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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.com. Beyond the Box Score is another great site that has lots of research and discussions about stats.