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They Hit, but Do They Score Runs?

"Statistics show the Boston Red Sox
are one of the top hitting teams
in the American League, but it
might be tough to convince Jeff Sellers."

AP sportswriter consoling Boston
pitcher after 3-0 shutout

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
May 22, 1988

Jeff Sellers shouldn't be such a hard sell, but I'm not surprised that even this professional sportswriter, whom the Associated Press mercifully allowed to remain anonymous, is confused.

I suppose if he scoured the USA Today sports pages on Tuesday, the day after Sellers' heartbreak loss, he couldn't help but notice that the Red Sox were practically tied with Oakland's bully boys for second in "hitting" behind the mighty New York Yankees.

Wade Boggs was batting .322. Ellis Burks was at .338. Marty Barrett and Mike Greenwell checked in at .304 and Dwight Evans sported a .288 average. Is this a great hitting ballclub or what?

It's not. Better than average, yes. "One of the top hitting teams in the American League"? No.

The misconception is understandable. USA Today, like every mainstream sports publication I've ever read, ranks offense based on batting average, as if it were the ultimate measure of success. It's a shame when they do it for hitters (when the "New Statistics" offer far better ways to measure offensive production), but it's criminal neglect when they do it for teams.

You win ballgames by scoring more runs than your opponent, not by hitting for a higher average. Consequently, you measure a team's offense by how many runs it scores. Boston's .271 average may dwarf the league average of .256, but the team is only scoring 4.76 runs per game. That's better than the league average of 4.57, but nowhere near the Yankees' 6.33 or Oakland's 5.83. It's more like Detroit's 4.71, and the Tigers are "only" hitting .249, way below the league average.

The correlation between batting average and offensive production is a nebulous one, at best. Pete Palmer and John Thorn, in "The Hidden Game of Baseball," rank it last among 19 different offensive stats in its ability to predict run production. For individual hitters, you're better off looking at limited stats like on-base percentage and slugging percentage or, heaven forbid, a real measure of offense like Bill James' Runs Created.

But the magic of a moderately high batting average continues to mesmerize even the professionals. Two weeks ago, a sportswriter for a local paper we at the Herald Examiner used to affectionately call "The Whale," lamented the release of an Angels-fan favorite. "Why," he whined, "did the club release Bill Buckner before receiving test results on the severity of (Devon) White's injury?"

The answer is that even with casts on both legs White would be a more productive hitter than Buckner. It wouldn't be fair to focus on Billy Buck's zero extra base hits and four walks in 43 atbats, much less his .209 batting average, to make that point. We could do that, but that would be wrong.

Instead, let's look at some of Buckner's years when he had that high batting average going for him. And let's employ an analytical tool called secondary average for a more incisive look-see.

Secondary Average measures a hitter's offensive contribution stripped of batting average. I figure it by awarding one point for a double, two for a triple, three for a homer, one for a walk and one for a stolen base. Subtract the number of times a hitter is caught stealing and divide the total by plate appearances (hits plus walks). Other stat freaks use different variations on the Bill James theme.

Out of this strange brew comes something resembling a batting average that describes everything but batting average.

Last year, Buckner hit .286, six points less than his lifetime average. It was considered a good year for the aging star, good enough to land him a spot on the '88 Angel roster. But his secondary average of .118 was second worst in the major leagues among hitters with more than 300 plate appearances and a clear indication that something was amiss. Maybe it was those puny 22 walks and 25 extra-base hits.

Although the top-to-bottom range of Secondary Averages throughout the majors is wider than batting averages (see Secondary Averages chart below), the average figures for both tend to be fairly close. The average hitter in the American League last year had a Secondary Average of .248 and in the National League, where they let pitchers wave the lumber around, the average was .178.

Buckner's anemic Secondary Average doesn't prove he's a bad hitter; it's only an indication that there are major weaknesses in his game.

The fact is that Buckner never walks, and only hits a lot of doubles because he's batting 600 times a year. Fans don't notice that he's making a tone of outs and killing rallies left and right.

Top Ten

Davis E.Cin.4741392343784506.2939.48.484
Clark J.StL4171202313513612.26810.14.479

Bottom Ten

Salazar A.KC31765702644.2051.74.059
Thomas A.Atl3247511051465.2312.76.121
Bradley S.Sea3429515151501.2784.10.129