Tuesday, April 23, 2002

WHAT HAS OBP WROUGHT?
For several years now, baseball sabermetricians (like those at Baseball Prospectus)have been advancing the notion that on base percentage(OBP) is the most important offensive statistic both for teams and for players. It is significantly more important than over-valued statistics like batting average, RBI, and stolen bases. The second most important statistic is slugging percentage (total bases divided by at bats -- a home run is four total bases, a triple three, etc.). The sabermetricians combined those statistics into one -- OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) to create a crude short-hand for a hitter's effectiveness.

They're right, of course. The Oakland A's built their team around these principles, and have managed to be moderately successful despite low revenue.

The problem? Building a team around these metrics results in an extraordinarily boring brand of baseball. These metrics emphasize two activities -- walks and home runs. So what you have is a a bunch of hulking sluggers standing at the plate looking for the perfect pitch that they can drive into the bleachers. If they don't get it, they're happy to take their walk and trot over to first base. Since the umpires don't want to call the high strike, pitchers end up trying to nibble the corners for a perfect pitch, often resulting in deep counts. Even certified saber-metrician Rob Neyer has admitted the A's aren't fun to watch. And it's going to get worse -- as more teams imitate the A's path to success.

But it's worse than that. These ptichers nibbling the plate work up high pitch counts. As the sabermetricians are fond of pointing out, it's a not a good idea to let pitchers rack up high pitch counts. So, we get a lot of four, five, and six run outings from even the best pitchers. Baseball fans end up seeing a lot less of Matt Morris, Kerry Wood, Pedro Martinez, and Bartolo Colon, and a lot more of Luther Hackman, Paul Assemacher, Dennis Cook, and Jason Christiansen. These gentlemen are good at what they do, and have a right to make a living, but most fans aren't showing up at the ballparks to watch middle relievers toil.

Then the sabermetricians wonder why team carry 12 man pitching staffs -- it's a direct result of teams following the advice of these same sabermetricians (along with admittedly, some irrational pitching changes for platoon advantage).

What can be done about it? Efforts to get the umpires to call the high strike have been unsuccessful.

Here's hoping the next wave of innovation in baseball strategy results in a more exciting, rather than less exciting game.
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