Which stats are the best to evaluate hitters? 24


Brett+Gardner+Texas+Rangers+v+New+York+Yankees+Qn5LZICHg0pl (1)While I was growing up, I used to sit for hours and read baseball cards. I memorized and could rattle off every single Yankees’ stats which essentially meant that I knew the batting average, home run and RBI totals of every player. I knew a lot more than those, like, for instance, that Rickey Henderson stole 93 bases with the Yankees in 1988 or that he stole 100 or more three times, but for the most part batting average, home runs and RBI totals were the big three.

Now a days things have changed. I still like batting average, but find it less important. RBI and home run totals I find to be a total waste of time. A six-RBI game still impresses me and if a guy can smack 40 homers I’ll take notice, but I really don’t care if a hitter hits 26 homers or 12 or if a batter drives in 120 runs or 64 because those numbers, without context, are nearly completely meaningless to me (especially RBIs which usually tell me more about how good a team is and what position the batter has in the order).

Instead my new “big three” are batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. These are not the best stats, but to me they are the quickest ways to finding out how good of a hitter a player is, how often he gets on base and how much power he has. So unless I’m about to spend a good 15 minutes on a player’s FanGraph’s page, these are the first three numbers that I am looking for.

BATTING AVERAGE

Obviously still a big one since it is the only one of the original big three that carried over. However, it is often overrated and tells only a small part about a player so if it is the only stat cited about a player it can fall short of being useful. Batting average ignores a walk and a hit by pitch, both valuable tools in creating runs and driving up pitch counts. It also punishes a player for reaching on an error when, in reality, not all errors are created equal. Some are true bonehead plays where the batter got lucky, but fielders with better range are simply more likely to make an error so you are rewarding or punishing a hitter based on the defensive ability of his opponents. A .300 hitter is still ideal, but describing batters based on their batting average alone is only telling a small part of the picture.

ON-BASE PERCENTAGE

I still want to hear about a guy’s batting average, but only immediately before you tell me his on-base percentage because that tells me more about how often a guy reaches base (and we all know that more runners on base means more runs means more wins). Not only does OBP include walks and HBP it’s also a sign of how much a hitter works the count. It can also show if teams are pitching around or attacking hitters. In the day and age of closely monitored pitch counts, walks and driving up counts are more important than ever.

SLUGGING PERCENTAGE

50 homers used to be extremely sexy. When Cecil Fielder did it 1990, he immediately became one of my all-time favorite players. Nowadays, 50 home runs is still impressive, but what about 30 home runs? Well, if a guy played in 80 games that’s amazing, but if we’re talking about a player hitting 30 in 700 plate appearances it becomes less impressive. And if a guy hit 30 homers and less than 10 doubles and triples, well that’s even less impressive. My point is that without context home runs only tell part of the story. Now slugging percentage that measures singles, doubles, triples, home runs and outs. Without knowing anything else, slugging percentage will tell you how much power a player has. Now there are even better stats at measuring power, but this is quick, to the point and even my dad understands it.

ON-BASE PLUS SLUGGING (OPS)

This is another quick stat that people use. All it does is adds together on-base percentage and slugging percent. That gives you a rough estimate of how often a player reaches base and how much power they have. It’s useful because it’s quick, but OBP and SLUG% are not equal. It’s better to have a guy with a .400 OBP and a .400 SLUG% than a .350 OBP and a .450 SLUG%. For me, I’d rather see the triple-slash line, BA/OBP/SLUG than OPS, but they are similar and OPS still tells me a lot more about a player than batting average does.

ADJUSTED OPS-PLUS (OPS+)

Out of all the stats I’ve mentioned so far this is probably the best stat if you are only going to give one. OPS+ is OPS adjusted for ball park and league differences where an OPS+ of 100 is exactly league average and anything above is better than average or below is worse. The thing I like about OPS+ is that ball parks can have big fluctuations. Everyone knows hitters go to die in San Diego and act like they’re all juiced up in Colorado, but OPS+ takes away park differences. So two players, one a Padre and one a Rockie, can have totally different OBP and SLUG%, but if they have the same 110 OPS+ then you know that they are similar hitters. Since it adjusts for league differences this stat is the best for comparing players from different generations. That’s how Alex Rodriguez hit .300/.392/.623 in 2002 and Paul Goldschmidt hit .300/.396/.542 and have identical 158 OPS+ numbers despite big differences in SLUG%. There simply was more power in MLB in 2002 than there was in 2014.

