, his official
ESPN.com message board is half-jokingly titled "Rob Neyer and his
Adventures with OPS." OPS is quick and dirty yet amazingly accurate
at the same time.
There are other measures that will lead to even better correlations,
but let's face it, no one wants to spend hours on end multiplying
the number in column B with the one in row A, then dividing it by
the sum of
well, you get the idea. Just about every stats page
on the web, from ESPN's to the sabermetrician's dreamsite of baseball-reference.com
has OBP and SLG readily available. Simple addition is the only math
skill that is required, and estimation is allowed. An OPS greater
that 1.000 is extraordinary only eight players have lifetime
values above that line (led by Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Lou
Gehrig) but anything over .850 is generally good enough to
ensure a starting job. Under .700 and you'll need some phenomenal
intangibles like a well-respected fielding ability.
It has taken the sport half a century to begin shunning traditional
statistics in favor of scientifically sound ones. We may be a long
way until the science of baseball makes its way into news columns
and onto the airwaves, but the metamorphosis has begun. Just expect
another Triple-Crown winner first.