Quite rapidly, the game of baseball – on center stage this week with the MLB playoffs commencing – has become the sports world’s leader in using analytics to quantify player performance.
And while most agree this movement is a good thing, it tends to be problematic for the common baseball fan.
The biggest drawback with advanced analytics – otherwise known as Sabermetrics – is that you basically need a Ph.D. in statistics to understand their intricacies.
Lucky for those of you who didn’t take AP Calculus in high school, there’s really only one advanced statistic (on offense at least) worth knowing. And that one metric is On-Base Plus Slugging, labeled on a stat sheet as ‘OPS.’
It’s pretty simple: On-Base Percentage (OBP) – which measures a player’s ability to get on base via a hit, base on balls, or a hit by pitch – plus Slugging Percentage, which highlights a player’s ability to hit doubles, triples, and home runs. As a whole, OPS provides as solid a baseline as any for a baseball player’s offensive performance.
Players that put up elite OPS numbers obviously hit for plenty of power (not just home runs), but also take their fair share of walks. That’s much more effective compared to batting average, which doesn’t demonstrate the impact of a player’s hits, or how often a player reaches first base without a hit.
Batting average is the stat everybody sees first on TV, but thanks to baseball’s ‘Moneyball’ movement – it’s slowly becoming more and more irrelevant.
You don’t have to look much further than our Chicago Cubs, who completely changed their talent evaluation approach when the Theo Epstein regime came to town nearly four years ago.
Just like Jonah Hill and Brad Pitt showed us in Moneyball, Epstein and Co. look for value where others don’t – putting heavy emphasis on players that get on base (OBP), regardless of their batting average and/or public perception.
Despite finishing 14th out of 15 NL teams in hits this season, the Cubs finished 5th in OBP and 6th in OPS thanks to 567 walks — good for first in the NL and second in all of baseball to the Blue Jays.
That gaudy walk count is the biggest reason the North siders won 97 games and are participating in playoff baseball.
For a team primarily comprised of young hitters still learning major league pitching, an OBP-heavy approach has helped the Cubs return to relevance quicker than most thought.
While looking at how the whole Cub team fared against the rest of the league is beneficial, that approach is best exemplified by breaking down individual players.
Most baseball fans know a .300 batting average is considered good, but what constitutes a “good” OPS?
Enter the below rating system chart courtesy of FanGraphs, which we’ve modified a bit to put in simpler terms (middle column). The average OPS was .713 within the NL this season.
Anthony Rizzo led the Cubs with a .899 OPS in 2015, which is why he’s considered a legitimate MVP candidate. What’s not so great is Starlin Castro’s .671 OPS – the worst of any Cubs regular this year.
Here’s how the notable names between Rizzo and Castro shake out, with their batting average included in parenthesis.
Kris Bryant: .858 (.275)
Kyle Schwarber: .842 (.246)
Chris Coghlan: .784 (.250)
Dexter Fowler: .757 (.250)
Miguel Montero: .754 (.250)
Javier Baez: .733 (.289)
Jorge Soler: .723 (.262)
Addison Russell: .696 (.242)
Two things immediately jump out from those numbers.
- Besides Russell and Castro, every single Cub batter of significance finished above the NL average.
From Rizzo (.278) down to Russell, the Cubs are a shining example why batting average can be such a misleading statistic.
Before the 2015 season, if you told the average baseball fan the Cubs’ top six offensive players would hit somewhere between .246 and .278 – but would still win 97 games – they would have called you insane.
Looking at Dexter Fowler‘s .250 batting average, most would say the Cubs had a very mediocre leadoff man this season. He was 4th in the National League in runs scored.
Fowler had the 7th most walks in the NL, with Rizzo (9th) and Bryant (10th) right behind him. Coghlan and Montero, who also finished with .250 batting averages, were 17th and 29th. All in all, the Cubs were the only team with five players in the Top 30 in walks.
Starting to see the point?
OPS is the most efficient metric (traditional or advanced) to measure offensive performance – and the Cubs’ success this season has proved it.
Whether it be via the draft, (Bryant and Schwarber) trade (Rizzo, Russell, Montero, and Fowler), or shrewd free agent signings (Coghlan, Soler); Epstein and Co. put together a lineup that exceeded expectations by simply playing “Moneyball.”
Peter Hahn also contributed to this article.