The Beauty of the On-Base Percentage

At some point in our time around the game of baseball, all of us have heard a coach use the phrase “the best hitters in baseball make outs 70% of the time.” This is actually incorrect. They are obviously referring to the notion that the best hitters in baseball usually hit around .300, and that is indeed accurate. They do. However, they most certainly do not make outs 70% of the time.

Take for example Andrew McCutchen in 2014. Accounting for all his plate appearances, it would be far more accurate to say that he made an out about 59% of the time (we are not including the number of times he reached on an error for our purposes here).

Want a more extreme example? Barry Bonds in his 2004 season actually only made an out 39.1% of the time!

This notion may be surprising, and we must clarify that we are by no means saying McCutchen hit .410 this year or that Bonds hit .609 in 2004. This actually reinforces the idea we were presenting in our previous article about how the batting average is a misleading statistic.

What we are trying to present however, is a more accurate measurement of just how often players get on base, as well as how often they don’t make outs.

So as we begin discussing the On Base Percentage statistic, keep in mind its actual calculation:

OBP=(Hits+Walks+Hit by Pitches)/(At-Bats+HBP+Walks+Sacrifice Flies)

Simply put, the OBP stat tells us exactly what you probably think it tells us: the rate of how often a hitter actually reaches base. The reason this is important is statistically very simple: base-runners correlate to runs, and runs correlate to wins.

I’m sure every single coach out there can reassure our belief that you do not win games by hitting six or seven solo home runs. On the contrary, you get runners on base to create run scoring opportunities, and then mix in extra base power and speed to your offensive game. That is the very definition of a dynamic offense. Take the ten teams who made the playoffs in 2014: 7 of them were ranked in the top 10 in On Base Percentage, a trend you will find no matter what year you look up.

Many baseball minds who love the OBP statistic love the base on balls. We would like to clarify that we are not discussing a hitter’s ability to take a walk, so much as we are discussing his ability to get on base. There is indeed a slight difference.

If you look into the calculation of the metric, you immediately realize that walks and hits are the two inputs that a hitter is most in control of, as you never want to rely on a player being a valuable offensive weapon because of his ability to get hit by a pitch.

At the end of the day, we advocate that there be separation between the batting average and the OBP. In other words, we never want to undermine a player’s ability to make hard contact and get hits, but we understand walks are most certainly important as well as very projectable (it’s rare to find a hitter whose eye at the plate just disappears).

Beyond just getting on base, walks imply a very patient hitter, which also hints to the fact that the player is swinging at hittable pitches and not pitcher’s pitches. We will look into the importance of this when we discuss the Slugging Percentage statistic.

No matter who you are coaching, your message to your hitters should always be the same at its core: get on base. Some players will have a gifted ability to make hard contact on every swing and hit .325, so they won’t have to walk much to achieve a respectable OBP. Other’s may only hit .260, but still possess an elite OBP (around .400 at the Major League level) because of their keen eye at the plate.

As a coach, you should mainly be concerned with whether or not your hitter is avoiding making outs frequently, and not so much the process of how he does so. A walk isn’t necessarily as good as a hit, but a base runner is a base runner. You can’t score a run if you don’t get on base, and you don’t win games if you don’t score runs.

On that merit alone, the OBP is absolutely one of the most important (yet simple!) offensive measurements in the game today.

The Flaws of the Batting Average Statistic

The batting average has been around baseball forever, and it is a stat that we are all familiar with. Its computation is basic and easy to understand: (Total # of Hits) / (Total # of at Bats). We generally agree that a “good” batting average is somewhere around the .300 range, albeit that can depend on the strength of the competition.

However, as popular as the statistic is, it has very major flaws that I feel most coaches are already beginning to figure out, especially those around the game on an everyday basis.

How many times during a game have we noticed a player hit four rocket line drives, but all right at a defender? Is this player a poor hitter for doing so? Well, his batting average would be .000, but we all know that benching him the next game for this reason would be an atrocious decision.

On the flip side, how many times do we see a player hit a blooper into the outfield and a soft groundball, and end the day 2-3. In your eyes, is the player who hit .667 a better hitter than the one who hit .000 for the day?

The answer is absolutely not.

The first problem that we must expose about the batting average is that it can be very deceiving about a player's hitting performance, especially in a small sample. The reality is 4, 5, or even 25 at bats is hardly a large enough sample to get a good idea on where a player’s batting average will consistently rest.

In short samples, we rely on our eyes; if a hitter is killing the ball and making outs, we know that some of those batted balls will eventually start falling. We will discuss the BABIP statistic in a later article, but harder hit balls get through defenses quicker. On the flip side, those bloopers and soft ground balls are much easier to field, and over a larger sample will likely turn into outs as opposed to hits. At the end of the day, while the batting average statistic can give you some idea of a player's hitting ability, it can most certainly be deceiving. 

Luckily for us, there are much better metrics out there that we as coaches should look much more closely at. An additional flaw that we would like to point out is that the batting average assumes every hit is the same. This is actually a major problem, because we all know a double is more valuable than a single, and a homerun is more valuable than a double.

Unfortunately, the batting average does not account for this, and takes on the “a hit is a hit” philosophy. However, every coach most certainly understands that a 400 foot homerun is very different from a groundball through the 5.5 hole.

As we introduce the On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage statistics, we will attempt to show you much more useful (and simple) metrics in assessing a player’s on field performance. 


