Is On-base Percentage an Overrated Baseball Statistic?
While on-base is an important baseball statistic it is not the most important statistic in baseball and is overrated today.
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One of the “pet” baseball statistics in sabermetrics is on-base percentage or OBP. Noted baseball stats guru and sabermetrician Bill James used to say that OBP was the most important stat in baseball. But is it really? The answer is no.
While on-base percentage is a very important baseball stat – teams that cannot get anybody on base obviously cannot score – I will demonstrate here using two very good baseball player’s statistics why OBP is an overrated stat.
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In his 15 year major league career from 1970-1984 Ken Singleton compiled a .388 OBP. An excellent lifetime OBP that is the 111th best career OBP in baseball history.
In his 19 year major league career from 1976-1994 Willie Wilson compiled a .326 OBP. An OBP so low that it does not even rank in the top 1,000 in baseball history.
So Ken Singleton has a career OBP that is .062 or 19% better than Willie Wilson (.388 – .326). A huge statistical difference. For every 1,000 at bats Ken Singleton was able to get on base 388 times while Willie Wilson was only able to get on base 326 times.
With such an overwhelming difference between the two one would think that Ken Singleton must have been a better run scorer in his career than Willie Wilson was. But he was not a better run scorer. In fact Willie Wilson was a much better run scorer in his career than Ken Singleton was.
In his career Willie Wilson scored 1,169 runs in 7731 official at-bats for a run average of .151. So Wilson scored a run 15.1% of the time he had an official at-bat in the major leagues.
Ken Singleton scored 985 runs in 7,189 official at-bats in the majors for a run average of .137. So Singleton scored a run 13.7% of the time he had an official major league at-bat.
So Willie Wilson scored runs at a .014 or 10% better rate than Ken Singleton did despite the fact that Singleton got on base 19% more often.
How could this be?
Speed is the answer. Willie Wilson had blazing speed while Ken Singleton was a slow baseball player. When Wilson was able to get on base he was able to advance himself using his speed by stealing bases, by going from first to third on almost any single, by scoring from second base on almost any hit, by tagging up and scoring from third base on almost any fly ball with less than two outs.
Statistically players demonstrate how fast they are in three categories – stolen bases (SB), triples, and stolen base success rates. In his career Willie Wilson stole 668 bases and was caught stealing 134 times and had 147 triples. So his SB success rate is 83%.
Ken Singleton stole a grand total of 21 bases and was caught stealing 36 times and had 25 triples. So Singleton’s SB success rate was a putrid 37%.
Obviously Ken Singleton had no speed while Willie Wilson had blazing speed and that is why Wilson was a better run scorer in his career than Singleton was despite the fact that Singleton had a 19% higher OBP.
Because OBP does not take into account how fast or slow a baseball player is it is an overrated statistic in baseball and certainly is not the most important statistic in baseball.
Sources: Players Stats at Baseball Reference
Note: Ken Singleton was a fine baseball player and is a great broadcaster of baseball games for the New York Yankees and I am in no way trying to demean his play in this article.