WEIGHTED ON-BASE AVERAGE (wOBA)

wOBA is similar to OPS+, but it’s slightly better in that it doesn’t weigh OBP and SLUG% equally and a double isn’t twice as good as a single. Instead it is a formula that tries to put together one number that takes everything into account — a player’s average, their ability to get on base, their ability to hit for power, the ball park they play in and the league they play in while also taking into account that a home run is not the same as four singles and a walk and hit are not equal.

WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT (WAR)

This stat is a bit different as it takes into account a player’s contribution on defense as well as baserunning and spits out one easy number. That number is expressed as wins a particular player contributes compared to theoretical “replacement level” player (think bench players or AAAA hitters). Some people prefer oWAR, or offensive wins above replacement, as it takes out the defensive portion of the equation, but both are the same idea. I like this number a lot and use it to evaluate hitters, but I don’t use it much in my writing, however, because some people don’t understand it or don’t like it because they didn’t grow up with it. A lot of people attack the stat, but to me it is most useful as a reference point. It’s a summary of what a player contributes. Other stats are still needed, but it’s quick and it takes into account everything — how well a player hits, how well he draws walks, how much power he has, what he is contributing defensively and on the base paths.

RUNS/HITS/HOME RUNS/RBI

These are counting stats. They are most useful to me in a one game context: How did the Yankees do last night? They were great, Jeter had four hits, A-Rod hit two homers and drove in six runs and they won 8-4 (I’m living in the past). They’re also good for Hall of Fame arguments: Derek Jeter had 3,465 career hits, Ken Griffey had 654 home runs. But they’re less effective when talking about one season or even one month of a season. Two players could each hit 22 home runs and drive in 62 runs, but one player played in 160 games and the other 80 which means one is significantly better. If two players hit .280/.360/.450 it doesn’t matter if he played in 30 games or 100, both were big contributors when they played.

CONCLUSION

There is no one stat you can refer to when discussing how good or bad a hitter is. A .300 hitter is great, but a .300 hitter that has a .500 slugging percentage is better and a .300 hitter that doesn’t draw any walks at all is worse.

I like and use the triple-slash the most in my writing because I feel like it gives the most amount of information in a way that the majority of people can understand in. If I were forced to use one stat, and in everyday conversation it is often easier to refer to just one stat, that number should be wOBA or at least OPS+. It’s one, easy to understand number that doesn’t give Troy Tulowitzki an advantage for playing in Coors Field and doesn’t hurt Chase Headley for playing most of his career in Petco Park.

None of this means that stats are the be all, end all or that teams can just do away with their scouting department. Players are still real people and prone to all the bad habits and mistakes that we are all prone to. Unfortunately, we, as fans discussing baseball, are also prone to mistakes and biases so while stats may not tell the entire picture they are essential in helping us evaluate baseball players in the most unbiased way.

This is meant to be a guide to better understanding baseball stats. I am by no means an expert. If you want to read more about stats then I’d suggest you start by reading the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis (watching the movie is NOT a good substitution) and also start familiarizing yourself with FanGraphs.comBeyond the Box Score is another great site that has lots of research and discussions about stats.


About Rob Abruzzese

Rob Abruzzese created Bronx Baseball Daily in 2008 just before graduating from Brooklyn College. He currently serves BBD as its editor and works as a reporter at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobAbruzzese.


24 thoughts on “Which stats are the best to evaluate hitters?

    • mlblogsnewyorkyankees13

      "In baseball statistics, total bases (TBs) refers to the number of bases a player has gained with hits, i.e., the sum of his hits weighted by 1 for a single, 2 for a double, 3 for a triple and 4 for a home run". This only tells a small part of the story. There are many more stats that come into play.

  • WayneD

    It never ceases to amaze me how many people have been browbeaten into believing that cybermetric stats are more important than the old-time standard stats, such as runs scored, RBIs, and ERA.

    Cybermetrics ignores one very important fact: baseball games are won by the team that scores the most runs and allows the fewest runs, not by the team with the highest OBP or wOBP or OPS+ or any of those other stats that are interesting and somewhat informative, but not as important as runs scored, RBIs, and ERA.

    Put succinctly, until baseball changes the rules and awards a win to the team with the highest OBP+ (or whatever), the most important stats are runs scored, RBIs, and ERA because those stats determine actually determine who wins the game 98-100% of the time. And winning is the whole point of playing the game! (Unearned runs or errors are the other factor, of course, that determines who wins the game.)

