More on-base weight needed for better OPS

Is OPS the magic bullet for gauging a player's offensive value? Not without a little modification.

Originally Published: May 19, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

Appending last Thursday's package of items tied to the publication of Michael Lewis' new book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, today I'm going to answer a couple of Moneyball-related e-mail queries ...

Moneyball
Michael Lewis' look at Billy Beane and the Oakland A's was the year's big hit.

    Rob,
    One of the interesting things Moneyball points out is Billy Beane's opinion that OBP is three times as important as slugging percentage. Lewis makes a very interesting explanation of this opinion (about the importance of minimizing outs, et cetera). The more telling explanation, I think, is that the two are simply on different scales. In fact, just as Beane sees, they're on scales that are three times different. Lewis says that a 1.000 OBP is three times as good as a 1.000 slugging percentage, but the more obvious explanation is that slug is on a scale of zero to 4.000, while OBP is zero to 1.000, so while a 1.000 OBP is "perfect," a 1.000 slugging percentage is only 1/4 of theoretically "perfect" slugging. Now this seems obvious to me, having seen it explained in the book.

    Do you think that we should re-evaluate our (or at least my) dependence on OPS as an offensive statistic, given that it weighs slugging and OBP equally? A guy with a .400 OBP and a .600 slugging percentage (an extraordinary player) is not even close to being as effective as a guy with a .540 OBP and a .460 slugging percentage, even though they have identical OPS's. Of course, we all realize that OPS is a crude measure of actual offensive production, but perhaps it is cruder than we think? In any event, I'd love to see your thoughts on how we consider OPS if we also give considerably more weight to getting on base than to slugging. Keep up the good work.

    -- Jim Beha

Before I make a crude attempt at addressing these issues, here's the passage in question ...

    ... OPS was the simple addition of on-base and slugging percentages. Crude as it was, it was a much better indicator than any other offensive statistic of the number of runs a team would score. Simply adding the two statistics together, however, implied that they were of equal importance. If the goal was to raise a team's OPS, an extra percentage point of on-base was as good as an extra percentage point of slugging.

    Before his thought experiment Paul (DePodesta) had felt uneasy with this crude assumption; now he saw that the assumption was absurd. An extra point of on-base percentage was clearly more valuable than an extra point of slugging percentage -- but by how much? He proceeded to tinker with his own version of Bill James's "Runs Created" formula. When he was finished, he had a model for predicting run production that was more accurate than any he knew of. In his model an extra point of on-base percentage was worth three times an extra point of slugging percentage.

It's easy to misinterpret these figures. Nobody is saying that a .200 on-base percentage is just as good as a .600 slugging percentage. It's about extra points ... and it's really not so surprising, especially if you've been following this discussion for a while. Because a few years ago, and with the help of many readers, I came to the conclusion that while OPS ain't bad, a better measure would be the sum of slugging percentage and OBP*1.4 (or thereabouts). Now, I think DePodesta would argue that the multiple should be even higher than 1.4, but the point is that OBP has to be weighted significantly higher than slugging percentage, if those are the two stats we're going to work with.

That's why the A's were so interested in signing Scott Hatteberg, and that's why Hatteberg was actually quite a good fit at first base, despite a slugging percentage that looked mighty unimpressive for a first baseman. Or so DePodesta and Lewis would argue.

And I think they're right. So yes, OPS is a crude tool, a blunt object that shouldn't be used when precision is critical. But you know, most of the time precision isn't critical. We don't need to modify OPS to know that J.T. Snow and Doug Mientkiewicz probably don't deserve to play every day, and we don't need to modify OPS to know that Alex Rodriguez should. Nor do we need modified OPS to know that Chris Singleton doesn't seem to fit into the Oakland lineup.

    Rob, your interview with Michael Lewis was great.

    Do you think it's an advantage to bring non-baseball experience, even non-sporting analytic and leadership skills to organizational management? As an intellectual generalist, I wonder about that. And I suppose the answer is, "It depends." It depends on the organization in question; on its institutional ability to accept change and nerds and math and charisma into the front office. But I wonder to what extent an organization handicaps itself by introducing a potential schism between Baseball People and outsiders.

    Hey, your new website looks great, by the way.

    -- Isaac in Cambridge

Thanks for your beginning and your end, Isaac. As for the middle, I think you're right ... It depends.

To this point, though, it's all theoretical because virtually all of the "non-traditional" persons hired by baseball teams do have baseball experience, as either a player or an analyst. In Oakland, for example, you've got general manager Billy Beane (who played baseball in the major leagues), assistant general manager Paul DePodesta (who played baseball in the Ivy League), and assistant to the general manager David Forst (who played baseball in the Ivy League and in the independent Frontier League).

In Boston, you've got general manager Theo Epstein (who's been working in the game since he was just a kid) and senior baseball operations advisor Bill James (who's been writing brilliantly about the game since the late 1970s).

Which is to say, you'll be hard-pressed to find an organization that's hiring people without baseball experience, for the compelling reason that there are so many people with baseball experience -- of one sort or another -- who so desperately want to work for a baseball team.

Speaking of which, lately I've received another round of e-mail messages from people who 1) want to work in baseball, and 2) think, for some reason, that I actually have some advice. Well, I don't, not really. Literally everything I know on the subject can be gleaned from last week's article about John Hart and my March interview with Paul DePodesta.

If you don't have "time" to read those pieces, here are some tips to help get you started:

1. Love baseball.
2. Play baseball, or at least serve as Executive Batboy, for your college team.
3. Be really, really bright.
4. Get really, really good grades at an Ivy League school.
5. Be really, really good friends with somebody who already works for a team.
6. Be willing to spend at least a year working 80-hour weeks for little or no pay.

The tough reality is that if you can't claim at least five of those six qualifications, you're probably going to have a real tough time. Because you've got a lot of tough competition.

Missing the point
I haven't written a "review" of Moneyball, in part because I'm not at all the objective observer. Instead, I've simply observed as everybody writing about the book in the mainstream media gets it wrong.

Which shouldn't be a surprise. After all, one of the central themes of the book is that most of the people who have been around the game for a long time are resistant to new ideas. Actually, "hostile" might be a better word. So it stands to reason that when a book is published that promotes (relatively) new ideas, and writers and baseball executives get a chance to give their opinions, they're not exactly going to respond with love and kisses.

The media coverage of Moneyball has, to this point at least, focused on 1) the reactions of a few baseball men who are portrayed in the book as something less than brilliant (they're not all brilliant? alert the authorities!), 2) a few possible errors (errors in a book? say it ain't so!), and 3) Billy Beane's ego (ego in a baseball executive? stop the presses!).

Don't pay any attention to all that stuff. Instead, remember two things. One, that Michael Lewis -- and not Billy Beane -- wrote Moneyball. And two, that Michael Lewis writes crackling good stories, and this might be his best story yet. What the people tell me is that once they start reading, they can't stop until they've read the last word. I've read it three times -- twice while Lewis was actually writing the book, and once more since -- and I had exactly the same reaction. I know it's early, but I'll be shocked if Moneyball isn't the best baseball book published in 2003.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.

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