On Base Average for Players: Landmarks of Sabermetrics, Part II

This is the second of three pioneering statistical articles published in the years before Bill James coined the term sabermetrics, which has endured as an honor to the Society for American Baseball Research–and has brought me and 300 others to the first SABR Baseball Analytics Conferences in Mesa, Arizona. In 1984, Pete Palmer and I collaborated on The Hidden Game of Baseball, in which the now commonplace OPS (On Base Plus Slugging) made its debut. One component of that stat, Slugging Percentage, was developed in the 1860s but was not accepted by the National League as an official statistic until 1923 and the American until 1946. It  is hard today to imagine that when we wrote Hidden Game, On Base Average was not yet an official stat. Here is Pete’s landmark article on the OBA, from SABR’s Baseball Research Journal in 1973. Some of the tabular material (league leaders in lifetime OBA by position, through 1972) is not offered here as it has become largely outdated.
On Base Average for Players Print E-mail

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:

Frank Robinson 0.395 Harmon Killebrew 0.385
Carl Yastrzemski 0.389 Al Kaline 0.383
Willie Mays 0.388 Joe Morgan 0.383
Dick Allen 0.388 Henry Aaron 0.381
Willie McCovey 0.387 Norm Cash 0.379

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, 1941 .551 Babe Ruth, 1926 .516
John McGraw, 1899 .546 Mickey Mantle, 1954 .515
Babe Ruth, 1923 .545 Babe Ruth, 1924 .513
Babe Ruth, 1920 .530 Babe Ruth, 1921 .512
Ted Williams, 1957 .528 Rog. Hornsby, 1924 .508
Billy Hamilton, 1894 .521 Joe Kelley, 1894 .502
Ted Williams, 1946 .516 Hugh Duffy, 1894 .501

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:

AL                                                                   NL

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

Player Years

AB

BH

BB

HBP OBA
Ted Williams 1939-1960

7706

2654

2018

39 0.483
Babe Ruth 1914-1935

8399

2873

2056

42 0.474
John McGraw 1891-1906

3924

1309

836

105+ 0.462
Billy Hamilton 1888-1901

6268

2158

1187

50* 0.452
Lou Gehrig 1923-1939

8001

2721

1508

45 0.447
Rogers Hornsby 1915-1937

8173

2930

1038

48 0.434
Ty Cobb 1905-1928

11437

4192

1249

90 0.433
Jimmie Foxx 1926-1945

8134

2646

1452

13 0.430
Tris Speaker 1907-1928

10205

3514

1381

101 0.427
Ferris Fain 1947-1955

3930

1139

903

18 0.425
Eddie Collins 1906-1930

9949

3310

1503

76 0.424
Joe Jackson 1908-1920

4981

1774

519

59 0.423
Max Bishop 1924-1935

4494

1216

1153

31 0.423
Mickey Mantle 1951-1968

8102

2415

1734

13 0.423
Mickey Cochrane 1925-1937

5169

1652

857

29 0.419
Stan Musial 1941-1963

10972

3630

1599

53 0.418
DanBrouthers 1879-1904

6711

2296

840

32* 0.418
Jesse Burkett 1890-1905

8421

2850

1029

63* 0.414
Clarence Childs 1890-1901

5615

1720

990

44* 0.414
Mel Ott 1926-1947

9456

2876

1708

64 0.414
Rank Greenberg 1930-1947

5193

1628

852

16 0.412
Roy Thomas 1899-1911

5296

1537

1042

42* 0.411
Charlie Keller 1939-1952

3790

1085

784

10 0.410
Harry Heilmann 1914-1932

7787

2660

856

40 0.410
Jackie Robinson 1947-1956

4877

1518

740

72 0.410
Eddie Stanky 1943-1953

4301

1154

996

34 0.410
Ed Delahanty 1888-1903

7505

2597

741

55* 0.409
Roy Cullenbine 1938-1947

3879

1072

852

11 0.408
Joe Cunningham 1954-1966

3362

980

599

49 0.406
Riggs Stephenson 1921-1934

4508

1515

494

40 0.406
Arky Vaughan 1932-1948

6622

2103

937

46 0.406
Paul Waner 1926-1945

9459

3152

1091

38 0.404
Chas. Gehringer 1924-1942

8858

2839

1185

51 0.404
Joe Kelley 1891-1908

6977

2213

910

99+ 0.403
Lu Blue 1921-1933

5904

1696

1092

43 0.402
Pete Browning 1882-1894

4820

1646

466

20* . 402
Denny Lyons 1885-1897

4294

1333

621

32* 0.401

+Hit by pitch estimated from partial career totals

*Hit by pitch estimated from league average

4 Comments

I was surprised but gratified to see, one of my boyhood heroes, that Richie Ashburn led the NL 4times in OBA during the era when Duke, Hank, and Willie played. Go Rich-so happy he made the Hall while he was still alive

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Harold, I grew up near Philly and had the pleasure of listening to Richie/Harry and others do the Phillies games and he was a pure unbiased announcer ..he truly understood ‘our game’. It may not surprise you to hear he considered Clemente the best outfielder of his experience and that would have included the likes of Mantle,Dimaggio, Mays,Aaron,Robinson etc. This quote can be found at the Baseball Think Factory #2145382. P.S. the announcers they have now ….Yeesh

I am surprised to hear you asy they were unbiased because Harry and richie(I loved them both and met them both) were considered homers. Clemente was great,but in my mind there will never be another player like Mays.
Where can i see that quote you mention?
Regardless of how the majority feel, I still like Wheels.HK

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