The core point of the seminal Sabermetric book “Moneyball” is the value of hitters getting on base. At least that’s what a lot of people took to be the main thesis of the Apple IIGS that wrote it. In reality, it was more about finding value in players that was being overlooked at the time, and the ability of a hitter to get on base just so happened to be undervalued when the book was written. In the decade* since the book’s release, most teams have become well aware of the importance of getting on, though some seem to focus more on it than others.
A good friend of mine never misses an opportunity these days to claim that the Brewers haven’t kept up with the times on this count. He looks at the team and what stands out for him is the free swinging styles of hitters like Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez, Khris Davis and Scooter Gennett. In the midst of the Brewers’ hot April start, I actually had a rather long conversation with him about how much he truly loathed watching the Brewers’ offense, despite the fact that they were scoring some runs and winning lots of games. Aesthetics aside, I wondered how legitimate his claims about their failures in the on base department are.
To determine this, we need to start by going back and looking at just what matters in scoring runs. The two key components of run scoring are getting guys on and then having people who can advance those runners around the bases with extra base hits. It’s often said in sabermetrically inclined circles that on-base percent is the single most important “rate” stat and that slugging is behind it in importance. Sometimes, it seems that slugging gets neglected in these conversations for one reason or another.
Digging around a bit, I found this post that quite succinctly discusses the relationship between run scoring and some of the basic rate stats (batting average, on base percentage, slugging and OPS). The upshot is that both on base and slugging are important, much more so than batting average, but that it’s not a simple linear relationship. How often a team gets on base is quite important , but so is how they get on base. A home run is obviously more valuable than a single, but on base percent (like batting average) treats both equally.
This is why both on base and slugging matter. The rate at which a team makes outs is very important, and like the post said, small changes in OBP can lead to larger changes in runs scored than similar changes in slugging. But effective offense also generally requires guys who can move base runners around the bases with big hits. So how do the current Brewers really stack up in this department?
The Crew are currently getting on base at a .311 clip, which is just shy of the league mark of .313. So, yes, they’re a bit below average in terms of getting on base, at least at the moment. On the other hand, they’re quite good at slugging the ball, with a .412 slugging percent being well above the .390 league average. Add it up, and they’re just a bit above the league average of 3.97 runs scored per game with a 4.07 mark.
Here is a chart showing how the Brewers have fared versus the league average in on-base, slugging and runs scored per game since the 2005 season when Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and JJ Hardy first saw regular action in the Brewers lineup.
|Brewers OBP||League OBP||Brewers Slug||League Slug||Brewers Runs/G||League Runs/G|
First off, it’s pretty clear how OBP and SLG relate to runs scored per game. In the years where they were above average on both counts, like 2005 and 2009-2012, they were above the league average each and every year in runs scored. What’s more, if you look at how those numbers relate to each other, you’ll see that the better they were in comparison to the league average at those things, the better they were at scoring runs versus the league average, at least roughly. In that dreadful year of 2006 when they were below average in both getting on base and slugging, they were quite far below the league average in runs scored.
The key years to look at, though, are 2007-08 and 2013-14. In those years, the Brewers were below the league average in OBP, generally just slightly. They were also above the league average in terms of SLG, generally by more than they were below average on OBP. Only in 2013 were they not able to overcome their on base deficiency and score runs at a rate better than the league average.
So what can we conclude from all of this? Being above average in getting on base is a very good thing to be, but it isn’t necessary to being an effective offense in terms of scoring runs if the team can slug the ball around the park on a regular basis. The Brewers proved that in 2006 and 2007. For the Brewers to improve their offense this year, it would definitely help if they could get on base a bit more, but it would also help them to slug the ball more often.
It could be argued that the Brewers offense is somewhat under-performing on the on base side of things, because teams that slug should inspire at least some fear in pitchers from throwing inside the strike-zone. Theoretically, at least, that should lead to more opportunities to walk, yet they are 12th in the NL in free passes. According to Fangraphs.com, the Brewers are seeing the fifth fewest balls in the zone of any offense, so they almost certainly are missing some opportunities to walk.
That’s unfortunate, but fixing it isn’t as simple as it might seem. Yes, the team probably could stand to walk more, but asking hitters to drastically change their approach runs the risk of hurting their ability to continue to do what they’ve done so well. The best way to improve the offense without running the risk of diminishing what they do well is probably to try and find personnel upgrades. Left field and first base both stand out as places where the team could benefit from a left-handed power bat with an idea of the strike zone.
At the end of the day, this isn’t a hopelessly flawed offense just because they don’t walk a lot. It would be better if they did, but it would also be better if they hit some more doubles and home runs. There is more than one way to score a run, and focusing just on the shortcomings of one thing is bound to make one miss the big picture. Walking and getting on base matter, but they aren’t everything.
*Just typing that made me feel very old.