OPS: Baseball's New Measuring Stick
Opinions Mixed On Latest Performance Stat
By John E. Sacco
Earl Weaver carved out a wonderful managerial career and legacy in Baltimore holding to the theory of scoring runs in bunches and waiting for the three-run home run.
While home runs have dominated Major League Baseball the past several years, many of baseball's current general managers have turned to more sophisticated computer analysis of baseball statistics to evaluate players and determine personnel strategy.
Rather than rely on batting average, home runs and runs batted in, these GMs are placing the highest priority on on-base percentage, slugging percentage and the combination of the two known as a player's OPS.
Oakland General Manager Billy Beane has been the most outspoken proponent of using these types of stats to evaluate players, and it's hard to argue with the results.
The Athletics won 11 more games than the New York Yankees from 2000-2002 with about one-third the payroll. Oakland, which qualified for the post-season in each of those seasons, has not advanced beyond the Divisional Series, though.
Nonetheless, the Athletics' point of view—formed decisively by Beane—is aimed at producing tangible statistical evidence. According to Beane, a scout's prediction of what an 18-year-old prospect will look like as a 24-year-old just isn't good enough.
Theo Epstein, the 29-year-old GM of the Boston Red Sox, has embraced the OPS and his off-season acquisitions targeted players who fit the organization's new profile. Epstein rid Boston of half a dozen veteran hitters and replaced them at half the cost with players whose OPS' averaged 100 points higher. Additionally, the Red Sox hired Bill James, baseball's mathematical guru, as a consultant.
While Pirates' GM Dave Littlefield admits that statistics are part of a player's profile, it's just one part of that profile. He agrees that there is some inherent danger in placing everything on statistics. The current statistical mania is receiving more attention as popularity increases among organizations.
"I think it's something as we go in cycles," Littlefield said. "It's received a lot of attention recently. I think there is good reason. I think there is validity to certain statistics. From our standpoint and how we make decisions, it is a piece of the puzzle. There's a medical piece, a statistical piece, a scouting piece, a finance piece and there's a make up piece. There are a lot of parts that go into making a decision.
"Statistics are certainly part of it from our standpoint. In the industry, it's an area that has gotten a lot of attention the last four or five years internally. There have been a lot of guys on the outside who have been analyzing statistics for a long time. I think it's been, in a lot of cases, good information."
Statistics suggest walks and on-base percentage lead to victories. Seven of the eight playoff teams in 2002 placed in the top five in their league in on-base percentage.
No team has made more of the on-base percentage theory than the low-budget A's. A year ago, Oakland was ninth in the American League in batting average. But the A's scored the fourth-most runs, attributable largely to their league-high 640 walks.
Beane preaches the ability to get on base throughout the A's farm system. He easily will discard prospects who don't go along with the organization's philosophy.
Former Oakland Manager Art Howe said he paid no attention to on-base percentage in his 11-year playing career, but has a different view as a manager.
"When you look at it, that's how you create opportunities to score," said Howe, now managing the New York Mets. "You get people on base and good things happen."
However, situations and needs sometimes force even the most ardent follower of on-base percentage to do something against the grain.
Beane, tired of watching Terrence Long's defensive inadequacies in the outfield, signed Chris Singleton during the off-season to play center for Oakland. Singleton posted a woeful .296 on-base percentage in 2002 for Baltimore. Singleton lost his starting job with the Orioles to Gary Matthews Jr., a career .238 hitter coming into 2003. Singleton's low OBP wasn't a fluke. After almost 2,000 big league at bats, his career OBP stood at .313 coming into this season. Singleton's defensive skills are the reason the A's signed him.
"He's not Oakland's kind of player," a major league scout said.
The Pirates' Brian Giles certainly is. Giles is an OPS monster. He ranks in the top 15 all-time—that's right all-time—in the category, which is led by Babe Ruth. Giles entered the 2003 season with a career .416 on-base percentage, .570 slugging percentage and .986 OPS. Giles' OPS is way better than some of the greatest Pirates ever, including Honus Wagner (.857), Roberto Clemente (.834) and Willie Stargell (.889).
Perhaps that's why Oakland wanted Giles so desperately last season and why the A's might come calling again this year.
"From the time you're playing Little League, they tell you a walk is as good as a hit," said Gary Matthews, in his first year as the Chicago Cub's hitting coach. "It's not as glamorous as a home run, and you can't go to salary arbitration talking about walks. But you can do it with runs scored, and walks get that for you."
Some GMs have not embraced the OPS concept, relying more on their scouts, instinct and their own ability to evaluate talent. Seattle GM Pat Gillick is on record as not being an OPS follower. He questions how much more technology baseball needs in its existence.
Montreal GM Omar Minaya admits to being "old school." He evaluates talent. He said those who taught him the game never talked about on-base percentage. "Give me talent and I'll give you on-base percentage," Minaya said.
Jim Leyland, currently a special assignment scout for St. Louis and former manager of the Pirates, Florida and Colorado, said the human element and factor should never be lost on anyone evaluating talent or teams.
"You have to be careful of falling in love with numbers," Leyland said. "This game is not played by robots. You can't plug players into a wall outlet and watch them go. There are no power plugs at third base, shortstop or first base. Human beings play the game. There are going to be some times that some things don't go right or don't compute. It's just like fundamentals, they're all drawn up real nice in books and everything sounds good. But in the heat of battle, someone is not going to be in the right place some time."
Leyland admits film study is helpful and computers get information to people quicker, but the information is not much different from what was obtained by using paper and a pencil through the years.
"I think you learn to appreciate the significance of a player's contributions by watching him play," Leyland said. "There's a whole lot more to this than meets the eye."
Littlefield said it's a matter of who feels comfortable with what means of evaluation. "(Statistics) have given a lot of people a kind of a verification to some of the insight they've had for years," Littlefield said. "In some ways, it has changed the thinking as to what people once thought worked through the history of the game.
"In some ways, it hasn't worked. I think it's a piece of every decision we make. In my opinion, it's one that has to be measured accurately. Certainly, it is something written about and talked about a lot in the present day."
Don't count on Leyland carrying a computer around to complete his scouting duties in the ballpark. He makes use of computers but won't rely solely on them.
"I'm a pro computer guy," Leyland said. "I'm completely aware this is 2003. But I think we need to use computers for what they are worth. The fact is the game is still played by human beings and that will never change.
"I can look at Brian Giles' numbers the last three years and know, if he's healthy, he's going to hit somewhere around 35 home runs and drive in around 100. I don't need a computer to tell me that. I know that."
As a manager and scout, Leyland puts more credence in statistics geared toward a player's production with runners on base and runners in scoring position than other statistical data.
"I want to know what a guy can do with men in scoring position or with men in scoring position with two outs," Leyland said. "I want to know if a guy hits 30 home runs, how many of those home runs were meaningful and how many came with the score 10-1 and if the pitcher is just trying to get outs late in the game. I mean, if a guy hits six of those 30 home runs when it doesn't matter, it's significant to know about that."
John E. Sacco has covered the Pirates and Major League Baseball for PSR since October 1998. He is a former member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Pittsburgh chapter.