Every year at around the end of the MLB season, the focus of the media starts to lean toward individual awards such as the batting title, the league homerun leaders, and of course, is there a triple crown contender? The League’s best hitters are compared against each other to try and decide who had the best year at the plate in each League, and come free agency, those are the men that are getting paid the most.
You always hear about high average, and high home run guys like Tim Anderson, Christian Yelich, and Pete Alonso. According to Batting Average and home runs hit, those guys were the top hitters in the major leagues this year.
But they are sitting at home watching the World Series this October. Why is that if they did so much for their team this year? Well, that’s because the normal MLB statistics such as average and home runs that are followed so closely are not what helps a team win games.
Evil batting average
The way to win against an opponent in baseball is just like many other sports — score more than your opponent. If you can find a player that scores more runs, and drives in more runs than the opposing team, you will outscore them. Let’s see how a players batting average compares to the amount of runs they produce in a season.
When comparing a players batting average, to the amount of runs they produce in a season over the past five years, you get a mess that only has about a 14 percent correlation to what actually happened. So, the idea that if you go out and get a guy that hits for a high average, he will produce for your team, is false.
What about the Moneyball approach?
A wise man from the Oakland A’s organization named Billy Beane once built a team with the smallest salary bill in all of baseball based off of one thing: a player’s ability to get on base. Beane did not care if the player was not great in the field, ran the bases horribly, or even if they had not been good for many years. He wanted players that got on base. How does the ability of a player to reach base safely (OBP), correlate to the amount of runs that person will produce for his club.
When looking at this graph, you can see about twice the correlation to runs produced from On Base Percentage than Batting Average. OBP has about a 30 percent correlation to the amount of runs a player will produce in a season. So Beane had a method to his madness. But we all know how the movie ends, and just like what happened in the movie, just getting on base is not enough to win games. MLB teams have to do more, but what more can teams look at other than OBP and average to find guys to target in the off season to win?
Slugging + OBP = wins?
Today’s game is shaped around one play on the offensive side of the ball, home runs. Which makes sense, why hit three singles to score a run when one player can put a run on the scoreboard with one swing? If you run the numbers and correlate home runs to runs produced, of course it’s going to be high. The number is almost 60 percent, in fact.
The problem with this is the league leaders in home runs tend to be at three positions, DH, 1B, and RF. And you can’t make a team filled with just players in those three positions, because who will play the skill positions such as the middle infield and center field? But we can take this train of thought and apply it in a more practical way.
Slugging percentage is defined as a player’s total number of bases divided by the number of at bats they have. And when you add slugging and OBP, you get the statistic On Base Plus Slugging (OPS). So, we can mix in a player’s ability to not only get on base, but also to hit for extra bases more often.
When comparing a players OPS to run production in a season, you get 62 percent correlation. When looking at this you can clearly see the trend, if you have a higher OPS, you produce more runs. If you produce more runs, you have a better chance of winning.
When you look at this graph, you see two names highlighted, Alex Bregman and Anthony Rendon. Both of these third baseman are considered MVP favorites in the Al and NL this year. Bregman plays for the Houston Astros, and Rendon plays for the Washington Nationals. Both of which are still playing for the World Series. In fact, 5 of the Washington National’s starters are in the top 100 League OPS leaders, as well as 5 of the Houston Astros. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but maybe it’s not.
If OPS can predict run production, what about wins?
We just saw that players that have a higher OPS produce more runs than lower OPS. Does this same thing apply to a team? If a club as a whole hit for a higher OPS, then they should score more runs, resulting in more wins.
When you compare a team’s OPS as a whole to the number of runs they scored in a season, there is about a 94 percent correlation. When you look at the graph below, the black dots are team that did not make the postseason, and the red dots are teams that did. Seven of the top 10 teams according to OPS in the MLB made the playoffs.
The worst team in baseball when it comes to OPS in 2019 was the Miami Marlins, they only won 57 games this year, the third least in baseball. The team with the highest OPS was the Houston Astros, who had the most wins in the league with 107, they are also in the World Series. So, you tell me, is all of this a coincidence? Or is most of the MLB looking past a statistic that is right under their nose that could be the cheat code to winning championships.