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Aperitif Before we gorge ourselves
2003-04-11 12:58
by Mike Carminati


Before we gorge ourselves on today's main course, Joe Morgan's chat session, let's take a peek at Joe's weakly, er, weekly ESPN article on the evils and abuses of On-Base Percentage (OBP). My knee jerk reaction was to find humor-shame on me-in Joe's attempt to review baseball statistics. I got that humor, but I got more, a lot more. But hey, enough of my yakkin'. Whaddaya say, let's boogie!

First, I must say that I was surprised that Joe even bothered with OBP given that he has yet to recognize ERA as an accurate means to evaluate starting pitchers, preferring the team-dependent wins statistic. I'll hand it to him for trying something new, at least to him.

I actually agree with Joe's opener:

On-base percentage has become the statistic of choice these days. I've heard some say that OBP is the most important stat in baseball. But I disagree with that assessment.

While OBP is an important barometer, it isn't the most important. I remember when ESPN began listing OBP along with batting average in graphics on baseball telecasts, which is helpful for the viewer. No question, it's always been important.

I don't know how many people are saying that OBP is the most important stat. It seems that OPS, which totals OBP and slugging percentage, is the stat of choice among statheads. I would, however, agree with Joe's assessment of the assessment.

Most of his analysis for the next half of the article is pretty fair if a bit facile.

The Braves have had their fair share of problems in the postseason due to various reasons. Their pitching has failed them on occasion, but basically they have had a lack of depth on their bench/bullpen, and they have had some bad luck. I assessed their playoff woes prior to last year's playoffs. Also, Bobby Cox's roster (three catchers?) and in-game choices have lead to failure. Look at my assessment of the Giants-Braves deciding game 5 from their 2002 playoff.

Anyway, Joe's right pitching alone is not a great formula for postseason success. He's also correct that the Rangers' all-hit, no-pitch paradigm consigns a team to (even greater) failure.

Perhaps his most telling statement is this:

I've always said that to be a good player you need to either drive in runs or score runs -- and to be a great player you need to do both. The best players are a blend of baseball's most essential skills, with statistics serving as the numerical barometer.

Joe's a sabermetrician and he hardly even knows it. I agree with Joe, the best tool for measuring offensive greatness is OPS, which weighs hitting with power in order to drive in runs and getting on base in order to score runs, Joe's special blend. And Joe is right to call OPS a barometer, a tool to help measure offensive production.

Joe then rattles off his chit list of offensive evils in his most inane manner. It's classic Joe: he's almost at the point of accepting OPS as a concept and then he falls back on his doctrine that the Angels were predestined to win the World Series last year because of "National League style of play."

The A's are vilified by Joe for relying on walks. That's the evil trap for OBP-dependent teams: they always need their walk fix. One thing Joe does not point out is that the Angels had a slightly higher OBP last year than the A's (.341 to .339). A lot of that came from hits for the Angels (they led the majors with 1603 hits). They A's were actually not over-reliant on the walk. They were seventh, one behind the Angels, in OBP and were sixth in walks. They just moved up one spot because the Angels had so few walks, preferring the contact-hitting style.

Also, the second evil of OBP-dependent teams is that after the get their men on they need the homer to drive 'em in. Well, again the Angels had a slightly higher slugging percentage last year than the A's (.433 to .432 good for 7th and 8th in the majors). The Angels had much fewer home runs, but made up for it with doubles.

Besides, the A's hitting didn't dry up in the playoffs: they batted .288, had a .333 OBP, and slugged .500. They lost because their pitchers allowed the Twins to hit about the same and to do it more towards the end of the close series. They were outscored by one run in the series. They lost for many reasons but not because the eschewed the NL offensive style.

Next he turns to the Yankees dynasty and their NL style of play. First, Joe is incorrect in stating that no Yankee ever challenged for the home run crown: David Justice was tied for second in the AL in home runs in 2000. Well, I guess that's nit picking.

Joe likes to use the Yankees and A's as polar opposites but if you look at them from 2000 on when both have been playoff-caliber teams, you get a different picture. Two of those years (2000-01), the A's outscored the Yankees and had a better OBP. In 2002 the Yankees outscored the A's and had a better OBP. The A's have never been ones to overuse the stolen base, but the one year of the three here in which the Yankees won the World Series, was the one (2000) in which they did not excel in stolen bases.

Joe then goes on a diatribe about the long forgotten stolen base. The Angels stole their fair share last year and it probably did help their offense. But do you know which team was number one in stolen bases in the AL in 2002? The Royals, who were near the bottom in runs scored.

He points to the last three World Series winners playing "an aggressive NL style". If he uses stolen bases to gauge that he's wrong. The Yankees, again, were about in the middle of the pack in stolen bases in 2000. The D-Backs were 11th in the NL in 2001. They were, however, just 5 runs behind league-leading Colorado in home runs.

Somehow, Morgan switched gears and I'm not really sure what he's trying to say in the end. He thinks OBP is important as long as it is coupled with an NL-style of play, I think. If a team bloats its OBP with empty walks that don't score unless the team just hits a homer, that's bad in Joe's book. OK, I'll agree with that. But I think it's a veiled attack on statheads who favor OBP over batting average. Joe's saying that an "aggressive" style with contact hitters putting the ball in play is better than a team that exhibits plate discipline.

What Morgan does not get is that these two things are not mutually exclusive. When you force a pitcher to throw you a good pitch, i.e., be aggressive as opposed to passively accepting whatever pitch the pitcher wants to give you, then sometimes that results in walk.

If a man on base can steal a walk, that's great. He can disrupt the pitcher's rhythm, put pressure on the defense, etc. But if he gets picked off, that can be a tremendous lift for the opposition. Besides, who says that, say, a walk to the next batter does not put just as much if not more pressure on the opposition?

The hit-and-run is a great tool, but if the runner gets doubled off on a strike out, that can kill a rally. A double in the gap would be a better tool to get the man home.

Look, nothing Joe says is exactly wrong. It's just that his emphasis on one approach as opposed to another because he prefers it. It's your garden-variety "It was better in my day"-ism masquerading as analysis.

Of course teams that excel at many things will win often. But for those teams that have certain deficiencies, there are different approaches that they can emphasis. If you can't hit the long ball, use the hit-and-run and stolen base more often. Now if Joe had done a comparison of successful teams that have overcome certain deficiencies and then concluded that the stolen base or the hit-and-run are better fixes than the home run or that the Whitey Herzog as opposed to Earl Weaver offensive style is more effective over time, that would be fine. But to base his evaluation on three World Series champions, then a) his sample size is way too small, b) who is the champion has as much to do with luck as it has to do with which is the best team, and c) the teams he mentions don't fit his model anyway. Besides, if the past ten or so years of baseball has taught us, these stratagems are only of use if they don't cost you outs that would be better spent when the power hitters come to bat. Maybe the aggressive "approach" worked in previous baseball generations because the possibility of the long ball was not so great. And maybe that style is due for a comeback as home run totals drop off. But that doesn't mean it's the only way to win under all circumstances.

Look, if Joe prefers a certain style of play, that's fine. He's entitled. I probably agree with him. But to present his personal opinions as analysis, especially when true analysis would not bare out the same preferences, that's just shoddy journalism.

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