As much as Billy Beane and Moneyball may have popularized on-base percentage in the modern era, the statistic has been around much longer than that. Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers' GM who brought us Jackie Robinson and integrated baseball, touted the statistic almost 60 years ago in a Life Magazine article that was generations ahead of its time. (Click on the link and read it - it's amazing given that it was written in 1954.)
I still maintain that the beauty of on-base percentage is way undervalued. In a game that has no clock, the only thing stopping your team from scoring is outs. If you get 3 of them, your chances of scoring that inning are done. If you get 27 of them, the game is over.
Outs are the currency of baseball. And outs are exactly what on-base percentage measures. If you have an on-base percentage of .300, that means you do not make outs 30% of the time you come to the plate because you get on base those times up. Or, put another way, you make an out 70% of the time you come to the plate. Thinking of on-base percentage this way explains why a batter with a .380 OBP is likely so much more valuable than a batter with a .320 OBP. The former has a 62% chance of making an out, whereas the latter has a 68% chance.
This is why OBP is so far superior to batting average. Batting average tells you the number of times a player gets a hit for every at-bat. That sounds interesting, but at-bats don't really help us understand how the game progresses. After all, a hitter can play an entire game, come to the plate 5 times, and have 0 at-bats. Between the 5 times at the plate and the 0 at-bats, which is a more important measure for thinking about the game that was just played and the player's role in it? One tells us a lot of information -- this hitter had a chance to make or avoid an out 5 times. The other tells us absolutely nothing.
The difference here is the difference between plate appearances (the 5 in the example above) and at-bats (the 0). Plate appearances measure every time a player comes to the plate; at-bats measure times a player comes to the plate except when the plate appearance ends in a walk, sacrifice fly, hit-by-pitch, or catcher's interference. That excludes a lot of plate appearances, which is why a player can go an entire game without an at-bat.
Why am I talking about this? Because our fearless General Manager, Stanford-educated Ruben Amaro Jr., does not appear to understand any of this. This basic baseball knowledge that was being touted in the 1950s and became the industry standard after Moneyball appears to have eluded Amaro. It's hard to believe, but is there any other way to explain what Kyle Scott, over at Crossing Broad, unearthed from Thursday's radio broadcast?
Amaro is talking about Jimmy Rollins' pursuit of the club hit record and is comparing Rollins to Mike Schmidt. As transcribed by Scott, here's what Amaro said:
"Yeah, we were checking it out. In fact Schmitty was in the booth yesterday when we were talking about it, and, um, I think it’s about a thousand difference in, ah, plate appearances. Pretty amazing. But their batting averages aren’t that different, which is kind of… weird. I don’t quite understand it."
You can go to the Crossing Broad site and listen to the clip yourself if you don't believe it. If you don't want to go there, trust me, this is a faithful transcription.
This is truly astounding. Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies General Manager, in 2014, doens't "quite understand" how Mike Schmidt and Jimmy Rollins can have the same career batting average but have about a 1000 plate appearance differential.
And don't misunderstand - this isn't a case of someone being prompted to talk about something without preparation. As the quote shows, Amaro has been thinking about this for at least a day. He was not caught off-guard here. And he's not saying "I don't quite understand" as an expression of amazement. He truly sounds bewildered on the recording.
What Amaro lacks is a basic understanding of on-base percentage. Having one would indicate very clearly that Schmidt has almost 1000 more plate appearances because he walks so much more than Rollins. It's that simple. Sure, he also has more sacrifices and hit-by-pitches, but those aren't as important. The big difference is the walk. See for yourself (stats through Wednesday):
That's a 784 walk difference over their careers. Put in context, Jimmy Rollins could walk in every plate appearance in a season, have a 1.000 OBP for an entire year never making a single out, and still not catch up to Schmidt's total. Mike Schmidt was that much better at the plate than Jimmy Rollins in this regard (and obviously in slugging too, as the .260 to .157 ISO difference makes clear).
Which brings me back to Ruben Amaro Jr. and his failure to understand this (his words, not mine!). I've long argued that Amaro doesn't do anything well as a GM. He's driven this franchise into the ground while spending a ridiculous amount of money and driving fans away from the stadium in droves.
But I've also long suspected, as have many others, that Amaro's problem is that he lacks a deep understanding of the game of baseball. His famous quote last year "I don't care about walks, I care about production" gave us a hint. This quote today drives it home.
Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't understand the value of walks. Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't understand that on-base percentage is important. Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't understand that two players can have the same number of at-bats but have vastly different out-making opportunities.
There's no two ways about it - Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't understand basic baseball. If David Montgomery is happy having someone like that running his franchise, this team's future is doomed.