Tony La Russa and the Dangerous Concept of On-Base Percentage

Introduction

Last night, Tony La Russa stated in a press conference that “on-base percentage is one of the most dangerous concepts of the last seven, eight years because it forces some executives and coaches and players to think that it’s all about getting on base by drawing walks, and the fact is the guys that have the best on-base percentage are really dangerous hitters whenever they get a pitch in the strike zone.”

Aaron Gleeman immediately noted that the Cardinals finished in the top five in OBP in 11 of the past 12 years, but were in the top five of walk total in just three of those years.

But what about the final part of La Russa’s comment? To me, the quote meant “the players whose OBP relies most on hits will be more dangerous.” So I decided to look at this idea.

Method

I went to Fangraphs and found all players who have had at least 500 plate appearances in the last three years (2009 – 2011). Then, I found their percentage of OBP from hits as calculated by number of hits divided by plate appearances divided by OBP. Then I graphed this versus wOBA, which (from Fangraphs) “combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value.” This should give us a good idea as to who the “dangerous” hitters are. I also found the top 10 players for the Cardinals in terms of plate appearances the last three years and highlighted them.

Results

The most obvious conclusion is that good hitters tend to walk a lot. This analysis didn’t account for intentional walks, but the point remains the same. There is a slight downward trend that the less dangerous a hitter is, the more reliant their OBP is on hitting. However, I do find it interesting that of the 10 Cardinals hitters on the graph, five of them (Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, David Freese and Jon Jay) are well above the trend line. This means that they are more dangerous than the average player based on how reliant their OBP is on hits. Four of the players (Colby Rasmus, Yadier Molina, Ryan Ludwick and Skip Schumaker) are near the trendline and only Brendan Ryan is well below it.

Conclusion

There’s nothing to this, really. Another idea I had was to find a player’s wOBA on pitches in the strike zone and compare that with his OBP. However, I couldn’t really find the data for this so I decided to go a different route. Whatever La Russa’s real thought process was during this quote, we may never know. I believe that walks are good and that the ability to make contact when a pitch is in the strike zone is good, but not that they are mutually exclusive.

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