Saturday, November 16, 2013

Not all .300 batting averages are created equal

On a recent post, one of my most faithful readers with the great guest name of, "RichieAllen1964," did not understand what I meant by a batting average being somewhat meaningless. It is a fair question. Baseball fans like us who have been watching decades of games have been trained to think that if a batter hits .300 in a season or career, he is pretty special. While I cannot get past the old feelings that such a season or a career is pretty cool, not all .300 seasons or careers are the same.

My favorite example is the Tim Raines and Tony Gwynn career comparison. Gwynn was known as a magician with the bat and was an expert of hitting the ball "where they ain't." His career batting average after twenty seasons from 1982 to 2001 was .338. Along the way, he compiled 3,141 hits. Raines was never considered the hitter that Gwynn was. Raines finished his 21 year career from 1981 to 2001 (I am not counting two "cup of coffee" seasons) with a career batting average of .294. And Raines compiled 2,605 hits.

Most fans would look at those two careers and feel that Gwynn was a much better player than Raines. After all, Gwynn compiled 536 more career hits and had a batting average that was 44 points higher. But when you dig much deeper, the two players were worth about the same during their parallel careers.

Now you might jump to conclusions that I am including base running and fielding into this mix. And, yeah, if you want to look at the total valuation, Raines finished with an fWAR of 66.4 and Gwynn finished with an fWAR of 65. The two were so close (overall) that it is a wash. But I am not even talking about those overall evaluations. I am talking about just the offensive worth that does not include base running or fielding.

Raines compares with Gwynn offensively as well. Gwynn finished with a career wOBA of .370. Raines finished slightly behind him at .361. But that is not the full story. If we look at batting runs for their respective careers, Gwynn finished with 401.5 batting runs according to Fangraphs. That same site assigns Raines with 408.1.

Here is the statistic I really love. It is called Runs Created and was developed by Bill James and others and it "estimates a player’s total contributions to a team’s runs total." According to the career leaders in this statistic, both are exactly tied for 57th Place all time with 1,636 runs created!

In wOBA, Gwynn is slightly higher. In batting runs, Raines is slightly higher. In runs created, they are tied exactly. Gwynn's higher batting average means nothing to the equation. In this comparison, the batting average is moot. The two players are virtually tied when it comes to offensive worth.

Let's look at 2013 for a more recent example. Let's compare Torii Hunter and Josh Donaldson. Hunter had 652 plate appearances and Donaldson had 668. Hunter batted .304 and Donaldson, .301. The two batting averages are virtually identical. But the offensive worth of their seasons were anything but.

Donaldson's wOBA was .384. His batting runs according to were 37.3. His adjusted batting runs according to B-R were 40.64. Hunter's wOBA was .346. His batting runs were 12.5 and his adjusted batting runs were 10.67. Donaldson's season was a little better than three times greater offensively than Hunter which makes their batting averages the least important statistic when rating their offensive seasons.

And just for fun, I leave you with the "emptiest" .300 hitters since 1990:

Rk Player RC BA OPS+ PA BtRuns ▴ Year
1 Juan Pierre 101 0.327 89 683 -11.41 2001
2 Placido Polanco 70 0.307 88 610 -11.09 2001
3 Doug Glanville 60 0.300 88 510 -9.63 1997
4 Mike Caruso 68 0.306 90 555 -9.31 1998
5 Garret Anderson 80 0.303 92 662 -8.52 1997
6 Mark Grudzielanek 91 0.306 93 696 -8.16 1996
7 Tony Womack 80 0.307 91 606 -6.77 2004
8 A.J. Pierzynski 65 0.300 93 535 -6.56 2009
9 Gregg Jefferies 72 0.301 93 592 -6.51 1998
10 Joe Randa 89 0.304 94 665 -6.1 2000
11 Jordan Pacheco 66 0.309 94 505 -6.06 2012
12 Hal Morris 61 0.309 90 516 -5.95 1998
13 Darryl Hamilton 83 0.315 93 568 -5.46 1999
14 Ryan Theriot 81 0.307 93 661 -4.78 2008
15 Juan Pierre 97 0.305 94 747 -4.77 2003
16 Luis Castillo 77 0.301 94 615 -3.98 2007
17 Orlando Cabrera 91 0.301 95 701 -3.71 2007
18 Jamey Carroll 70 0.300 94 534 -3.41 2006


RichieAllen1964 said...

“. . . wynn's higher batting average means nothing to the equation.”

Eh, I’m not completely comfortable with this statement, William, although I understand what you’re getting at. I won’t argue that both players brought an equal value to the table offensively, but I think, when you look at other parts of their game, particularly Raines, you can easily see why they are offensive peers.

As you pointed out, their OBP is nearly identical. What separates them is walks: Raines walked 1,330 times whereas Gwynn “only” walked 790 times in his 20 years. Add to that an accumulated 808 stolen bases compared to Gwynn’s 319 and those two items add up to a great deal of offensive production.

Just as meaningless side note, Gwynn struck out 434 times in his career whereas Raines took a seat 966 times. I would be curious to see what their BABIP numbers looked like.

Now, I get where you’re coming from. But I cannot wholly subscribe to your assertion that batting average is a “fairly meaningless statistic.” Certainly, batting average doesn’t tell the whole story. It was Gwynn’s batting average that offset the difference in Raines’ ability to get on base via the walk, and the added stolen bases certainly increased Raines offensive output to make up the difference. What I do believe is that we are comparing apples and oranges. Raines evened things out with walks and steals while Gwynn kept up his end of the bargain by being, in my mind, a better “pure hitter.” Their offensive totals are nearly equal for very different reasons.

One other note that’s worth mentioning: Gwynn made a significantly larger amount of salary in his career, nearly 12 million more than Raines. So, I guess that batting average is worth something after all. But maybe that’s what Raines gets for having played 13 years in Montreal.

RichieAllen1964 said...

Oh, one more thing: Gwynn was considered a better hitter because he WAS a better hitter, if you're talking about pure hitting. All of what you say is true, but Raines could never lay claim to being a better hitter. He brought different offensive skills to the plate than Gwynn.

Also, I'm reminded of the movie Bull Durham where the guy asks what the difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 hitter is. The answer: one hit a week.

The difference between Raines and Gwynn, those 536 career hits, average out to less than one hit a week. Less than one lousy hit a week. Over the course of twenty years.

Great topic. Can't stop thinking about the miniscule difference between a good hitter and an great hitter. Thanks. Keep it coming.