Learning the Correct Hitting Approach from Big Leaguers

I watch a lot of MLB games and really, you can't apply what they do to youth baseball players. They are so physically gifted that they can do things that youth and high school players can't do and probably never will be able to do.

However we as coaches can teach the best players in the big league's mental approach to hitting because every age hitter can do that.

I've watched so many MLB games in my life and I finally realized the best players really don't want to swing at pitches early in the count unless it is in their preferred zone, which means there is a lot of swinging with 2 strikes. Then the foul balls begin and good hitters eventually get a pitch they can handle and hit it square. It takes a lot of discipline and confidence to take that approach, which all great hitters have.

MLB rookies, below average hitters and high school and youth players take the opposite approach for the most part. They are swinging early in the count and when they down in the count are mentally beaten because they expand their strike zone and swing at any pitch close. Smart and good pitchers will never throw strikes to players in this category, and their lack of discipline and fear leads to a lot of outs.

It is up to coaches to make hitters be patient and believe in themselves so they will still hit when behind in the count and not worry or internalize about what might happen. Take pitches confidently, understand hitting situations and visualize success.


Poor Hip Rotation in Game Situations

Often time young hitters struggle with turning and releasing their hips during game situations or live batting practice. This can be quite frustrating for coaches, especially for those who see their young athletes demonstrate a solid understanding of hip rotation during tee work, soft toss, short toss, or simple dry swings. There are usually two causes for lack of hip rotation in game situations.

Initiating the swing too late
When hitters start their swing too late, all they can do is defensively throw the bat at the ball. Late swingers do not have the time to take an aggressive pass at the baseball. As a result, they immediately go into survival mode.

You may have seen this even at the major league level, when a hitter with two strikes is thinking curve, but gets thrown a fastball. All that hitter can do is throw the bat late at the ball—all arms and no rotation.

Eliminating the stride and simply having hitters pick the front foot up and drop it down in the same spot (no lateral movement) will help hitters start the swing earlier. The key is mirroring the pitcher. When the pitcher’s front foot lands, the hitter’s front foot should land as well.

Fear of striking out and/or just being content with making contact
Hitters who have a fear of striking out become passive at the plate. They are content with just making contact, and not using their lower bodies in the process.

Especially at a young age, coaches should reinforce the idea that they would rather see an aggressive swing and a miss rather than a passive swing and poor contact. After a live round of a batting practice, hitters should be dripping with sweat. This aggressive mindset will help young hitters translate what they already know about hip rotation into game situations.

Many youth coaches use the phrase "squish the bug" as a means of giving kids a visual of what hip rotation looks and feels like. “Squish the bug”—the turning of the back foot as a means of initiating hip rotation—is not something I am hugely in favor of. If you want to turn your hip, turn your hip, and then the foot will follow. Big muscles pull small muscles, not the other way around. In other words, it’s not that turning the back foot is wrong, but ideally this should be an effect of hip rotation, not the cause. It’s important to understand that a player can still turn their back foot yet not achieve full hip rotation.

Baseball Hitting Drill to Fix Stepping in the Bucket

Teaching youth baseball hitting is more 'trouble shooting' than emphasizing one particular theory or approach. In order to prevent young hitters from stepping out during the stride, set a bucket to the left of a right-handed hitter's front foot or to the right of a left-handed hitter's front foot. 

Diversified Coaches Help Players Self-Correct Technique

One of the most rewarding results as a baseball coach is when players are able to self-correct during games, whether on the mound or in the course of an at-bat. This can only happen with hands-on teaching and constant reminders on what can make the player have success. When players do execute, it tells the coach that the players have listened and have tried to incorporate the techniques that the coach believes will maximize their talent.

Not every coach follows that modus operandi. There are a multitude of system or philosophy-driven coaches. If players don't fit in to a system they will usually underperform or be eliminated from the program. Only teaching one philosophy is a disservice to players, who might not fit in depending on skill and size. With coaches who know how to teach only one system, it is their way or no way.

Coaches who have taught and understand multiple methods to improve player skills are more preferred and appreciated within the coaching profession. It expands their teams' talent base and, as a byproduct, improves their team's chances of winning.

Generally coaches with the most expertise are the most successful. They have other options when some strategies don't work. On the other hand, system coaches get beat when opposing coaches figure out how to attack their system, leaving system coaches without any alternatives.

Coaches who work with each player on their team form relationships and can get players to self-correct if the coach has excelled as a communicator. For example, a pitcher has thrown two balls up and in to a hitter. The coach signals to the pitcher what he is doing incorrectly or yells to him a key from what they have been doing in bullpen sessions to get him back on track, and immediately the pitcher makes a correction. Or after a hitter fouls balls off to the opposite field. If that was perceived to be a problem and the hitter has reverted back to his previous form, one keyword or signal can activate the correct technique within the hitter. The hitter steps out, gets his head together, and executes his right swing.

Watching players adjust during games is one of the most gratifying aspects of coaching. It feels like you are getting your message across and doing your job, making players play at the best of their abilities.

Using a Tee to Correct Stepping in the Bucket when Hitting

A youth baseball hitting drill combining short toss and tee work can correct stepping in the bucket and/or opening the front hip too early. Throwing short toss inside and forcing the hitter to then hit the ball off the tee on the outside corner forces the hitter to utilize the same lower body mechanics regardless of pitch location.