    By the way, OBP is the most overrated stat in baseball. Why? Because if the player has zero baser-running ability, it doesn’t matter if he has a .400+ OBP. In fact, in some cases, such as in the case of Nick Johnson, a high OBP is actually a negative.

    Nick Johnson is an excellent example of why OBP is vastly overrated. Johnson’s OBP was absolutely meaningless because, as I jokingly use to say, it took two triples to score NJ from first base.

    OBP only matters if the player has good speed and he has the ability to take an extra base. NJ had neither of these abilities. NJ had a .399 career OBP but he scored more than 70 runs only twice in a 10 year career (71 once and 100 once), so his OBP was meaningless because it rarely led to his team scoring a run. So, getting on base with a walk did NOTHING to help his team win the game, which, once again, is the whole point of playing the game.

    NJ’s injury history illustrated another problem with OBP: if the player can’t stay healthy and doesn’t consistently play 140+ games a year, what value does his OBP have to his team? Answer: none.

    One final point about OBP: that stat is often artificially inflated if the player’s primary skill is hitting HRs. David Ortiz is a good example of this scenario: he’s a tremendous power hitter but a terrible base runner, so teams would rather walk him than pitch to him in key situations. Once he’s on base, he’s a detriment to his team because it takes two doubles to score him from first. So, his OBP has very little value to his team.

    In conclusion, OBP really only matters if the player has above average to excellent running ability, such as in the case of Ellsbury and Gardner.

    Cybermetric stats are interesting and they are useful in determining a players value, but they are not more important than the old time stats of runs scored, RBIs, and ERA because those stats actually determine who wins the game.

    • Rob Abruzzese

      It's Sabermetrics not cybermetric. On base percentage, more than any other traditional baseball stat, correlates directly with runs scored whereas a team with a higher OBP is more likely to score more runs than, say for instance, a team with a higher batting average. Studies have been done and even very slow hitters don't have a large negative effect. David Ortiz with a .400 OBP is still way better than Brett Gardner with a .340 OBP.

      It seems that you are having trouble understanding the basic concepts of these stats. I'd suggest start by reading MoneyBall or just familiarizing yourself with FanGraphs.com and BeyondTheBoxScore.com. There is also a great book called The Baseball Economist that I have reviewed on this site (http://bronxbaseballdaily.com/2010/01/the-baseball-economist-a-book-review/). It's very easy to read and understand and it's a quick read.

      • Rob Abruzzese

        Sorry. That link got messed up. If you want to check out The Baseball Economist, which should help you grasp some of the basic ideas behind these stats: http://bronxbaseballdaily.com/2010/01/the-basebal

        Moneyball might be slightly better for beginners as it introduces the basic concepts, especially OBP, a little better (It's really not that similar to the movie so that doesn't make up for not reading the book).

      • WayneD

        Sorry about the cybermetrics vs sybermetrics typo: the auto-correction feature on my spell checker doesn't recognize sybermetrics & changed the spelling without me noticing the change.

        While I appreciate your comments, they're not valid. David Ortiz did not have a .400 OBP last year: it was .355. Garner's OBP was .327. Yet Garner scored 87 runs, while Ortiz only scored 59, which proves my point, not yours. (Ortiz's considerable value is in his RBIs, not his OBP: when he walks it actually hurts his team's chances of scoring. ) OBP is vastly overrated if the player has no baserunning ability. So, you made my point without realizing it.

        As for understanding the game, I was offered a minor league opportunity with the Tigers when I was 18. The scout rated me as MLB ready in 3 categories: CF defense, baerunning, and knowledge of the game. Unfortunately, I was only an average FB hitter & I was a crap curveball & slider hitter (& I knew it), so I went to college, instead.

        I don't totally dismiss sybermetrics, but I do feel their value is grossly overestimated. Your obviously an inteligent man, but even you have fallen into the trap of believing stats that don't result in runs are more important than runs. Runs win games, not OBP. And yes, Garner's .327 OBP is more valuable than Ortiz's .355 OBP because Garner's OBP creates more runs than Ortiz's OBP.

        I agree that sybermetrics has value, particularly in juding how good a player on a bad team might perform on a better team, but the value of the various sybermetric stats, in general, have been vastly overstated. Runs scored, RBIs, and ERA are still very valuable stats in determining how much a player has helped his team win games.

        By the way, you meantioned Moneyball. That made me chuckle: how many WS crowns have the A's won with the Moneyball concept? I believe the answer is ZERO. Moreover, the A's out-thought themselves this year & turned a team destined to go far into the playoffs by trading their most important RBI man. Boy, that was a brilliant Moneyball decision, now wasn't it?

