It’s Time to Talk About Batting Average
Sabermetrics are great, but batting average is still a useful piece of the puzzle. The problem is that batting average is inherently flawed, hence why it is important to dig deeper.
Although we are well beyond the point of introduction of sabermetrics into the baseball world, many fans are unaware of how much importance to place on traditional statistics like batting average and runs batted in. And that’s no fault of their own — television broadcasts always tell us a player’s average and RBI total, but often leave out statistics that are much more telling of an individuals performance. This is especially troubling for the fan who cares to know why Major League clubs make decisions the way they do.
I’m not here to dismiss batting average. It may be flawed, but it is still a perfectly useful stat when used as a piece of the puzzle rather than a headlining number.
I won’t even suggest you shift your focus to something more sabermetrically driven as Wins Above Replacement. Instead, I simply want to explain the basic flaws of batting average and talk about two statistics that give a more complete picture of a batter — slugging percentage and OPS.
So what’s wrong with batting average?
Like I said, batting average is perfectly fine. But it has two inherent flaws that limit its ability to accurately measure a player’s hitting performance, even when coupled with runs batted in and home runs.
The first is that batting average only tells us one thing: how often a player a player gets a hit when recording an at-bat. A player could also walk to reach base, which is essentially as good as a single. It seems that many batting average proponents are quick to dismiss walks as of equal measure to hits, even though the entire goal of the game is to reach base and score. Walking is a skill, not luck. Just ask Joey Votto.
The second is that batting average places equal emphasis on all kinds of hits, which is just flat out a deceiving. A single is great, but you know what’s even better? A double. And better than that? Triples and home runs. There is no reason to pretend that all hits are equal because, as we just said, the goal of baseball is to produce runs. It is far more likely that a run will be generated from a double than a single, and at least one run is automatically produced from a home run.
Baseball is fairly simple, and when the principles of the game are thought through, it’s easy to see how incomplete of a story batting average actually tells.
The team with more runs wins. Runs come from going around all four bases. Not all bases are weighted equally. Batting average ignores this, and the potential for a walk.
So what’s a better statistic?
Let’s start with slugging percentage, which is the total number of bases a player hits for divided by at-bats. Slugging percentage essentially tells us how many bases a player will provide per at bat.
Giancarlo Stanton led the big leagues in slugging percentage last year with a .631 mark. It’s easy to see how he would have such a high slugging percentage given the fact that he led all of baseball with 59 home runs, and a home run is worth four total bases.
The league average for slugging percentage in 2017 was .426, which means Stanton was more than .200 (!) points better than the typical player in this statistic. The next highest mark was Mike Trout‘s at .629, followed by Aaron Judge at .627.
These are all sluggers of course, and as modern day baseball will have you know there is plenty of emphasis placed on hitting the ball over the fence. But what about players such as Jose Altuve and Justin Turner, who are great players that are capable of hitting home runs, but do not do so with as much frequency as the prototypical power hitter?
OPS stands for on-base plus slugging, and it is measured on the same scale as familiar statistics such as on base percentage and slugging percentage because it is just a combination of the two.
OPS is a greatly valuable statistic because it tells us exactly what we need to know: how often does a player get on base (including walks and hit by pitches) and how many bases does the player provide per at bat?
It’s not perfect, but it is not nearly as limited as batting average and gives a truer sense of where runs come from. OPS is a statistic that many Major League organizations are turning to in order to accurately assess their players as a whole.
The league leader in OPS for 2017 was Mike Trout with a remarkable 1.071 mark. He was followed by Aaron Judge at 1.049 and Joey Votto at 1.032. OPS gives credit to guys like Judge and Stanton for hitting a bunch of home runs but also recognizes high percentage on-base guys such as Votto, Altuve, and Freddie Freeman.
In 2018, it’s important that we as fans realize that the statistics that were most important 50 years ago may not be the most important now, as is the case in any sport. Let’s not completely dismiss batting average, but let’s aim for statistics that give a more accurate summation of a player’s abilities, such as slugging percentage and OPS.