From our earliest exposure to baseball as children we were told the best measure of a player’s hitting ability is his batting average. The ultimate goal of a batter is to get a hit right? And batting average was the best way to see how often the batter did his job.
Our hero’s batting average was always printed on the back of his baseball card. When we watched a game on TV they always flashed his batting average on the screen as he came to the plate. If a player had a .300 batting average he was a star. Batting average was one of the Triple Crown statistics and the player with the highest batting average won the Batting Title.
When we played Little League ball we were always concerned about keeping our batting average as high as possible. The kids with the best batting averages were the best players right?
Everything we were told was wrong. It turns out batting average is actually not a very good way to evaluate a player. It simply omits too much information to be useful, especially when you consider there are much better measurements readily available. Some of these better statistics make so much common sense you will wonder why you ever cared about batting average.
I walked into a store and picked up a pack of bubble gum. I went to the cash register to pay. The cashier said “That will be 9 coins, sir.” I said “Nine coins? What is the price?” Cashier: “Do you want the gum or not? Just give me the nine coins.” I gave him nine pennies, but he told me those were not coins. “Pennies are not coins?” I said. “Nope” he replied. I handed over nine nickels and walked out of the store blowing bubbles.
That sounds pretty ridiculous doesn’t it? But batting average looks at hits just like that cashier looked at coins.
Look at this picture and tell me what you see:
B.) 5 coins
C.) 65 cents and a piece of copper.
D.) 66 cents
All of those answers would be 100% correct, but one of them conveys more information than the others. Option A is like Batting Average, Option B is like On-base Percentage (OBP), Option C is like Slugging Percentage (SLG) and D is like On-base Plus Slugging (OPS).
There are several types of coins and each one has a different value. So a cashier that treated them all the same would be foolish.
There are several types of hits and each one has a different value. So a hitting statistic that treated them all the same would be foolish.
Just like the cashier that treated all coins the same and thought pennies were not coins, batting average treats all hits the same, and walks (which are almost as good as singles) don’t count at all.
We all know there are several different types of hits with different values. Walks, singles, doubles, triples and homers are not the same. Some are worth much more than others. So a hitting statistic needs to factor in this extra information.
On-base percentage improves upon batting average by giving the hitter proper credit for walks and hit-by-pitches (HBP). Essentially it shows how often a batter successfully avoids making an out.
Slugging percentage improves upon batting average by giving the hitter proper credit for getting more than one base on a hit. It is Total Bases divided by at-bats. So a double is twice as valuable as a single, a triple is 3x as valuable as a single and a home run is 4x as valuable as a single.
OBP and SLG are much more accurate in terms of correlating well with the actual number of runs scored in real major league baseball games. Batting average is only moderately successful at predicting which teams will score the most runs. Sometimes a team that has an inferior team batting average will score significantly more runs than a team with a much better batting average. OBP is much more accurate while SLG is even more accurate. I won’t bore you with the actual math here.
The best way to predict how many runs a team will score over the course of a season is to add the OBP and SLG together to creat the OPS statistic. OPS is extremely accurate. So if you are a General Manager of a baseball team you would be wise to stock your batting lineup with players that have high OPS scores without regard for their batting averages.
So now we can come back to the question I asked in the first paragraph, is a hitter’s ultimate goal to get a hit? No, it is not. His ultimate goal is to score a run. His primary goal is to get on base without making an out. His secondary goal is to get as many bases as possible while not making an out. The hitter’s job is to keep the lineup turning over without spending any of his team’s limited supply of outs.
Now that we know there are better statistics for evaluating hitters is there any reason to continue using batting average? Well, batting average can tell you what type of hitter a player is. Is he a player that creates runs by hitting singles, hitting for power or taking walks? In the end it doesn’t really matter how he creates runs as long as he creates them at a high rate, but it can be interesting to make the distinction anyway. In terms of identifying and evaluating the best hitters there is no good reason for using batting average.
The danger with batting average is that it can mislead people into thinking players with good batting averages are more valuable than they really are. There have been many players with high career batting averages that were not very productive hitters. On the flip side there have been many players with very low career batting averages that were highly efficient at putting runs on the scoreboard.
In the chart above, you can see the career stats of several superstar players. The first 10 players are the active career leaders in batting average, the bottom three players have batting averages that are not so good. On the right side of the chart you can see the On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS) scores for each player. As we have seen, OPS is a much more accurate representation of a hitter’s skill than AVG.
Most of the guys in the top 10 for AVG are also good at OPS — but not all of them. You can see that Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter have great batting averages but they are not really all that good at producing runs. Ichiro has hit an incredible .326 for his career but he ranks 79th in OPS. That is not good when you consider there are only 135 players with enough career at-bats to qualify for this list. The problem with Ichiro that is exposed by using stats more accurate than batting average is the fact that Ichiro is only good at one thing — hitting singles. He rarely takes a walk and he has very poor power. How many times have we been told by broadcasters that Ichiro is a great hitter? Way too many. He simply is not a great hitter, he is merely a good hitter.
Now look at the bottom of the chart. Jim Thome is one of the best power hitters of all time and ranks 4th on the list of active OPS leaders, but his batting average is only 74th. Ryan Howard is another highly effective productive run producer with a mediocre batting average.
Adam Dunn has a well below average batting average of .243 for his career, but he ranks 24th among all active players in OPS. He creates runs for his team at a far better pace than Ichiro despite hitting nearly 100 points lower in batting average. Dunn takes a lot of walks and hits a lot of home runs, and that is what puts runs on the scoreboard and wins baseball games. Dunn actually has a higher on-base percentage than Ichiro, which means that Dunn is less likely to make an out each time he comes to the plate than Ichiro. It may seem counter-intuitive at first if you are accustomed to batting average, but it is true nonetheless. Dunn had an absolutely horrific season in 2011, but his career numbers are still far superior to Ichiro’s.
Now we can see that not only is batting average not the best barometer of hitting skill, it can actually mislead fans to the wrong conclusions about certain players. Some players with very low batting averages are better hitters than players with very high batting averages. If walks and extra-base hits are not factored into the analyis then the conclusion is going to be wrong.
In the world of 21st century baseball analysis Batting Average as a statistic has been discredited as a tool for serious discussion of hitting. Continued use of batting average will brand a person as out of touch with the game. If you really want to understand the game it is time to embrace better statistics. In the next article in this Stat Spotlight series we will discuss advanced statistics that are even better and more interesting than the traditional OBP, SLG and OPS stats we discussed here.