        • Rob Abruzzese

          I wasn't saying that Ortiz hit .400 last year, I was using the two as an example as one is typically a high OBP slow player and another, while still a decent OBP, is much lower, but much faster.

          As for your understanding of baseball, I don't doubt that, but, again, you have a flawed understanding of how statistics work. There have been multiple studies done in the books and websites that I have recommended to you, that show that OBP and OPS+ more directly correlate to runs than other stats. And when it comes to a player's importance, while it is a player's job to drive in runs, RBIs doesn't properly evaluate that player at all and says as much about a player's spot in the order and the batters around him than it does about that batter.

          Check out some of the websites and books that I've mentioned. If you have an issue with a particular study then please bring it up. For instance, there are studies that have been done that show that slow hitters aren't that big a deal. It is more important that the hitter reach base than how fast he is. Otherwise I don't want to argue in circles with you.

          By the way, many of the people that started sabermetrics and some of its biggest proponents have been hired by many major league teams and 29 teams (the Phillies being the exception) have advanced statistics guys. This is really no longer debatable by anyone properly informed. Teams realize that in addition to scouting, stats are important and legitimate.

  • Ratzo

    Stats like these started to be analyzed at lot more, if I recall correctly, back in the 80's when Rickey, Rock Raines, and Vince Coleman were tearing up the basepaths and MVP voters didn't know what to vote for. Cecil Fielder with 51 homers, but a lot of DPs and Strikeouts, or Rickey with 100+ steals, 100+ walks, 100+ runs scored, etc. Total Bases was the first stat that I remember making sense to me. It even changed my language. Instead of hitters, I started calling them batters.The goal was not to get a hit 3 times in every ten at bats. It was to get on base as often as possible; to not make outs. RBIs is not a good stat. A great hitter on a bad team can only drive himself in. A good hitter on a great team, with men always on base, can hit fly outs and not lose batting average points and get a lot of RBIs. It's too easy to pitch around a good hitter on a bad team, which is why, IMO, the adjusted stats these days should not only be field-adjusted, but team adjusted. A guy on a good team is going to get up more times, get more sac flies which don't bring down his average, get more RBIs, and get more pitches to hit than a guy who is the only threat on a terrible team. The old stats show a guy like Cal Ripken to be a good player, the new stats show him to be a very average player with no speed, a lot of double plays, etc., who happened to have a couple of great years.

  • mlblogsnewyorkyankees13

    First off, excellent piece Rob. While I was reading it I found myself mesmerized by this little paragraph.

    "A six-RBI game still impresses me and if a guy can smack 40 homers I’ll take notice, but I really don’t care if a hitter hits 26 homers or 12 or if a batter drives in 120 runs or 64 because those numbers, without context, are nearly completely meaningless to me (especially RBIs which usually tell me more about how good a team is and what position the batter has in the order)."

    If I could go off on a tangent for a bit, I thought a lot about the 2014 Yankees and how terrible they should have been but because of Joe Girardi they were actually pretty decent. In 2014 not one player had over 100 RBI's, I believe the player who had the most RBI's was Jacoby Ellsbury and that was because he was in the three-hole most of the year (in reality Brett Gardner should have been the number three hitter and Ellsbury the lead-off guy). The RBI's as a team said a lot about Girardi's managingi: the Yankees had a run differential of -31 in 2014 but they still managed to end up in second place. Usually a team with a negative run differential is towards the bottom of the standings (Rays (-13), Red Sox (-81)) but the fact the Yankees had a run differential of -31 and still sandwiched themselves between the Orioles (+113) and the Blue Jays (+37) is quite remarkable. Yeah, that was pretty much my lingering thought.

    • Larry

      And if the Yankees had their normal 5 plus 90 RBI guys, 6 plus 90 run guys and 1-20 win guy, 2-17 win guys they would had been first. Failure to have a guy who moved the runner over or driver a run in with less than two outs.
      So give me old school baseball Runs, RBI's and Home Runs state.
      Gardner had a decent OBP but to many times struck out and failed to move a runner over or in.

    • Rob Abruzzese

      And Girardi does that every year. The Yankees have always outperformed their run differential under him (including in 2008 when I didn't even think he was that great of a manager. He's improved a lot since then). He's a great manager and I hope he sticks around for a while.

  • Balt Yank

    A player who hits 26 homers and 120 RBIs is better, period, than one who has a six RBI game and has 60 for the year. I mean, really. We will struggle to hit next year with Gardner and Ellsbury as the best hitters precisely because of this deficiency.

