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Weighted On Base Average: The New Batting Average

This is the second in a two part series. In Part 1, we talked about the statistics you commonly see on baseball broadcasts and in baseball discussions.

Batting Average was once considered the ultimate measure of a batter's offensive productivity. But average never gave weight to extra base hits, and walks have no place in the equation. On-base percentage gives credit for walks, but gives them as much credit as a home run. Slugging percentage disproportionately favors sluggers and still ignores walks. Here, we look at weighted On Base Average (wOBA), which combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value.

wOBA is not the ultimate "one size fits all" statistic. There will never be a single best answer for that search. However, one of the best stats we have for that purpose is called wOBA, and we're going to make a concerted effort around BYB to use that in our daily conversations and posts.

Fangraphs explained wOBA like this:

Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is based on a simple concept: not all hits are created equal. Batting average would have you believe they are, but think about it: what’s more valuable, a single or a homerun? Batting average doesn’t account for this difference and slugging percentage doesn’t do so accurately (is a double worth twice as much as a single? In short, no). OPS does a good job of combining all the different aspects of hitting (hitting for average, hitting for power, having plate discipline) into one metric, but it weighs slugging percentage the same as on-base percentage, while on-base percentage is more valuable than slugging. Weighted On-Base Average combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value.

How do you calculate weighted on base average? The formula and rationalization of it is here, but simplified a bit by tangotiger, on-base percentage is going to be worth about 1.7 times more than slugging average. Okay, now I’m happy! Sit down right here, go no further, and see if you’re comfortable. I am. OBP is worth 1.7 times as much as SLG in the equation. Got it! I suppose that I take comfort in the knowledge that there are some really smart people, like engineers and rocket scientists and Philadelphia lawyers that have spent countless hours, even years, working on this stuff to boil it all down to the right equation. I trust their judgment. More to the point, I don’t have the time or the patience to challenge them. So, you can just take their word for it, use these numbers in conversation, and look really smart throwing them around. Actually, if you can get to the point of understanding the general concept of wOBA, you are well ahead of the curve, and apparently ahead of a couple of folks that I’ve mentioned in Part 1.

To make it easier to figure out what would be a good, average or bad wOBA among regular players, I've included a chart below showing select players from the 2011 season. There were 145 qualified players.

Rank Name wOBA
1 Jose Bautista (Blue Jays) .441
2. Miguel Cabrera (Tigers) .436
21 Alex Avila (Tigers) .383
25 Hunter Pence (2 teams) .378
34 Victor Martinez (Tigers) .368
48 (top one-third ends) Nelson Cruz (Rangers) .352
72 and 73 (middle point) Emilio Bonafacio / Gaby Sanchez (Marlins) .3415
75 Carlos Lee (Astros) .339
97 (Bottom one-third begins) Danny Espinoza .325
114 Austin Jackson (Tigers) .309
125 John Buck (Marlins) .301
145 (last) Alex Rios (White Sox) .266

Source: Fangraphs

The chart below shows a few of the Tigers' regulars finished 2011:

Name wOBA
Miguel Cabrera .436
Alex Avila .383
Victor Martinez .368
Jhonny Peralta .353
Brennan Boesch .346
Delmon Young (time in Detroit only) .325
Ryan Raburn ,314
Austin Jackson .309
Ramon Santiago .305
Don Kelly .296
Brandon Inge .247

Source: Fangraphs' Tigers page

So you can see the top five on that list were above average compared to qualified major leaguers. Meanwhile Raburn, Jackson Santiago, Kelly and Inge would have ranked among the worst 33% in baseball had they had enough at bats.

Now, if anyone thinks that they’ve found the perfect statistic, think again. I hate to rain on your parade, but it is my opinion that the search for the one size fits all statistic is an exercise in futility. I say this for one simple reason. Baseball presents a different situation with each at bat. No two at bats in the same game are the same. So you’re not going to find the perfect hitter for every situation in one statistic. Show me the player that has the highest OBP, the highest SLG, and the highest OPS in the league and I’ll show you the best player for every situation. But there is, at most, one of them on the planet, and there are nine guys in your lineup. So you’re going to have to mix n match nine guys into nine lineup slots. If you’re looking for a lead off hitter, you shouldn’t be looking for the same traits that you find in a good No. 7 hitter.

The key to maximizing productivity of a baseball lineup is to try and get the players that have the best SLG and OPS in position where they will see the greatest number of situations with men on base. It logically follows that you want to put the players with the highest OBP ahead of the guys with the highest OPS and SLG. In other words, you need OBP at the top of the lineup, both OBP and SLG in the heart of the order, and players with a good SLG but not necessarily a high OBP behind them. This would generally give your team the best chance of scoring runs during a game, all other things being equal

What does this all mean for the Tigers in 2012? The Tigers ranked 11th, 9th, and 13th in the league in OBP in the top three spots in the lineup in 2011. With all the sluggers that follow them in the order, there were relatively fewer chances to drive in runs. They need to do better. The Tigers have "the guys that drive em in." They have the sluggers. Four different Tigers were among the top three in the league in SLG at their respective positions in 2011. The Tigers are just missing a couple of guys at the top of the lineup that don't necessarily make the big bucks. They just get on base.

So, if you run into Dave Dombrowski, please steer him away from Coco Crisp with his OBP of .314. Point him in the direction of Maicer Izturis, Alberto Callaspo, or Chase Headley. And if you go to Tigerfest in January and you see Jim Leyland, please tell him that it’s not about "on base, on base, on base". It’s actually about slugging percentage plus 1.7 times on base percentage. Good luck with that one.

To read more about wOBA, begin here and follow all the links.