OBP…not so SaberMETrics

An article by posted on May 5, 2010

Today you’re going to hear a lot about Rod Barajas’ On Base Percentage. Let me start by saying, I am and will be a 100% supporter of Barajas. He does a lot of things that a stat cannot tell you. If the only options were Barajas or Molina, Molina is obviously better defensively but Barajas seems to fit this team quite nicely.

With that said, when you rely solely on team chemistry to guide you through or how a catcher handles a pitching staff, you are admitting defeat on his ability to be a good hitter.

Let’s not make this solely about Barajas. Barajas had a huge HR last night and for the most part when you need a big hit, he’s a good guy to have lately.

The problem I have with Barajas is not with his ability, but with a portion of the fan bases opinion that the fact he has an OBP of .250 is no big deal. Unfortunately, that thought processes is mid-guided by the theory that the OBP stat was created by Billy Beane and is a sabermetric stat created in the 1990’s.

First, some history.

In the 1950’s Branch Rickey and Allan Roth created a formula that they believed helped measure the overall value of a hitter. That formula was one for determining an On Base Percentage to which we now know is OBP. Even before their time, the statistic of Reach First Base was calculated, but it was Rickey and Roth who put the formula together.

OBP is a calculation today that measures the percentage that a hitter reaches base safely. This can be for any reason except an error, fielder’s choice, dropped or uncaught third strike, fielder’s obstruction or catcher’s interference.

Today, the formula is Hits+BB+HBP divided by AB+BB+HBP+SF.

The job of a hitter in any role is to get on base whether it be by drawing a walk or getting a single or better. The worst thing a hitter can do is create an out unless it produces a run. It’s a simple numbers game.

For some reason unknown to me, people who criticize the use of OBP seem to think that people like me want every hitter to go up to the plate and put the bat on their shoulders and hope for 4 balls. A hitter with a higher OBP gives away less outs. That’s what it comes down to.

For the folks out there who can’t stand the use of OBP, if you’re losing 2-0 and there are 2 outs… what is the best way to tie the game? Is it for the current hitter to hit a solo HR, or is it to get on base and hope the next batter drives him in? The more players on base, the higher percentage chance a team has to score runs. It’s not a sabermetric graph chart, or some silly excel spreadsheet.

If you look past the fact that you cannot stand sabermetrics, you have to agree that if you have 9 players reach 1st base safely, you have a greater chance to score more runs than if you only have 3 players reach base safely.

When a player has a higher OBP, it generally means also that the pitcher has to work harder to get them out. For some to say that OBP is not a skill is just ridiculous. A knowledge of the strike zone and pitch recognition makes you a greater threat to the pitcher. 

A good hitter should be able to club a hanging curve or a meatball down the middle. However, the great hitters are the ones who work an at bat to get that opportunity, and also who can get on base.

I’m not one of those guys who thinks batting average is useless. I like batting average as a gauge to tell me the percent a hitter can get on base safely with 1 swing. What’s funny to me is that we value batting average which again is a measure of getting on base safely with just the bat, but some seem to devalue OBP… which is a measure of getting on base safely. 

I found an article written by John Lewis on bleacherreport.com. It’s dated by a year or two, but he gives a great example. Here is the example of the value of OBP.

“To show an example on this comparison of statistics, two ballplayers who play the same position but have drastically different approaches will be examined:  Robinson Cano (Yankees 2B) and BJ Upton (Devil Rays 2B/CF).  Both have somewhat similar batting averages this season – despite a slow start, Cano is hitting .263 while Upton is at a clip of .271. 

The difference between batting averages is less than 1 hit per 100 at bats, so they are nearly the same.  When comparing their on base percentages, though, a huge difference is discovered.  Cano, who almost never walks, has an on base percentage of just .298, way below the major league average of .330.  Upton, on the other hand, carries a .381 on base percentage. 

So although the two reach base almost exactly the same amount on hits, Upton reaches base nearly 1 more time every 10 at bats than Cano simply because he is willing to take a few strikes in order to draw monumentally more walks.”

So while you may absolutely hate OBP, I think you hate it just because it’s the cool thing to do. The fact is there’s nobody within a front office in MLB or a manager on the field that doesn’t want their hitters to get on base more.

This is why I value OBP more than the overall batting average. Batting average paints half the picture, while OBP gives you a better idea of the % chance a hitter is not wasting an at bat.

Other blog sites love to get on Francoeur or Barajas for their OBP. I get their value, in fact, Frenchy is having a great year for the Mets because his pitch recognition has improved which has lead him to getting on base more than in year’s past.

Just because I don’t like Barajas’ OBP, doesn’t mean I don’t see value in him batting 8th. However, I think you’ve got blinders on if you are “happy” with his OBP.

Sticking with Barajas. He is getting on base safely 25% of the time. So yes, while last night was awesome, and we like him. He’s still adding 1 out to the other team’s count 75% of the time.

That’s really not good. When I say really not good, I’m not just being picky. I mean it’s really not good!

He’s on pace for over 40 HR. We all know he’s not going to hit 40 HR this year right? So, what do long fly balls that don’t go over the fence turn into in most scenarios? Outs.

If you’re happy with his .253 OBP 7 HR and 14 RBI, that’s fine. You’ll eventually be wondering why Barajas is getting out though more than living through nights like last night.

If he sticks to his pace of .253, Barajas will have the worst qualifying OBP in the National League in over 10 years.

I like what Barajas has done this year, and I love what Francoeur has done. I don’t want them replaced, and I don’t devalue what they’ve brought to the clubhouse and to the pitching staff. I do expect them to do better.

The fact that only 24 hitters in the last five years in all of baseball have finished a qualifying year with under .300 OBP guides me to wanting Barajas to take more pitches and get on base more.

So while you may hate Billy Beane, or sabermetrics, you need to realize that a hitter’s job is and always will be to reach base safely first and foremost. The greater percent a hitter is on base safely, the greater the odds your team scores more runs than your opponent. You can’t measure a players value as a whole solely by batting average. When nobody is on base, a single is just as good as a walk is it not? So why ignore one half of a possible outcome?

If you look at the best hitters in the game, they are getting a hit at least 30% of the time, but they get on base at least 40% of the time. That makes a huge difference in the game of scoring runs.

And the reason he scores a ton of runs is because he does the single most important thing you can do in baseball as an offensive player. And that’s NOT MAKE OUTS. He doesn’t make outs. He’s always among our team leaders in on-base percentage, usually among the league leaders in on-base percentage. And he’s a really good base runner. So when he doesn’t make outs, and he gets himself on base, he scores runs — and he has some good hitters hitting behind him. Look at his runs scored on a rate basis with the Red Sox or throughout his career. It’s outstanding.” – Theo Epstein

About the Author ()

Michael Branda grew up a Mets fan watching the mid 1980's teams and his favorite Met of all-time is (and was) Wally Backman. When it comes to sabermetrics versus old school thinking, he's in the middle and believes adopting new ways to get answers is helpful, especially when the old way has not produced results.

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