Sunday, November 27, 2011

Batting Average Matters

You wouldn't know it if you've met me in the past seventeen years, but I was the biggest baseball fan you'd ever meet.  I wasn't old enough to understand or truly like baseball until about 1990, when the Royals World Series victory was only five years in rear view.  On Sundays back then, the paper would publish every player's stats in the back of the sports section. I poured over these statistics. I filled notebook after notebook with projected statistics, trying to determine how well the teams would finish the season.  I was a stat rat.

For Christmas in 1991, my dad bought me Total Baseball, a several-thousand page book with every batting and pitching statistic ever recorded. It listed the box scores and summaries of every Championship and World Series. It also introduced me to SABRmetrics, advanced statistics that helped determine the actual value of a player, rather than his raw production (Though, back then OPS+ was PRO+ and WAR was TPR.  They were renamed due to slight tweaks in the algorithm used to figure them.). MORE stats! I was ecstatic.

By 1994, I insatiably consumed everything Baseball. What a year it was for Major League Baseball. I had never seen the Royals in the playoffs and they were in the wild card race.  I was barely five years old when they won the World Series. Tony Gwynn was assaulting .400.  Ken Griffey Jr, Matt Williams and Frank Thomas were on pace to hit fifty home runs, a feat accomplished by only eleven men before. Thomas was even in the hunt for the Triple Crown and was close to hitting a Home Run once every ten at bats, which hadn't been done since Hank Aaron in 1973. The only other players able to accomplish that were Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Hank Greenberg. Greg Maddox gave one of the best pitching seasons in major league history.  A Royals pitcher, David Cone, was a lock for the American League Cy Young Award.

The players went on strike and the magical season ended after 112 games. There were no playoffs. There was no World Series.

I was crestfallen.  I had never felt so betrayed.  I couldn't believe that pure greed could rob me of something I enjoyed so much, and the players I loved and supported were the ones who did it to me. (The owners were also to blame, but they were willing to compromise earlier. The players felt that the proposed salary cap, which would have made the game fairer, would be unfair to the players.)

I tried to get back into baseball, but found it hard when seemingly everyone was a power hitter.  I never saw so many home runs in my life. I never read about so many home runs. Because there never were so many. In the shortened 1995 season, there were hundreds more home runs than there were in the full 1993 season. Home runs became just another hit. They were pedestrian.  I kept only enough of a passing interest in baseball to watch a powerless outfielder named Brady Anderson hit fifty home runs for the Orioles in 1996.  I was done.  Baseball meant nothing anymore.


The fifty home run club's ranks swelled disproportionately.  Only those elite eleven players, nearly all Hall of Famers, managed to hit fifty or more home runs in the previous seventy-four years. Within the next ten  measly years, the list had more than doubled. Seventy-four years of baseball before the strike had produced exactly fourteen immortals who hit 500 or more career home runs. An incomprehensible testament to potent longevity. Since then, ten more names have been added (Fred McGriff would have been one of them if the strike didn't short him in 1994 and 1995. Instead, he ended his career with 493). I previously mentioned that only three players had hit a home run once every ten at bats; for the next nine years after the strike, there wasn't a season in which a player DIDN'T do it. As it became increasingly clear that the players were cheating, baseball lost all credibility. I watched 'roided-up gorillas like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds smash beloved and honestly obtained home run records. Their records are beyond tainted.  They're meaningless.  On top that: since the strike, the Royals have become the worst team in Baseball's modern era with the longest playoff drought by a wide margin.



Finally, in 2008, the players got caught cheating and home runs dropped back to about where they were supposed to be. Thirty home runs was a lot again.  I began to casually peruse through current stats. With only a handful of exceptions, all the players who went on strike in 1994 had retired.  The Royals have the first promising franchise in a long, LONG time.  Their roster is filled with young talent who will stick around for years to come, under contract, so they can't run off to the richest teams in the Big Leagues.  Without Steroids to tip the scales against the Royals, they look like they will be a competitive team next year or a year after. I found myself regularly checking current baseball stats. The league leaders in home runs and slugging percentage looked more like pre-strike numbers.  By mid-season 2011, I was somehow back into baseball.

