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The Importance of MLB On Base Percentage

   by Scott Spreitzer - 05/13/2009

In the past I’ve written about the importance of monitoring on-base percentage at the team level so you’re aware of which teams have the most dangerous offenses. It’s been a fundamental hallmark of my baseball handicapping approach for years.

I think in 2009, it’s more important than ever!

Getting runners on base has always been a key to success. The stat guys will tell you that it’s the single most important influence in a successful offense. If you get guys on base, you score runs. If you don’t, you can’t! It’s that simple. Far too many handicappers base their selections almost exclusively on the quality of the starting pitchers. Sure that’s important. But, it’s only half the equation. Those who look at offenses look more at sluggers and home runs rather than total production. The best home run hitters go deep about twice a week. The best OFFENSES score runs ALL THE TIME!

Why is on-base percentage more important now than ever?

Because teams with good on-base percentages are skilled at working the count to get pitches to hit or draw walks. Now that pitch counts have become so important to managers, offenses who are skilled in this area are having the ADDED benefit of knocking starting pitchers out earlier in the game! An emphasis on offensive patience is getting the opposing pitcher to 100 pitches quicker, or 110 in the case of aces. That means the opposing starters are only going five innings instead of six, or six innings instead of seven.

And, WHO replaces starting pitchers in the middle of the game? Lousy long relievers, that’s who!

The best offenses aren’t just scoring runs, they’re making it easier to score MORE runs because they bring a mediocre opposing arm to the mound in the middle of the game. This expands their advantage, particularly if the opposing team isn’t able to do the same thing.

Imagine two teams squaring off who both have “pretty goodâ€쳌 starting pitchers. One team has an offensive on-base percentage of about .355, the other is around .325.

*The offense with the .355 OBP will knock that “pretty goodâ€쳌 starter out an inning early (at least), and will get to face mediocre relievers for one or two innings.

*The offense with the .325 OBP may allow their opposing starter to go an EXTRA inning because they’re not making him work. In fact, the “pretty goodâ€쳌 opposing starter may last all the way to the “solidâ€쳌 set-up man and the relief “ace.â€쳌

Who’s going to win the game? A handicapper who looked only at starting pitching saw an even game because both starters were “pretty good.â€쳌 A handicapper who looked at pitching and home run hitters would have missed this edge as well. A handicapper who looked at OBP was in position to win a blowout at a small favorite, or possibly road underdog price because the benefits of working deep into counts are so big right now.

How many games have you watched this year where things blew up because of one big inning against a poor bullpen? It’s happening all the time, particularly when smart offenses are facing vulnerable pitching staffs. I hear guys complaining about all the bad bullpens. You’d think they’d figure out to bet on good offenses or the Overs when bad bullpens are going to be in the mix!

If you’re not paying attention to this, you’re missing out on of the most important themes of 2009. Baseball is evolving in a way that rewards on-base percentage even more. It will reward handicappers who are ahead of the curve.

Here in Las Vegas, we pay close attention to the West Coast teams because of local media coverage. The Los Angeles Dodgers in particular this year have been emphasizing working pitchers deep into counts. Vin Scully talks about it all the time on the game broadcasts. Heading into last weekend, the Dodgers led the major leagues in on-base percentage, and had a huge lead in their division. Of course, the loss of Manny Ramirez is going to hurt for the next two months. The team will need to maintain their offensive patience in his absence.

Arizona was the worst team in baseball in this stat. They just fired their manager after a very poor start (which was even worse than many realized because they played 18 of their first 21 games at home!).

Oakland has been a disappointment this year. They’re near the bottom of the American League in on-base percentage.

For handicappers, the logic is very simple. If you bet on teams who get runners on base, you’re betting on teams who will be in the best position to put runs on the board...and it takes runs to win ballgames. Your won-lost performance is probably more directly tied to OBP than you ever realized.

Study this stat and you’ll realize its importance immediately.

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