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MLB On Base Percentage: More Important Than Ever?

   by Scott Spreitzer - 04/13/2008

Last week I talked about how major league baseball in 2008 could be very different from what we’ve been experiencing in past seasons. Efforts to eliminate steroids and human growth hormone from the sport seem to be having an effect already. The power game is down, scoring volume is down, and we seem to be on the cusp of a good pitchers’ year. I’m sure you’ve noticed this yourself. We’re seeing a lot of low scoring games that are being decided by one run. Many pitching aces have fantastic stats in their early starts. Really, there are only a handful of big name pitchers who are struggling. And, many guys the public is barely familiar with are also mowing hitters down. I’ve heard many complaints in the sportsbooks from public bettors who were loading up against some guy they’d never heard of…only to watch their team go down swinging all day long. That hasn’t happened once or twice…that’s happened about 10 times in the first two weeks of the season!

If you’re going to pick winners in this environment, you’re going to need a very strong sense of which offenses are getting the most runners on base. This is ALWAYS important in baseball handicapping. I wrote an article for you about that last season. On-base percentage has annually been one of the hallmarks of my approach. I’d argue it’s even more important this year than in the recent past.

*You can’t score runs if you don’t get guys on base.

*Offense in low scoring eras is about “creatingâ€쳌 runs because big blasts are less common.

*You can’t create runs if nobody’s on base!

Sounds simple. Many MLB offenses are still having trouble grasping that in these early weeks. Through last Friday night’s action, the three National League teams with the lowest on-base percentages had the three worst records in the league:

Houston .278 (3-8)
San Francisco .283 (4-7)
Washington .296 (3-8)

The two hottest teams in the league, Arizona (8-2) and St. Louis (8-3) had the two best on-base percentages.

It’s not a coincidence. At a time when most pitchers have the ability to shut down offenses for extended periods, on-base percentage is going to be the “tie breakerâ€쳌 that determines who wins and loses. That’s particularly true in the National League where offenses have eight hitters instead of nine (pitchers bat, but rarely hit!).

In the American League, the slow start by the New York Yankees can be directly traced to poor on-base percentage. And, the fact that most teams are bunched near .500 through 10-11 games is a reflection of balance in this stat across the league. Underdog players have done very well in the American League because it’s been much more balanced out of the gate than expected. Studying on-base percentages helped handicappers realize that.

If this particular stat hasn’t been on your radar, it’s arguably now more important than ever that you start paying attention. Here are some tips:

*Study the full season team percentages every chance you get. Many sports websites have team rankings in the standard hitting statistics. You’ve got to know which teams are getting people on base, and which aren’t.

*Study the individual game boxscores, being sure to look at walks as something the offense is earning rather than something the pitcher is allowing. Some offenses are skilled at going deep into the count and drawing bases on balls. Others are free swingers who don’t give themselves that opportunity. This year, the free swingers are really behind the eight-ball.

*Look at the “left on baseâ€쳌 category as a positive rather than a negative. That will be difficult at first. You’ve been conditioned to think of leaving guys on base as a failure. Historically, “left on baseâ€쳌 is actually a sign of strength. It means you’re getting guys on base in the first place. Over the long haul, you’ll score a lot more than your opponents if you’re leaving more guys on base than they are. Sounds backwards, but it’s always been true in large samplings.

*Look for consistency in scoring. I’ve noticed over the years that teams who rely on slugging often score erratically. They either get nothing, or they score a bunch when conditions favor big blows. Those teams who can create a merry-go-round effect with baserunners score much more consistently. They get something on the board almost every day. In an era where games are ending 2-1 or 3-2, the merry-go-round offenses are going to win more than their share of close games. Over a three-game series, the slugging team will have one big game and two quiet ones, while the consistent team will have three “mediumâ€쳌 games. That’s going to yield a 2-1 record. Handicappers and sports wagerers can make A LOT of money going 2-1 every three bets!

I can’t emphasize this enough. When there’s a dramatic change in the nature of a betting sport, it takes a long time for the market to catch up. Oddsmakers are conservative by nature. And, the general public tends to bet based on past perceptions rather than what’s happening now. Studying on-base percentage will help you exploit this because you’ll be in touch with what’s happening NOW!

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