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Keep an Eye on OPS
by Scott Spreitzer - 04/25/2007
Studying team on base percentages in major league baseball has always been a valuable handicapping tool. It could turn out to be more true this year than in recent seasons because of developments in the sport.
You've probably noticed that scoring is down this season. Many pundits are attributing that to cold weather across the nation. That's certainly an influence. But there are also some who feel that part of the reason may in fact be that drug testing and the threat of law enforcement have taken human growth ingredients out of the game. Steroids are being tested for aggressively. And, you'll recall that the feds arrested an Arizona Diamondbacks player last year for involvement with materials that couldn't be tested for. That scared a lot of players who thought they had beaten the system.
If the sport really is finally clean, that means we're going to see a different brand of baseball in 2007 than we've gotten used to the last decade. Home runs will be down (which they are already for everyone except A-Rod!). Total scoring will be down. And, one-run strategies like bunting, base stealing, and the hit-and-run will come back into fashion. We're going to see pitcher's duels instead of fireworks shows as a general rule.
Now, I'm not saying we're going back to the 1960s or anything. The following factors will prevent that from happening:
*The number of bandbox parks that have been built
*The fact that some teams just don't have any pitching depth
*The fact that an emphasis on pitch counts gives more innings to the bullpen
This won't be an era of nothing but 3-2 games. But it's going to feel that way when the weather isn't cooperating (cold air or the wind is blowing in), or with certain umpires.
As a result, handicappers have to pay particular attention to the teams who can, or can't get runners on base. The "stathead" industry has come to the conclusion in past seasons that on base percentage was more important than slugging percentage even during the power era. The more guys you got on base, the more scored when somebody went deep. Now, it's more about creating a merry-go-round approach that gives teams multiple opportunities to scratch across a run. On base percentage could turn out to be even more important during the "clean" years than it was during the "dirty" years.
Don't forget that this will affect both sides and totals. You'll see in a moment that many teams who are getting runners on base are playing Overs, while those who can't are playing Unders.
I went through the league rankings in on base percentage heading into this prior weekend. Here's some of what I found:
*The New York Mets are tops in all of baseball in on base percentage. Once again, they look like they'll contend for a league championship.
*The New York Yankees were third in the majors in this stat. Their games are 10-4 (at the time of this writing) to the Over because a shorthanded pitching staff has created a lot of shootouts.
*Surprising Milwaukee is fourth in the majors, and has seen its games go 10-5-1 to the Over.
* Boston has been great at this stat since adopting the Bill James approach to baseball. The Sox won two-thirds of their first 15 games.
* Florida is in the top ten, and has seen its games go 11-5 to the Over.
*The Los Angeles Dodgers cracked the top ten, which is extrememly hard to do playing in the NL West's ballparks. They had the best record in all of baseball heading into the weekend. You'll see what a great offense this is when they get to play some games in bandbox parks!
* St. Louis is third worst in the majors, and has seen it's games go 4-11-1 to the Under to start the season.
*All of the following teams are in the bottom ten, and have been playing Unders: San Francisco (5-10 to the Under), Los Angeles Angels (4-11-1 to the Under), Detroit (5-10-1 to the Under), Oakland (4-11-1 to the Under), and Cincinnati (5-10-2) to the Under.
* Texas ranks dead last in the majors in on base percentage, and has struggled to a 6-10 start. The team is a woeful 2-7 on the road, largely because the hitters have no idea how to score runs when not playing in the friendly hitter's conditions in Arlington .
You can see what I mean about this stat influencing both sides and totals. Be sure you monitor it throughout the season. Because the 2007 campaign just started, you'll be able to beat the Vegas numbers for more than five months!
Even if the low scoring start to the season was just an aberration, and run totals will ignite when the weather warms up everywhere, you'll still want to monitor this stat. It's arguably the single most important factor in explaining what happens on the field on any given day. That's true in any kind of ballpark, and in any weather conditions!