Maybe you've heard this one before. Right after you've tried something and failed, someone attempts to cheer you up by saying, "It's okay, you can't be successful every time. Just think about a major league hitter. If he's successful just three out of every ten times, he's doing a great job."
While such words of encouragement might make you feel better, they aren't actually true. My response to the above statement would be something like, "Uh, no. If a major league hitter is successful just three out of ten times, then he's either a catcher or on his way back down to the minors."
Gold: On-base percentage
In the UPL 6x6 roto league where I play, the six hitting categories are HR, R, RBI, SB, OBP, and SLG. (Noticeably absent is batting average, which is fine by me.)
When analyzing a hitter's stats for fantasy baseball, the first thing I consider is the on-base percentage (OBP). In fact, I place so much emphasis on OBP that even if your league doesn't count OBP, I'd still suggest that you start with OBP when evaluating a hitter. Why? Because of two reasons. First, the more often that a player gets on base, the more likely that good things will happen (runs scored, stolen bases, runs batted in, etc.). Second, OBP is the best measure of a hitter's ability to be consistently productive.
One of the main points in the book Moneyball was the importance of using OBP, not batting average, when evaluating hitters. This is because OBP measures all the ways a hitter can safely reach base, whereas batting average largely ignores walks. A hitter's ability to draw walks says a lot about a hitter's ability. That's why I never bother with batting average if OBP is available.
A great OBP would be in the neighborhood of .400 (a hitter who reaches base four times for every ten at bats). I'd consider an OBP of .350 to be good, not great. But my reaction to an OBP of .300 would be, "Hmm... is there a better option available?"
Here's another way to think about it. At the most basic level, hitting entails two things:
- Recognition. A major league hitter has a split second to decide if the pitch is a good one to hit.
- Execution. If the hitter has decided the pitch is good to hit, then he must strike like a snake to get the barrel of the bat squarely on the ball.
So how do we find hitters who are good at both recognition and execution? Start by looking at OBP. An OBP above .400 is really a great sign. If you can find a hitter who has had an OBP above .380 and played at least 145 games in each of the last three seasons, then you're looking at a really consistent hitter. That's my gold standard.
Silver: Home runs
After OBP, the second-most important stat that I consider is home runs (HR). Similar to what I said about getting on base, whenever a player hits a home run, good things happen in other categories. In fact, every time a player hits a home run, not only is your home run total boosted, but so is your runs batted in, runs scored, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. In the UPL, one swing of the bat can boost 5 of your 6 hitting categories (all except stolen bases).
Possibly more than any other stat, home run production can be affected by the ball park. So if a player is switching teams or if his team is moving to a new ball park, keep this in mind when you're trying to estimate how many home runs he will hit.
Bronze: Slugging percentage
In truth, slugging percentage (SLG) is rarely the deciding factor when I'm considering a player. I don't think that I ever picked up a player specifically because he had a high SLG. This is because I'd be more interested in the player's OBP and HR production. But if a player has a historically low SLG, then that could definitely be a dealbreaker.
Whether it's in the draft or on the waiver wire, I'm often on the lookout for hitters who I feel have an OBP/SLG potential of .400/.500.
The rest: Runs, runs batted in, and stolen bases
I tend to lump runs (R), runs batted in (RBI), and stolen bases (SB) together. Sure, these stats count just as much as the others, but they're tougher to predict. R, RBI, and SB are more dependent upon where a hitter bats in the lineup and the quality of hitters he's surrounded by. Hitters batting first through fourth tend to score the most runs, and hitters batting third through sixth tend to get the most RBIs. Obviously, hitters batting third or fourth are especially desirable because they are in a prime spot to both score runs and get RBIs.
One particular problem I have with trying to predict SB is that speed guys tend to get hurt. Sometimes it feels as though the faster the guy, the more likely he is to get hurt. I think this is especially true of guys who play the outfield and do a lot of running, cutting, and diving. For example, let's compare a speedy center fielder with a masher first baseman. If the first baseman tweaks his hamstring and leaves the game, he might be okay to come back in a day or two and do his thing: mash the ball on offense, and walk three steps and catch the ball on defense. But if the speedy center fielder leaves the game with the same injury, he probably can't come back as soon because he has so much more ground to cover on defense. Plus when the speedy guy does come back from the hamstring tweak, he might be advised to not steal bases until he's 100% healthy. So for that same hamstring tweak, the masher at first base might be back to mashing within a game or two, whereas the speedy center fielder might not be back to stealing bases for a week or two.
Beat the system
Having an eagle eye for spotting players with high OBPs can give you an advantage over your opponents who overvalue other stats. It also can help you cut through the smoke and mirrors of Yahoo's rankings. One problem with typical computer rankings is that they'll weigh OBP equally with other hitting categories.
While the Internet will always be buzzing about the hottest waiver wire player who gets five steals in a game or four homers in two games, I tend to focus more on hitters who have quietly put up an OBP of .400+ over the past month or past week at a position you need. Following this strategy, I managed to pick up guys like Carlos Gonzalez, Billy Butler, and Chris Coghlan last August, and they all contribued to my team down the stretch. (CarGo especially so. Shortly after I picked him up he homered in four straight games. I'm sure the Internet was buzzing about him by then.)
Of course, it's fine to pick up a player who's on a hot streak. But everyone's looking for that player, and besides, those hot streaks end. However, if you find a guy who's flying under the radar while emerging as a consistent hitter at the big league level, that type of production tends to last longer and will be more valuable to your team.
Next week our series continues with part four where we'll discuss pitcher evaluation. The current working title for that post is "Picking Pitchers? It's Nothing More than Luck and a Wave of the Magic Wand."