Posted Under: Stat of the Week
Before we delve into this week’s statistic let me quickly tell you about myself. I live in New York, love the Yankees and I am attending New York University pursuing a Master’s degree in Sports Business. I have a profound interest in baseball statistics and through this column will alternate each week between traditional statistics and more cutting edge statistics being developed in the sabermetrics field. I have always been interested in baseball history since I first went to Cooperstown when I was 4 years old, so I will make sure to blend some historical statistics with the present day MLB players and do a bit of player analysis along the way.
The traditional statistic I’ll be starting off with this week is Batting Average (BA), which is one of the three statistics (BA, Home Runs and RBIs) that one of my professors, Professor McDonnell, aptly described as the “window shopping” statistics of baseball. They are the most common statistics one sees while watching a game on TV or while listening on the radio and often the first statistics one looks at to evaluate a player. While Batting Average, Home Runs and RBIs tell some part of the story of the effectiveness and value of a player, these three statistics do not tell the entire story which makes the “window shopping” description appropriate.
Batting Average is the statistic that measures the ratio of a player’s hits to their total number of Official At Bats (H/AB). Official At Bats include every time you hit safely or make an out. Getting on base by an error or fielder’s choice is considered an out. A Sacrifice (fly or bunt), walk or hit by pitch is not counted as a hit or an out and therefore in not an Official At Bat.
Some of the most well-known batting average statistics in Major League Baseball (MLB) history are Ted Williams’ .406 BA in 1941, and the Mendoza Line. Ted Williams put together one of the most memorable seasons in baseball history in 1941 when the Boston Red Sox legendary leftfielder in his third season hit over .400 (at the age of 22!)1, yet still finished second to Joe DiMaggio in American League MVP voting (While I am an avid Yankee fan and would normally agree and find any way to validate a Yankee legend beating a Red Sox legend in MVP voting, if DiMaggio didn’t record his 56-game hit streak, another record that is seemingly unbreakable, Ted Williams should have won in a landslide, his stats were otherworldly that season). Baseball Almanac did an interesting compilation of Williams’ historic season and noted that July 24th was the last date Williams batted below .400 that season which ended on September 28th! Williams was the last Major League player to hit above .400 and this mark seems to be more unreachable in today’s game.
The opposite end of Williams’ brilliance in terms of batting average is the Mendoza Line, a common reference in baseball to a player’s futile efforts at the plate that one often hears when announcers are describing a player who has a batting average hovering around .2002. Mario Mendoza was a light hitting shortstop who was better known for what he did with his glove rather than his bat. An example of a player hitting below the Mendoza Line occurred this year with Adam Dunn. Dunn’s nickname is “Big Donkey” for his powerful hitting, yet he had a less than stellar year and gave the Chicago White Sox front office little return in the first year on their 4 year, $56 million investment. Before this season Dunn had career BA from 2001-2010 of .250, yet in 2011 he hit well below the Mendoza Line in 2011, at a putrid .159 as he only had 66 hits during 415 at bats and actually was able to have more walks than hits3.
Batting average’s “window shopping” delegation is seen through the statistic’s inability to measure the amount of time’s a player gets on base regardless of whether it was a hit or a walk. This is why a statistic like On Base Percentage (OBP), of Moneyball fame, is used more often to evaluate a player’s value. OBP is used more often because the more a player is on base means more opportunities for a team to score runs, something batting average is ineffectual at measuring.
Let’s go back to the 1941 AL MVP race which led to Joe DiMaggio being crowned over Ted Williams. One of the few statistics DiMaggio outperformed Williams in was At Bats (AB) which is the denominator in the Batting Average equation. In 1941, DiMaggio had 541 AB and Williams had 456 AB, however if you look at the number of Plate Appearances (PA) by the two baseball legends, DiMaggio had 621 while Williams had 606. The closeness in PAs despite the wide margin in ABs shows how batting average as a statistic only shows part of the picture as in 1941 Williams had 147 walks compared to DiMaggio’s 76 walks. This meant that overall Williams got on base for the Red Sox 55.3% of the time he made a plate appearance compared to the 44.0% OBP of DiMaggio, something Batting Average is not able to measure.
For a more recent comparison, in 2011 Player A had a .305 BA while Player B had a .260 BA. Judging solely by batting average, Player A would seem to be the more valuable player. Player A, however had a .339 OBP while Player B had a .374 OBP which would show that Player B was actually getting on base more often and thus giving his team a more likely chance of scoring runs and could be viewed as more valuable4.
Overall, Batting Average is a good beginner statistic in baseball to see how well a player is hitting in a season, yet does not present the full story of how a player is helping his team win. Next time you’re debating with a friend over different player’s values, you can use batting average as a point, but make sure to go even deeper.