On Base Percentage Vs. Batting Average: Which Is More Important?

John LewisCorrespondent IJuly 22, 2008

Since the beginning of baseball, one stat has reigned supreme over all others:  the batting average.  Simply put, the best hitters are always considered to be those who possess the highest.  Every year, the best hitter in the game is generally considered to be the person who retained the highest batting average.  This brings about a question:  Is batting average really as important as it is made out to be?  Or is it actually less important than another similar stat, On base percentage?

Without a doubt, batting average is important.  It shows a hitters ability to reach base on a swing, a vital part of baseball.  However, let's compare the two statistics in a more logical manner.  Every inning, there are three outs that the defense must make in order to end the inning.  On base percentage shows the odds that a hitter does not make one of these three outs.  It is calculated by counting walks as well as hits, so prolific walkers will often display a high differential between batting average and on base percentage. 

When a hitter puts the ball in play, the major league average to get a hit is only slightly above .300.  The upper tier of hitters can average around .340, which is how they manage to consistently hit above .300 year in and year out.  What this number means is that a ball hit in fair territory (many swings do not hit the ball fair) has nearly a 70% chance of being an out.  This is where the walk comes into play.  Hitters who are patient enough to work counts and take pitches are much more susceptible to walks than those who chase every first pitch.  The odds of reaching base after taking 4 balls is obviously 100%.  Essentially, hitters must be lucky in order to get a hit, while drawing a walk guarantees them to reach base.  This is why the walk is such a vital part of baseball overlooked by many. 

To show an example on this comparison of statistics, two ballplayers who play the same position but have drastically different approaches will be examined:  Robinson Cano (Yankees 2B) and BJ Upton (Devil Rays 2B/CF).  Both have somewhat similar batting averages this season - despite a slow start, Cano is hitting .263 while Upton is at a clip of .271.  The difference between batting averages is less than 1 hit per 100 at bats, so they are nearly the same.  When comparing their on base percentages, though, a huge difference is discovered.  Cano, who almost never walks, has an on base percentage of just .298, way below the major league average of .330.  Upton, on the other hand, carries a .381 on base percentage.  So although the two reach base almost exactly the same amount on hits, Upton reaches base nearly 1 more time every 10 at bats than Cano simply because he is willing to take a few strikes in order to draw monumentally more walks.

Of course, on base percentage isn't the only important statistic to determine the effectiveness of a baseball player.  This is because all walks drawn only put the hitter on first base and will rarely drive in a run, while hits are capable of putting the hitter on 2nd or 3rd base, or even crossing the plate with a home run.  Along with that, hits are capable of driving in many more runs than walks.  Other stats are used to calculate these, such as slugging percentage and OPS, or on base percentage + slugging percentage.  These statistics and their impact on baseball will be examined in later articles.  In the case of on base percentage, it is a hugely underrated stat that pays dividends for individuals and teams willing to take pitches.  It allows teams such as the Chicago White Sox, despite an extremely low team batting average, to still compete and put up a lot of runs.  Although it can't necessarily be proven that on base percentage is more important in judging the effectiveness of baseball players, it can be nonetheless shown that a hitter without an extremely high batting average can still be a great contributor and table setter for a major league team.