Baseball's New Generation of Benchmarks
By DAVID LEONHARDT
Published: July 25, 2004
You probably learned about the benchmark from the same person who first taught you baseball, and it is in your mind every time you look at the back of a baseball card, read a box score or glance at a scoreboard. It could hardly be simpler: a good hitter has a .300 batting average or better.
Like many fans, though, you have come to realize that batting average is a flawed measure of performance. It ignores walks and power hitting, two crucial and increasingly common parts of the game. But you still cannot help judging hitters by that nice round number. Who knows what a good on-base percentage or slugging percentage is, anyway?
Well, the time has come for a new generation of benchmarks. They can be simple, and they can exist alongside trusty .300. There can even be a version that marks truly bad hitters instead of outstanding ones - a Mendoza line for the 21st century, if you will. (Who was Mendoza? Read on.)
The reason people care about statistics in the first place is that they can describe reality, like a hitter's ability, a person's health or a day's weather, more clearly than words alone. The .300 mark, on the other hand, creates a fuzzy picture of baseball.
It makes Ichiro Suzuki and Paul Lo Duca look more valuable than they really are and gives short shrift to Jorge Posada and Jim Edmonds. It has helped keep Dick Allen (career average .292) out of the Hall of Fame.
On-base percentage may sound a tad esoteric, but it is a more basic concept than its better-known cousin. It measures how often a hitter succeeds on the most fundamental level: by reaching base, through hit, walk or hit by pitch.
"The currency of baseball is outs," Chris Antonetti, assistant general manager of the Indians, said. "On-base percentage is the percentage of times a guy is not using up one of your 27 outs."
That's why it does a better job than batting average in describing how well a hitter helps his team. The Yankees and the Blue Jays have nearly identical batting averages this season, for instance. But the Yankees' on-base percentage was 20 points higher, they had scored 103 more runs and they led the Blue Jays by 20½ games entering yesterday.
On-base percentage is also a more useful tool for general managers trying to decide which players to sign. With all of the randomness that occurs when a bat strikes a ball and all the variation in fielding, a player's batting average often jumps around from year to year. On-base percentage is more consistent. A player with a good one this year is very likely to have a good one next year.
What, then, is a good one? Meet the new benchmarks.
THE .375 CLUB About 50 players a year, or nearly two a team, finish the season with a batting average above .300 these days. That is roughly the number of hitters who receive serious consideration for the All-Star team. Creating a similarly exclusive group for on-base percentage leads to the number .375.
The Astros' Jeff Bagwell (.385) is trying to get back into the club after falling out last season for the first time in more than a decade. Mark Bellhorn (.376) of the Red Sox is in the group despite a batting average below .270. The Rangers' leadoff hitter, Michael Young, is on the precipice. The Orioles' leadoff man, Brian Roberts, is far below it.
THE PEREZ LINE Mario Mendoza, a light-hitting shortstop in the 1970's and 80's, spent much of his career flirting with a .200 batting average.
He fell short in five of his nine seasons, but his valiant battles have been enshrined in history by the term Mendoza line, referring to a .200 average.
People generally credit George Brett with taking the term into the big time in 1980, when he said, ''The first thing I look for in the Sunday papers is who is below the Mendoza line."
Today's answer to Mendoza is Giants shortstop Neifi Perez, now flirting with an on-base percentage of .275 or worse for the third straight year. As is the case with the Mendoza line, only a handful of players - including the Expos' Tony Batista and the Marlins' Alex Gonzalez - lurk near the Perez line in any one season.
If one of them is on your favorite team, the front office is not doing its job. The free-agent market and the minor leagues are filled with inexpensive players who can reach base at least 30 percent of the time.
AN EVEN .500 Avoiding outs may be a hitter's primary job, but hitting for power counts, too. Like on-base percentage, slugging percentage - total bases divided by at-bats, or the average number of bases a hitter racks up each at-bat - is a better measure of somebody's ability to create runs than dowdy batting average is.
Slugging percentage is also far superior to runs batted in, which dress up mediocre hitters in good lineups to look like stars.
The benchmark that separates the best 50 hitters or so from the rest is a nice, round number: .500. To find the truly great hitters, look for the ones who meet both benchmarks of success. Barry Bonds is easily leading in both categories (.616 on-base, .779 slugging), on his way to a 15th straight season with at least .375 and .500. The only players with longer streaks are Babe Ruth (17 seasons), Ted Williams (17), Stan Musial (15) and Jimmie Foxx (15).
For now, on-base and slugging percentages are far easier to find on the Internet than in newspapers or on scoreboards. But that's changing. The Dodgers and the Giants began posting on-base percentages in their stadiums this year. The rest of baseball should follow. There is no point in focusing on batting average, or any statistic, at the expense of paying attention to the game.