Good Batting Average Doesn't Tell Whole Story

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
June 26, 1988

Going into this season Willie Wilson had more hits in the '80s than any player in the major leagues. And that included Robin Yount, Keith Hernandez, Bill Buckner and Eddie Murray, his chief competitors.

Over the years, Wilson's managers have been so impressed by that lethal combination of quick wrists, flying feet and blistering tongue that they couldn't help but bat him leadoff. He responded by scoring on the average about 99 runs for every 162 games he played. His fans were happy, his teammates seemed pleased and most of his managers were satisfied -- except Dick Howser, who in 1985 committed what seemed to the timid authors of the Elias Baseball Analyst like "another bold Howser move."

Wilson was dropped to the No. 2 spot in the order during the last week of the season and kept there through postseason play. It was the first since 1979 that someone had the audacity, and common sense, to drag Willie out of the leadoff position where he was positively killing the club.

Willie Wilson is a textbook example of how deceptive a batting average can be. He has a .295 lifetime batting average but he walks about once every 20 plate appearances. He usually collects 20 to 25 doubles, and close to double-digit triple totals, which seems like adequate power for a skinny leadoff man. But it's not.

In fact, 63 percent of Wilson's lifetime offense is his batting average. That's fine if you're Carney Lansford and hitting .356, but not so fine if you're Willie Wilson and hitting 60 points less with a corresponding drop in other offensive categories.

How do we know that Wilson's batting average is 63 percent of his offense? Well, we didn't know it until Bill James wrote about Percentage of Offensive Value five years ago in his "Baseball Abstract." James takes the player's number of hits, squares it, and divides that number by the player's at-bats. Then he divides that number by the player's Runs Created total.

(Runs Created is a theoretical number, distilled from raw data like hits, doubles, homers, stolen bases, walks, etc., that represents how many runs a player contributed to his team. Trust me. It's not perfect, and may occasionally malign an innocent party, but when applied to team totals, Runs Created is about 97 percent accurate.)

Wilson's 63 percent lifetime mark probably will rise this season, seeing as it's presently hovering around 71 percent; in the American League, only Jim Gantner and Ozzie Guillen are higher. This is not good news for Willie Wilson aficionados, or Willie, because if his percentage goes up and his batting average does not (he's hitting around .286), it means the rest of his offense is suffering.

And that's just what's happening to Wilson. His lifetime Runs Created Per Game average is 4.95. That means if you had nine Willie Wilsons in your lineup, they would theoretically score 4.95 runs per game, not to mention make every opposing pitcher look like he had Sandy Koufax control. (I'll skip the formula on this one. . . . You're welcome.) That's not awful when you figure the average AL team was scoring about 4.5 runs a game. But this season his RC Per Game is down to 4.05 and the words of Mike Kopf in "The Great American Baseball Stat Book" loom ominously:

"One day soon -- perhaps very soon -- Wilson will find himself a .240 hitter with a .270 OBP, and lifetime contract or not, the Royals' discreet silence will come to a deafening halt."

That's the pattern for a lot of these wimpy hitters. They establish their careers with outstanding batting averages (Wilson hit .326 his second full year in the league) and extra-base totals that are acceptable, but made to look deceptively large by a bloated number of at-bats, compliments of their puny walk totals.

You usually can't detect the power outage because its standard measure, slugging percentage, includes base hits as part of the formula. So, while Wilson apparently augments his pathetic '88 on-base percentage of .301 with a barely respectable .377 slugging percentage, the more reliable power gauge, Isolated Power, ranks him in the Bottom 20 among AL hitters.

Huh? Isolated Power? Yes, it's formula time again, but this is an easy one. Isolated Power measures the true bop in a bitter's bat by simply subtracting his batting average from his slugging percentage. It's the kind of stat that makes the Dave Kingmans and Tony Armases of the world rejoice. It lets Ivan Calderon, and his embarrassing .219 batting average, have his 15 seconds of infamy in baseball columns like this one. Ivan ranks fourth in the AL in Isolated Power at .246.

Isolated Power, like Percentage of Offensive Value (and slugging percentage or on-base percentage, for that matter), doesn't separate the good ballplayers from the bad. That's not their purpose. They merely help profile a hitter's strengths and weaknesses after you've established his general offensive value using a broader tool like Runs Created or Linear Weights or BaseOut Percentage.

Isolated Power and Percentage of Offensive Value can help tell you why Willie Wilson is a lousy hitter, not if he is.

So now, when someone tells you how much the Dodgers miss the steady bat of Alfredo Griffin and his lifetime .258 average at the top of the lineup, you can end the discussion quickly.

Direct them to Griffin's miserable lifetime RC Per Game of 3.22, his one walk for every 23 at-bats and his minuscule Isolated Power mark of .079. Point out that batting average is 70 percent of Griffin's offensive game, so that even when he hits .285, as in '86, it barely disguises perhaps the worst bat among major league hitters now playing regularly.

If they counter with talk about his slick glove, savvy baserunning and keen bat control, you'll have to wait for a future column.

TOWERS OF ISOLATED POWER
American LeagueNational League
FirstbaseHighLowHighLow

McGriff.276Tabler.074Clark W..280Horner.087
Brett.235Walker.091Galarraga.277Perry.108
Davis A..219Joyner.099Davis G..237Hernandez.140

Secondbase

Whitaker.137Gantner.042Gant.193Lind.062
Franco.118Ripken B..062Sandberg.185Doran.067
Reynolds.113Barrett.064Samuel.149Alicea.076

Shortstop

Gagne.207Guillen.043Larkin.128Smith O..059
Stillwell.183Fletcher.045Thomas.112Uribe.064
Ripken C..172Schofield.079Ramirez.112Griffin.076

Thirdbase

Gaetti.226Molitor.096Bonilla.254Oberkfell.082
Gruber.210Howell.099Sabo.215Guerrero.095
Buechele.177Boggs.106Mitchell.190Law.125

Catcher

Allanson.096Surhoff.081Parrish.208Scioscia.059
Unavailable-----Unavailable-----Ashby.165LaV'llre.065

Outfield

Winfield.260Pettis.051Strawberry.307Webster.054
Tartabull.255Rice.059Bonds.253Davis M..055
Calderon.246Javier.065Gibson.247Hall.057
Inv'lia.244Hall.071Van Slyke.230Thompson.060
Canseco.238Wilson G..074Dawson.226Young G..061
Carter J..236Wilson W..092Murphey.210Martinez D..071