Welcome to the first edition of Stats All, Folks of 2019.
For those who don’t remember, or have blocked it out, this is my ongoing series in which I discuss the use of sabermetrics and analytics in baseball. In previous segments, I’ve discussed Win Probability Added, spin rate, and Catch Probability, among many others.
Normally in this article, I focus on a particular sabermetric statistic and explain why it’s useful. Today, I’m going to focus on an extremely old-fashioned statistic and explain why it’s not useful.
I refer, of course, to batting average, a stat that is nearly meaningless in modern baseball.
Wait! Put down the torches and pitchforks. Hear me out.
I appreciate that batting average has been part of baseball’s statistical lexicon for as long as the game has existed. A version of batting average dates back as far as the 1860s, according to John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian. It’s one of the three rungs, along with home runs and RBIs, of the offensive triple crown. For decades, many teams — and fans — used batting average as the go-to stat for measuring the productivity of a hitter.
But times have changed. And with plenty of more advanced statistics and data now at our fingertips, batting average simply doesn’t carry its weight anymore. It gives only a limited amount of information about how well a hitter is actually performing.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Just ask Orioles assistant general manager and analytics guru Sig Mejdal, who discussed the drawbacks of batting average in a March interview with BaltimoreBaseball.com.
“No baseball fan thinks a home run is as valuable as a single, but the batting average does,” Mejdal said. “No fan thinks that a walk is of no value, but the batting average does.”
Mejdal succinctly pinpointed the fatal flaws of the stat. For one, batting average doesn’t make any distinction between different types of hits. A batter who goes 1-for-4 with a booming home run is treated as the exact equal of a batter who goes 1-for-4 with a weak infield hit. The former was clearly a bigger contributor to the offense, but batting average would mark them both as .250 hitters, no more, no less.
Batting average also doesn’t measure the most important skill for a hitter: the ability to avoid making outs. By leaving walks out of the equation, it’s excluding essential information about how often a hitter gets on base. Let’s say Batter A, in 10 plate appearances, has two hits in eight at-bats, with two walks. Batter B, in 10 plate appearances, has three hits in 10 at-bats, and no walks. If you looked strictly at batting average, Batter B would have the edge (.300 to .250). But Batter A actually got on base more times than Batter B did, and created fewer outs.
Let’s look at an Orioles-based example. If you looked strictly at batting average, you’d think the club’s most productive offensive player this year was the .313-hitting Hanser Alberto. With all due respect to Alberto, who has had a breakout season, most followers of the Orioles would agree that the club’s best hitter has been Trey Mancini. Alberto may have 34 points of batting average on Mancini, but that’s far outweighed by Mancini’s superior OBP (.338 to .331) and especially power (24 homers and .531 SLG compared to Alberto’s six and .409).
Alberto currently ranks fifth in the AL in batting average, ahead of such stars as Mike Trout, J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts. Does anybody think Alberto is a more productive hitter than those guys because of his batting average? They shouldn’t. It’s no surprise that Mejdal and the Orioles’ administration put very little stock into batting average, and the same is true for every analytics-minded front office in baseball.
So, what are some offensive stats that are more useful than batting average? Well, it’s a long list. Folks who are more sabermetrically inclined tend to favor stats such as wOBA (weighted on-base average) and wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), which I’ve written about in previous installments of Stats All, Folks. In brief, these stats aim to measure a hitter’s true value based on how often he gets on base and the ways in which he does so.
Teams also have their own proprietary methods for measuring offensive performance, and the Orioles are one of them.
“Once you have a model that tries to make sense of the ‘counting stats,’ wOBA, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), whatever it is, is really some combination of hits, strikeouts, walks, etc.,” Mejdal said. “So it’s a different person’s attempt at really putting correct value or weight on these components. We have our own, and it’s not too different.”
Granted, those kinds of stats might not be easily digestible for many fans, and you won’t often see them on most baseball broadcasts. So those who are uneasy wading too far into the sabermetric depths can turn to a much more commonplace stat: OPS.
OPS, as most baseball fans know, is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. It incorporates both a hitter’s ability to get on base and to hit for power, giving a more accurate measure of a hitter’s production than batting average does.
“We know the weaknesses in (batting average), and OPS is one, for instance, that makes up for it,” Mejdal said. “From an offensive standpoint, OPS is wonderful. It correlates very well to the actual run value associated with the single, double, triple.”
OPS has its flaws, too. It weighs on-base percentage and slugging equally, when in fact OBP is almost twice as important as SLG in scoring runs. Still, it’s a much more illuminating stat to use than batting average, and it’s easily accessible. Many baseball broadcasts now include OPS alongside traditional stats like batting average, home runs and RBIs.
Checking back in on our Orioles example, OPS does a better job of delineating which hitters have been the most valuable. Among qualified Orioles, Mancini leads the club with an .869 OPS. Alberto’s .740 mark ranks fifth, trailing Mancini, Renato Nunez (.838), Pedro Severino (.820) and Jonathan Villar (.747). This reflects that while Alberto has been getting his singles, his overall production is dampened by his low totals of walks (eight) and extra-base hits (18).
With all that said, don’t expect batting average to go away anytime soon. At this point, the stat is entrenched into the fabric of the sport. I still cite batting average in my writing, and I think the same is true for the majority of the baseball media. Warts and all, it’s a tradition. There’s no need to airbrush the batting average column out of your old baseball cards.
That doesn’t make it a meaningful stat, though. Using batting average to describe a hitter’s talent is like introducing yourself to someone by naming your favorite pizza topping. Technically you’ve given them a sliver of information about yourself, but not enough for the person to really understand who you are.
It may not be time to retire the batting average statistic, but it’s time to accept its severe limitations. Saying someone is “a .240 hitter” is telling only a small fraction of the story, and doesn’t come close to explaining how productive the batter actually is.
At the very least, try OPS instead. It’s Sig Mejdal-approved.