I noticed that something is fundamentally different about how people view baseball now. I was pleased to see SABRmetrics was mainstream among baseball fans and statistical analysis was more valued. I had never heard of Billy Beane or the book Moneyball until the movie came out, but was glad to know they had an influence on which statistics were more noteworthy than others. Ever since I started collecting baseball cards, I knew that On Base Percentage (OBP) was the most important statistic for a batter. It includes every way a player gets on base, including walks and hit-by-pitches, not just base-hits like Batting Average.  I once asked my dad why nobody cared about OBP, and he said something like "hits are more exciting." I couldn't argue against that. Walks end plays. Hits start plays.



Unfortunately, batting average has been cast aside by the more hardcore baseball fans as irrelevant. They say "it doesn't matter."  I instinctually disagreed.  I wasn't sure why, exactly, but hearing that batting average, a statistic I cherish, being dismissed out of hand rubbed me in the worst way. Ted Williams .406  average in 1941 meant nothing?  Rogers Hornsby's .424 was a meaningless 20th century record?  Surely nostalgia wasn't the only reason I so violently opposed the hypothesis that batting average didn't matter.  Maybe its just how dismissive the claim was. To say that OBP is more important is obvious. To say that a stat is without the enough merit any consideration is insulting. Maybe I'm upset because high Batting Average requires  talent that steroids didn't directly affect.  Watching record after record being broken by cheaters may have made me hold on tighter to the ones they hadn't fully tainted.



Hearing the arguments against batting average made me research its true value. I will only concede one point in which batting average doesn't matter--the lead off hitter in an inning. Then, and only then, is batting average completely unworthy of statistical consideration.  The lead off man of an inning must get on base. It doesn't matter how. After he is on base, that's when average matters in the next batter. A single will move him from first to third. A walk will not.  If the lead of hitter steals second, or makes it to second base on a double or throwing error, a single by the next batter will probably score him. A walk will not.

Many baseball statisticians have already picked up on this line of thinking and include numbers such as Average with Runners In Scoring Position (RISP) or Average With Runners On Base. These stats are nice to show what a player has done with runners on base, but overall, their average over career with runners on base is the same as their overall batting average.  In other words, statisticians are unnecessarily shrinking the sample size because they believe in a myth called "clutch hitting." If a batter's performance was considerably altered by high pressure situations, he wouldn't be in the big leagues. Players who can't keep their composure in clutch situations are a liability. If they suddenly get better when something important is on the line, they're otherwise lazy. Both bad signs in a ballplayer.



If runners are on second and third with two outs, which is better to have, a player with a .400 OBP, or a .300 hitter?  What if this batter was followed by a pitcher who was incapable of hitting? In Kansas City, I grew up when our number nine hitter was Brent Mayne.  If he were up next, their opportunity to score the runners would mostly be reliant on a hit by the batter before him in the lineup. A walk would likely result in nothing but three stranded runners. In fact, if it was early in the game and the pitcher was smart, he'd walk whoever this theoretical batter was and take his chances with the pitcher or Brent Mayne. Take into account the psychological power of a hit off a pitcher. As my dad said, hits are more exciting. It causes the fielders to exert themselves and generates more opportunities for mistakes on the part of the defense. Not just contact, but base hits.  Fielders have to chase balls to the wall, dive for short fly balls, try to spear line drives, and failure to do so may end up as extra bases or easier runs.

Different statistics have different importance for different members of a team.  On Base Percentage is important for everyone.  Batting Average is important for everyone on a team, but not every time they step into the batter's box.  I can't defend the importance people place on RBIs, but it's disheartening to see other valuable stats getting shunned because there are more precise indicators of overall player value. It's like saying doubles don't matter because home runs are better.

The flaw in SABRmetrics is its contempt for situational baseball.  Because all stats eventually flatten out over long periods of time, some baseball fans think that individual moment are completely irrelevant. You can see this if you watch the movie Moneyball, when Billy Beane tells his players to never bunt or steal bases.  Never?  That's just stupid. In the long run, sacrifice bunts may be statistically negligible. That doesn't justify losing a game because the manager didn't bunt home a run because it is rarely justified.  To say stealing doesn't produce runs is weird too. Stealing bases is the sacrifice of OBP for Slugging Percentage. Sometimes, being on second is valuable when being on first is not.  Most of the time bunts and steals are unnecessary. At times, even costly. But using ultimate language like "never" and "worthless" is an overcorrection resulting from the longtime under-appreciation of valuable information. Batting Average is now sneered at by hardcore baseball fans due to this overcorrection. It's just too much.

Yes, OBP is better, but Batting Average matters.