    • Rob Abruzzese

      The Yankees struggled in 2014 because their best player had a .328 OBP (Ellsbury) and their best slugger had a .422 SLG (Gardner). Just to contrast, in 2009 they had nine players with better OBP and eight players with a better SLG.

      Players don’t just magically hit RBIs. They have to be in the right spot in the order and have the right guys around them. A hypothetical player could have hit 54 RBIs this year, but if he was on the Padres batting 8th then it means nothing and could potentially drive in 150 on the Tigers batting 4th.

  • hotdog

    i like to take a look at numbers for clutch performance…i think when evaluating a hitter that should be considered as well…stats as mentioned above considered when there's a 1 run difference, late and close games, risp, runners on 2 outs…a batter can have very average stats but in the clutch, where does he go…

    • Rob Abruzzese

      Here's the thing about that — over the course of enough at bats, a player's OBP and SLG will typically be the same in all situations. There are very few players that play differently in different situations over the course of enough at bats. Usually it's a fluke if there are. I'm talking about 1000s of at bats and not 50 or 100 or even 300. This is the same for playoff performances. A buy can have a bad postseason, even 2 or 3 or 4, but given enough at bats, he'll eventually even out. The reason we can think of a few that stand out as bad (like Swisher or Cano) is either because they haven't had enough at bats yet or they are so rare that they actually stand out quite a bit.

      • hotdog

        you won't see much of a difference that is true with many ballplayers but a not so insignificant percentage of ballplayers actually perform significantly better or worse under pressure…even if you take 20 points on a batting average, it could be the difference between a .280 hitter, batting .260 during those key situations of a game or .300…i'm always looking at those stats…Swisher and Cano have had post-season series where they've been off the charts…those numbers are too obvious…i'll take Big Papi in a clutch situation any day and he's a rare bird as well…

        • hotdog

          i can also say that a methodology that works is to simply work the counts…i like bringing in ballplayers that understand and practice that strategy…

  • Robert Rufa

    The ability to get on base has my vote. Can't score runs if no one is on base. Smart, aggressive base running helps manufacture runs. This also tells you where to put someone in the lineup. Someone who singles a lot, is fast enough to beat out a dribble or a good bunt, and has the patience to get a walk is a good choice to lead off but is wasted down in the batting order. With everyone in the right place in the lineup, the RBIs will mount up. Can't get a high RBI total with nothing but solo homers, but doubling in a couple of runs a few times a game will result in wins more often than not..

    So I ask this: who on the 2014 hit almost nothing but singles, walked on occasion, batted over .280, and would have scored more than he did had he been batting in front of Gardner and Ellsbury instead of well behind them?

    • Rob Abruzzese

      Ichiro is actually a perfect example of why understanding stats beyond batting average are important. Sure, Ichiro picks up a fair share of singles, but he does a very bad job of reaching base overall. Over the last two years, he's had a .308 OBP. That's bad. None of the recent World Series winning Yankees teams (96-2000 or 2009) had a player that bad. It is still important for a player to hit doubles, triples and homers and Ichiro doesn't do that. In fact, none of those same World Series teams had a player with such a pathetic slugging percentage as Ichiro's .340 from last year.

      Give it up dude, Ichiro too old. He's a decent 5th outfielder, but I wouldn't even want him as the 4th outfielder as that would be too much playing time. I know that you LOVE Ichiro. I get it. You post about him constantly. Give it a break.

  • Balt Yank

    The core stats count, period, including on base percentage. Clutch is what makes Jeter truly great and the next level of a baseball player. He also hit 330+ a few times and has a lifetime average of 310.

    • Rob Abruzzese

      Jeter hit .310/.377/.440 during the regular season in his career. He hit .308/.374/.465 in the postseason. He hit .301/.393/.417 w/RISP, .309/.387/.419 with men on base. He hit .298/.399/.816 with 2 outs and RISP, eh hit .283/.376/.400 in late and close situations, he hit .311/.373/.444 in tie games and .314/.377/.448 within 1 run. He hit .310/.391/.418 in high leverage situations. He hit .281/.363/.398 in the 7-9th innings.

      I love Jeter. He's amazing. Those numbers, across the board, are pretty damn impressive. But if you'll notice they are all pretty similar. Jeter was great. He didn't get magically better in tough situations though. He was just good in every situation. Sorry to say but Jeter is not especially clutch in that he didn't get better in big moments.

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