On Base Average for Players: Landmarks of Sabermetrics, Part II
|On Base Average for Players|
|On Base Average for Players|
By Pete Palmer
There are two main objectives for the hitter. The first is to not make an out and the second is to hit for distance. Long-ball hitting is normally measured by slugging average. Not making an out can be expressed in terms of on base average (OBA), where:
OBA = Hits + Walks + Hit-by-Pitch
At Bats + Walks + Hit-by-Pitch
For example, if we were figuring out Frank Robinson’s career on base average, it would be compiled like this: 2641 hits + 1213 walks + 178 hit-by-pitch (4032), divided by 8810 at bats + 1213 walks + 178 HBP (10201). His OBA is .395, which happens to be the tops among active players, but does not compare very well with players of the past. Sacrifice hits are ignored in this calculation.
On base average can be quite different from batting average. Take for example Joe DiMaggio and Roy Cullenbine, once outfield teammates for the Yankees. DiMag had a lifetime batting average of .325 and Cullenbine .276. But Roy was walked much more frequently than Joe and made fewer outs; he had an OBA of .404, compared to .398 for the Yankee Clipper.
In calculating OBA, the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia was used for hits, at bats, and bases on balls. Hit by pitch data are from official averages back to 1920 in the AL and 1917 in the NL. Figures back to 1909 have been compiled by Alex Haas from newspaper box scores. Some data before then comes from Haas, John Tattersall, and Bob Davids. Additional information is available in some of the old newspapers, but has not yet been compiled. Players with incomplete totals are credited with HEP at the known rate from available data for those unknown appearances. When no data are to be obtained, league averages are used. Before 1887, a batter was not awarded first base when hit by a pitch.
Who is the all-time leader in on base average [remember, this is as of 1973, when Barry Bonds was nine years old)? It is Ted Williams with a spectacular .483 mark. Not surprisingly, Babe Ruth is second with .474. It is no secret that Williams and Ruth were both exceptionally good hitters as well as being among the most frequent walk receivers. It was not unusual for them to get on base 300 times a season. Ranking third is the all-time list is John McGraw, who was elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager, but was also a fine hitter. In addition, he was adept at getting on base from walks and HBP. He holds the all-time NL record for OBA both lifetime and season. Billy Hamilton, the stolen base king, and Lou Gehrig are next in line, followed by such big names as Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx and Tris Speaker. Rounding out the top ten is Ferris Fain, former first baseman of the A’s, who quietly attained a very high OBA to go with his two batting titles.
Some players who many fans might not think to be among the leaders in OBA are Max Bishop, second baseman of the A’s last super teams of 1929-31; Clarence “Cupid” Childs, Cleveland second sacker in the 1890s; Roy Thomas, Phils' center fielder at the turn of the century; and Joe Cunningham, who played with the Cardinals and White Sox just a few years ago. On the other hand, some of the famous hitters of baseball are not included in the accompanying list of players with lifetime on base averages of .400 or better. Missing are such stars as Willie Keeler, Bill Terry, George Sisler, Nap Lajoie, Al Simmons, Hans Wagner, Cap Anson, Joe DiMaggio, and Roberto Clemente.
Since most of the players in the .400 list are either outfielders or first basemen, an additional table is shown that provides data on the top ten players at each position [tables npt offered here]. Many unheralded players are high in the OBA figures, such as Wally Schang, who played for many AL clubs in the teens and twenties, who is second among catchers, and Elmer Valo, another Connie Mack product, who ranks sixth in right field.
There are no active players with OBA’s of .400 or better, and only a few among the leaders by position. The level of OBA in the majors is presently quite low. This could be attributed to many factors, such as improved pitching (bigger and stronger pitchers throwing from the unchanged distance of 60 feet 6 inches, more use of relief pitchers, and the widespread use of the slider as an extra pitch), larger ball parks, and increased emphasis on hitting home runs. Those players with high OBA’s that are now active are shown below:
It is interesting to note that if hit by pitch were not included in figuring OBA, Frank Robinson would rank only fourth.
In regard to season averages, Dick Allen led the majors in OBA in 1972 with a mark of .422. Joe Morgan was the NL leader with .419. The only others with .400 or better on base average were Carlos may at .408, and Billy Williams at .403. These season averages are far, far below the top season averages of the past. The list of top season marks, which includes all instances of OBA of .500 or better, is dominated by another Williams named Ted, the all-time season leader, and by Ruth.
Ted Williams led the league in OBA every year he qualified except for his rookie season, and he had a higher OBA than the leader in three of his four seasons shortened by injury. Those leading the league most often in OBA are:
Ted Williams 12 Rogers Hornsby 8
Babe Ruth 10 Stan Musial 5
Ty Cobb 6 Billy Hamilton 4
Lou Gehrig 5 Richie Ashburn 4
Carl Yastrzemski 5 Mel Ott 4
Honus Wagner 4
It is important to remember that OBA is only one component of hitting, and that slugging is equally valuable. Of course, the best long-ball hitters usually rank high in both departments because they are generally walked more frequently. One thing the OBA does is give percentage recognition to the player’s ability to get on via the walk and the HBP as well as the hit. He has saved his team an out and he is in a good position to score a run.
ON BASE AVERAGE LEADERS
1000 games minimum – through 1972
+Hit by pitch estimated from partial career totals
*Hit by pitch estimated from league average