In the midst of the Steroid Era in the early 2000s, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane saw other teams were undervaluing on-base percentage (among many other areas), instead placing a priority on qualities like speed and runs batted in. He realized he could put together a formidable offense without spending on high-priced sluggers and speedsters, and, thus, the term “Moneyball” was coined. Since then, teams have slowly but surely begun to realize the importance of OBP in addition to more traditionally heralded statistics like home runs and stolen bases.
Although strikeouts and home runs are at an all-time high, both the league-average OBP and walk rate are back on the rise, currently sitting at their highest levels since 2010 as front offices continue to emphasize plate discipline. And for good reason: it’s been proven again and again how OBP correlates to run scoring, and this year is no different.
Here’s a look at the current top-five clubs in OBP and how they rank in runs scored:
And here are the bottom five teams:
|White Sox||.311||465 (27th)|
Reaching base at a high rate — or even a league-average clip — has been a problem area for the Cincinnati Reds dating back to, no surprise, just before the current rebuild began. In spite of Joey Votto‘s best efforts, the team had a collective .308 OBP from 2014 to 2016. Only two teams, the Phillies and Padres, were worse over that span. As a result, the offense scored the sixth-fewest runs in baseball in those three years.
In the dreadful 2014 season, the Reds posted a .296 OBP, which was only the fifth time they posted a sub-.300 mark in team history. Since 1900, only the 1908 club was worse at getting on base (.288). It was one of the worst performances in baseball history, too. The 2014 Reds are tied for the fourth-worst single-season OBP by a team in the 21st century and are 41st-worst in the Live Ball Era, which dates back to 1920.
Of course, part of that low number had to do with the departure of Shin-Soo Choo and Votto missing 100 games due to leg injuries. But even if Votto took the field for 162 games that season, the overall OBP would’ve still been ugly.
Among the 12 players who had 200 plate appearances that season, only four had an OBP above league average (.314): Votto, Devin Mesoraco, Ramon Santiago, and Todd Frazier. Only six had an above-average walk rate (7.6 BB%). Two regular starters — Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart, both at a 4.6 BB% — ranked among the least patient hitters in the game. Votto and Santiago were the only players with a walk rate above 10 percent, and they combined to step in the batter’s box fewer than 500 times, hardly enough to make a huge dent in the team’s overall numbers.
Even in the winning years prior to that, there wasn’t an emphasis placed on getting on base. The Reds had players who could do so at a high rate, but it wasn’t a top priority preached by management. Rather, the narrative heard from manager Dusty Baker was that driving in runs is more important. Of course, saying one is more crucial than the other is faulty logic; driving in runs isn’t possible without players getting on base.
Here’s what Baker told MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon in 2008:
“I’m big on driving in runs and scoring runs,” Baker said. “Guys in the middle should score about close to equal to what they drive in. On-base percentage, that’s fine and dandy. But a lot of times guys get so much into on-base percentage that they cease to swing. It’s becoming a little bit out of control.
“What you do is run the pitcher’s count up, that helps,” Baker said. “You put him in the stretch, that helps. But your job in the middle is to either score them or drive them in. The name of the game is scoring runs. Sometimes, you get so caught up in on-base percentage that you’re clogging up the bases.”
Baker’s players, most notably Phillips, also echoed this old-school sentiment.
“I don’t do that MLB Network on-base percentage (stuff),” Phillips told USA TODAY Sports. “I think that’s messing up baseball. I think people now are just worried about getting paid and worrying about on-base percentage instead of just winning the game.”
“That’s the new thing now. I feel like all of these stats and all of these geeks upstairs, they’re messing up baseball, they’re just changing the game. It’s all about on-base percentage. If you don’t get on base, then you suck. That’s basically what they’re saying. People don’t care about RBI or scoring runs, it’s all about getting on base.”
(Interestingly, Phillips’ only season with 100 runs batted in came in 2013, when he had Choo and Votto batting ahead of him. Hmm.)
