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My plea to mainstream on-base percentage instead of batting average

By Matt Snyder | Baseball Writer
You might not know, but should know, that these two guys led their respective league in OBP. (US Presswire)

Earlier Friday, the Eye on Baseball staff posted the first part in a three-part series about the most important baseball statistics. Here's what I had to say about on-base percentage:

"Unlike batting average, on-base percentage doesn't ignore working the count to earn a walk, stepping into an inside pitch or being such a terrifying hitter that one gets pitched around and/or intentionally walked often. There are four players with more than 2,000 career walks: Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. And we're supposed to ignore that and concentrate on batting average? In its purest form, OBP is basically measuring the amount of times a hitter does not make an out. With only 27 precious outs in a regulation game, this stat is paramount. That this isn't mainstreamed as more important than batting average makes very little sense to me."

I feel so strongly about this I'd like to elaborate.

Before I do, though, let me make one thing clear: Batting average is, and always will be, important. I'm not saying it's not important and, in fact, I hate it when some sabermatricians act like stats that they don't like aren't even remotely useful. I'm simply saying on-base percentage is more important than average.

In a regulation, nine-inning game, each team has 27 outs within which to score the runs needed to win. If the home team leads through the top of the ninth, it only has 24 outs, but the point remains that outs are precious -- that is, avoiding making outs is precious.

And if avoiding making outs is precious, wouldn't the better rate-stat measure be the one that measures the amount of times a batter doesn't make an out? I don't see how anyone being honest with himself could come to any other logical conclusion.

And yet, since close to baseball's inception, batting average has been hailed as more mainstream and more important than on-base percentage. Walks (and hit-by-pitches, for that matter) are ignored in batting average.

Say Miguel Cabrera works a 12-pitch walk to load the bases, bringing Prince Fielder to the plate. As far as OBP is concerned, Cabrera gets a score of 1.000 for the plate appearance. As far as batting average is concerned, Cabrera did nothing, quite literally. The plate appearance is ignored. It doesn't count. His average is .---.

Putting aside the more substantive part of the plate appearance -- getting on base with a walk -- what about the toll that a 12-pitch plate appearance takes out of a pitcher, not to mention the high-stress pitches that are to follow against Fielder with the bases juiced? That greatly helped the team, and yet it's totally ignored by the mainstream rate stat.

Now, we need to resist the urge to say something of a Neanderthal nature, such as "a real man would swing the bat and drive in the runs himself." Not only does such macho chest-thumping reek of a prepubescent level of maturity, but it ignores, yes, batting average (see, I told you it was important). Cabrera led the AL with a .330 batting average in 2012. So if, in this scenario, Cabrera swings the bat like a man, he has a 67 percent chance of making an out. In taking the walk, he made a dangerous situation even more dangerous for the pitcher.

Yet many broadcasts still show the standard line of batting average, home runs and RBI when a player comes to the plate. Tune into any radio show, and hear callers say something like "he's a .260 hitter!" without any other context, as if batting average alone defines a player.

We received tons of comments and Twitter feedback the last few weeks about how Mike Trout "wilted" or "collapsed" down the stretch. You see, he hit .289 in September. Putting aside that this is far from a poor batting average, Trout had a .400 on-base percentage in September. That was higher than his .399 mark for the whole season. Not to mention that as a leadoff man, Trout's job is clearly to get on base and score.

Here's another example, in trivia form: Name the winners of each batting title. It's pretty easy, right? The two MVPs, Miguel Cabrera and Buster Posey, were the batting champions.

Now name the two league leaders in OBP. I'll wait while you look it up and then act as if you knew off the top of your head.

It was Joe Mauer (.416) in the AL and Joey Votto* (.474) in the NL.

* Note: Votto was 26 plate appearances short of qualifying to technically win the batting title or OBP title (if there were one, which I'd love!). But giving him an out for each of those PAs knocks him down to .449, easily taking the crown.

Votto had Posey by a .474-.408 edge in OBP, so he made an out roughly 6.6 percent fewer times per plate appearance than Posey did, but Posey is the "batting champion." That makes no sense.

To reiterate, batting average is important, it's just far less important than OBP. I like the triple-slash line, so you can see average, OBP and slugging percentage (power). My overall point here, though, is that the overwhelming majority of the time people choose just one of the rate stats, it's batting average. Knowing everything I just wrote above, that simply defies all reason and logic.

I understand it's tough to shake generations of tradition. Hell, I still remember my high school batting averages from my three years playing varsity and have no freaking clue what my OBPs were. Batting average is what we were all raised on, and I know it'll be a tough habit to break. But we have to realize not all traditions are best. Lots of things have evolved in baseball over the years for the better. I believe this is one that should do so as well.

Maybe one day I'll see OBP on my TV screen when a batter comes to the plate instead of batting average. Maybe the triple-slash line will take over. Either would be fine, but the days of displaying batting average alone need to go the way of the cookie-cutter stadiums from the 1970s.

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