You need PHD to keep up
with baseball OBPs

May 11, 2004 3:51 AM

This is certainly the age of statistics. No longer are baseball batting averages and ERAs the sole focus of fans and sports bettors. Now we hear about on-base percentage, slugging percentage, quality starts, home runs per at bats, walk to strikeout ratio. You need a PHD just to keep tabs on team OBP and RBI.

Is it worth keeping track of all this available data?

It is for sports bettors, of course. The more information you can digest, the better you can predict what may occur. For example, if you identify a pitcher who has a propensity to walk batters, you can make several valid assumptions: That pitcher is not likely to last 7-8 innings regularly and will likely have an inflated ERA.

A pitcher who allows an excess of walks has to throw a lot of pitches, so by the time the fourth and fifth innings roll around, they may be around 100. They could be a good go-against when facing a strong offensive team. Or, if you’re looking to back that pitcher, you had better have some quality relievers available to close out the last three or four innings.

The Brewers’ Doug Davis fits that mold. Davis walked 16 batters in his first 35 innings, and the longest he’s been able to pitch is 6 1/3 innings in any start. His ERA is 5.14. Teammate Matt Kinney has walked the second most batters (13 in 25 IP) on the Milwaukee staff, averaged 4 2/3 innings per start and carries an 8.14 ERA.

Too many walks is a problem that many Colorado Rockies pitchers have experienced over the years. With the thin air in Denver, pitchers get gun-shy and are afraid of hitters making contact, so they try and nibble around the plate. Colorado’s Jason Jennings has allowed a whopping 19 walks in 30 innings. Naturally, his 10.57 ERA is higher than the Denver altitude.

The Boston Red Sox have hired statistician Bill James as a consultant the last two years, asking for his input on individual players and team stats that need to be upgraded. While this can be helpful, it’s too simple to suggest an improvement in OBP or slugging will help turn a team around. Rather, the best thing is for a team to possess balance.

Look at the Dodgers. Los Angeles was No. 1 in pitching in 2003, but missed the playoffs with an offense that was dead last.

Balance is mentioned less often than statistical rankings. Offensive balance would be a team that has one or two good leadoff hitters atop the order, followed by players with strong sticks to drive them in. This balance is better than a team that leads the league in walks and home runs, yet has no speed, bats .210 and strikes out a lot.

One of the most disappointing teams this season has been the Phillies. They have plenty of talent, a deep young pitching staff and were 4-5 favorites to win the NL East in spring training. Yet, a lack of offensive balance has hurt, with a lot of guys who strike out and too few walks. During its 11-13 start Philadelphia ranked first in the NL in pitching (3.38 ERA), but rated 28th in the majors in hitting and 24th in on base percentage.

Leadoff batter Marlin Byrd has a .202 batting average, a .287 OBP and just two steals. The Phillies rank 27th in the majors in steals. They may have a lot of talented pieces, but offensive balance is still sorely lacking.

It’s okay to have several guys who may be slow afoot, strike out a lot and can mash the ball, as long as that’s not your entire lineup. Look at the Florida Marlins. A year ago the Marlins ranked eighth in the 16-team NL in batting, 13th in walks, and 11th in home runs. Yet, they won the World Series. Their strengths were great defense, speed, pitching and offensive balance, with Juan Pierre (.305, 65 steals) and Luis Castillo (.314, 21 steals) atop the order with plenty of muscle to drive them in (Derrick Lee, Mike Lowell, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Encarnacion).

Home runs may cause excitement, but there are many more variables to winning. In 2003, only one of the top six home run hitting teams (Braves) in the NL made the playoffs.

This is why the Texas Rangers will be worth watching closely. They have great offensive balance, with 2B Mike Young’s .389 OBP (he had a .339 OBP last season) leading off ahead of a ton of young sluggers. They have the top hitting team in the AL, but the pitching staff has been the biggest surprise, ranked second in ERA. In 2003 Texas had the worst pitching (5.67 ERA) and ranked 27th (5.15 ERA) in 2002.

Another worst to first run? It’s too early to tell, but they certainly possess excellent balance.