Thursday, October 08, 2009

Is OBP a new stat? Not at all.

David Pinto, at his invaluable site, passed along an interesting story about Derek Jeter's defense, and how it improved to acceptable after years of being very bad. The story's interesting, and you should check it out, but I'm interested in a comment that David made at the end of the post:
it took a good ten years for the sabermetric community to get OBP main stream acceptance (it started appearing on ESPN baseball broadcasts in the early 1990s).

It took a lot longer than 10 years for OBP to make its way into the mainstream. There certainly was a big push for acknowledging its importance made by sabremetricians in the 80s1, but it wasn't a new statistic then. Branch Rickey was preaching it (though not, apparently, by that name) in a national magazine back in the 50s2. The name "on-base percentage" goes back at least to the early 60s. The earliest it appears in a game story (or at least, I haven't found an earlier mention) in the New York Times is on May 17, 19643.
"In his last 17 games, Siebern has batted .414 with 24 hits in 58 trips. He has reached base 38 times in 71 trips during that span for an on-base percentage of .535."

When the Yankees signed Jimmy Wynn in 1976, Murray Chass, of all people4, cited his on-base percentage in the story5.
Wynn, who was sent by the Dodgers to the Braves a year ago in a six-player swap, still made significant contributions to the Atlanta attack. he led the National League in walks with 127, had the 10th best on-base percentage in the league, .377, and drove in 66 runs, which proportionately was a good total for his 93 hits.

If you go to the less commonly used terminology of "on-base average," its first appearance in the New York Times dates back to at least 19486.
Reiser played in only 110 games last year, hitting .308 at home and .311 on the road for an over-all average of .309. He was hurt on June 4 and was out of action until July 13, but during July and August he topped the club's hitting. Pete's "getting-on-base" average, a new statistical wrinkle invented by the Dodger statistician, Allen Roth, was a snazzy .408.

There's no question that the new generation of baseball analysts beginning, like Bill James, in the late 70s and early 80s recognized and pushed the value of OBP. And it did, eventually, make its way into more mainstream analysis. But it was a long struggle, and there are still a great many writers, announcers and talk show hosts that will give batting average and RBI numbers when evaluating a player, and not OBP. They're dinosaurs, I think, but they still exist in large numbers. Fifty years from now, they'll be gone, and the people replacing them will all prefer OBP as an evaluative tool, but for now, while it has penetrated the mainstream, it's still treated as an innovation by far too many "analysts," treated as a kind of "special" tool, but not something we bring out for everyday use like AVG and RBI.

1 - This isn't a criticism of David. His point is that people started really pushing OBP in the 1980s and that's true. And there was resistance when the pushing started, and that's true. But it's such a critical statistic (I believe it's fair to say that, to the extent that such a thing as "sabremetric conventional wisdom" exists, it would be conventional wisdom to say that OBP is the most important statistic for evaluating the performance of a hitter) that I think it's interesting to see how long it took from the conception of the statistic until the real pushing started. And it was a long time.7

2 - Branch Rickey penned an article for Life Magazine, Goodby To Some Old Baseball Ideas, in 1954, in which he emphasized the importance of reaching base safely (and debunked the value of the RBI).
What were the factors that went into the scoring of runs? There were a barrel of them. There was ability to get on base by any means possible. There was power, the ability to hit for extra bases rather than just singles. Then there was speed, daring on the base paths, timeliness of hitting and making the most of opportunities....the ability to get on base, or On Base Average, is both vital and measurable...we found there was still no place for RBIs in the formula. As a statistic, RBIs were not only misleading but dishonest. They depended on managerial control, a hitter's position in the batting order, park dimensions and the success of his teammates in getting on base ahead of him. That left two measurable factors—on base average and power—by which to gauge the over-all offensive worth of an individual
Branch Rickey, 1954

3 - ORIOLES TRIUMPH OVER ANGELS, 5-1 :Robinson and Powell Homer Off Latman in Eighth. (1964, May 17). New York Times (1857-Current file),p. S2. Retrieved October 8, 2009, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2006). (Document ID: 106969584).

4 - Chass has made headlines in the blogosphere for his attacks on baseball analysts and sabremetricians and bloggers:
Things I don’t want to read or hear about anymore:


Statistics mongers promoting VORP and other new-age baseball statistics.

I receive a daily e-mail message from Baseball Prospectus, an electronic publication filled with articles and information about statistics, mostly statistics that only stats mongers can love.

To me, VORP epitomized the new-age nonsense. For the longest time, I had no idea what VORP meant and didn’t care enough to go to any great lengths to find out. I asked some colleagues whose work I respect, and they didn’t know what it meant either.

Finally, not long ago, I came across VORP spelled out. It stands for value over replacement player. How thrilling. How absurd. Value over replacement player. Don’t ask what it means. I don’t know.

I suppose that if stats mongers want to sit at their computers and play with these things all day long, that’s their prerogative. But their attempt to introduce these new-age statistics into the game threatens to undermine most fans’ enjoyment of baseball and the human factor therein.

People play baseball. Numbers don’t.

Of course, he, like most baseball writers, uses a lot of numbers. But newer ones are obviously of no value to him.

5 - By MURRAY CHASS. (1976, December 1). Yanks Buy Wynn, Right-Handed Slugger :Yanks Buy Wynn, Add To Power. New York Times (1857-Current file),33. Retrieved October 8, 2009, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2006). (Document ID: 75742679).

6 - Pete Reiser Signs 1948 Dodgers' Contract For Reported Salary Increase to $20,000. (1948, February 21). New York Times (1857-Current file),16. Retrieved October 8, 2009, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2006). (Document ID: 96416826).

7 - For anyone interested in the long and fascinating history of baseball statistics, I cannot recommend highly enough The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics by Alan Schwarz. An excellent read on a fascinating subject.

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