Fortunately, then-general manager Walt Jocketty did not share that idea. Following the 2014 season, he had this to say to the Cincinnati Enquirer’s John Fay:
“But offensively, I think you recognize we didn’t get as many guys on base this year. Fewer guys on base, fewer runs are going to score. We’ve got to take a hard look at that.”
Unfortunately, it was not an overnight fix.
The Reds posted a team .312 OBP in 2015, good for 19th in baseball. However, it could hardly be considered a huge improvement; it was mostly due to a healthy Votto and his ludicrous .459 OBP and 20.1 BB%. Aside from him, Jay Bruce (9.1 BB%) was the only other full-time player with an above-average walk rate. Phillips had a respectable .328 OBP, but it was driven by a .294 batting average.
In 2016, Votto again posted an eye-popping on-base and walk rate as the team OBP (.316) increased, but this was mostly due to a higher batting average. However, he did start to see some of his teammates practice more patience at the plate. While no other player had an above-average eye except Tucker Barnhart (8.6 BB%), the Reds saw improvements from the likes of Cozart, Eugenio Suarez, and Billy Hamilton.
Minus Hamilton, that progress has continued in 2017. The Reds currently have a .324 OBP, their highest in four seasons — and it’s not a fluke caused by a high batting average, either. Fewer players are swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone, and the club’s walk rate has gone up to its highest number since 2013 as a result.
|Season||OBP||BB%||O-Swing%||Runs per game|
Three full-time players have a walk rate above 10 percent this season. Two of them in particular, Cozart and Suarez, have made tremendous strides in their approach at the plate. In 2013, Cozart walked in a meager 4.3 percent of his plate appearances. That number has risen every year since then and sits at 12.5 percent in 2017 — 49 percent better than the league average. Two years ago, Suarez’s 4.3 BB% was tied for worst on the team among regular players. Now, he’s one of the most patient hitters on the team at 12.4 percent, as Nick Kirby recently wrote about.
The catching platoon of Mesoraco (10.1%) and Barnhart (8.8%) is also drawing walks at an above-average rate, and Scott Schebler was doing so before his recent shoulder injury and subsequent slump. In his brief time as an everyday player, Jesse Winker also has a 14.3 BB%.
The change is certainly being driven, in part, by general manager Dick Williams. In his short time at the helm, he has been an outspoken proponent of analytics and expanded that department of the front office. Here was his answer in a recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) when asked whether speed or on-base percentage is more important at the top of the lineup:
“I wish I could say BOTH. If I had to pick, I would say on base is more important.”
The more patient approach is not being seen exclusively at the MLB level, however. Across the organization, some of the top up-and-coming players are noted for their plate discipline. And Williams is targeting many of these players in the draft.
Nick Senzel, Taylor Trammell, Tyler Stephenson, Alex Blandino, Phil Ervin, and Winker — all highly regarded for their patience at the plate — were either taken in the first round or the supplemental first round within the last five years. Jeter Downs, the 32nd pick in this year’s draft, has a 16.0 BB% thus far in Billings. Many of the Reds’ other top hitting prospects, including Shed Long, T.J. Friedl, and Stuart Fairchild, also get on base at a high rate.
When asked if the team has made a conscious effort to take high-OBP players with recent draft picks, here was Williams’ response in his Reddit AMA:
“We do value OBP highly and I can see us starting to trend that way. Our analytics staff is very involved in scouting decisions now – more so [than] in the past and the scouts are very interested to hear what they have to say. I do think that has been a shift for us.”
There’s still work to be done, of course. Despite the improvements, the team still ranks 16th in the league in OBP and 17th in walk rate. Jose Peraza has the second-worst walk rate among qualified players this season, while Adam Duvall, Hamilton, and Scooter Gennett are well below average.
But the overall trend is undoubtedly moving in the right direction. Whether it’s a shift in philosophy as an organization, the veteran leadership of Votto (who players are also emulating by choking up on the bat more often), or a little bit of both, a change is occurring in the way Reds’ management and players value the art of drawing a walk.