Getting On Base: Learned Skill or Natural Talent?

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Getting On Base: Learned Skill or Natural Talent?

I hope to spend the rest of the week delving into the matter of getting on base. We are going to start today with a sampling of players throughout baseball and narrow our focus to the Royals as the week winds up.

The idea of getting on base seems simple: swing at good pitches, avoid the bad ones. The more good swings you put on good pitches will, over time, yield more hits. The more you avoid the bad pitches, the more you work the count, and the more you walk...or, the more likely you are to get a good pitch on which you can put a good swing. Simple, right?

It obviously is not that simple, particularly when you are facing crackling fastballs and wrist-snapping sliders, night in and night out. Still, can a player get better at getting on base?

I thought it would be interesting to sample three groups of batting-title qualifiers from the 2008 season, comparing their season on-base percentage with their major-league career numbers and their minor-league career numbers.

The first group consists of the 10 best on-base percentages in baseball in 2008. Coincidentally, these are the only 10 players to post .400 or better numbers this season.

  2008 OBP ML Career OBP Minor OBP
Chipper Jones 470 408 384
Albert Pujols 462 425 378
Milton Bradley 436 370 367
Manny Ramirez 430 411 409
Lance Berkman 420 413 427
Joe Mauer 413 399 407
Mark Teixeira 410 378 413
Matt Holliday 409 386 353
Nick Markakis 406 375 380
Hanley Ramirez 400 379 352

Six of the 10 guys on this list posted minor league career on-base percentages in excess of .380. A seventh would be that Pujols guy, who posted a .378 in his one minor-league season. All but one (Milton Bradley) have career major league on-base percentages of .375 or above.

I'm prepared to say that Matt Holliday's big improvement in the majors over his minor-league numbers has something to do with playing in Denver. I am also prepared to say that some of Bradley's career numbers might be affected by both injuries and attitude.

So, that really leaves us with one guy, Hanley Ramirez, who made a truly major improvement in on-base percentage from his minor-league days to his major-league time.

Okay, here is another group of 10 players. I pulled this block of 10 from roughly the middle of the pack (ranking 73rd to 82nd) in terms of on-base percentage.

  2008 OBP ML Career OBP Minor OBP
Placido Polanco 350 350 317
Akinori Iwamura 349 353 365
Miguel Cabrera 349 381 350
Jimmy Rollins 349 333 329
Kelly Johnson 349 356 366
Kurt Suzuki 346 341 380
Ryan Garko 346 353 379
Cristian Guzman 345 307 312
Casey Blake 345 334 371
Paul Konerko 344 352 395

**Iwamura's 'minor league' number is really his career on-base percentage from Japan.

What you have here are a group of guys who either never were prolific on-base types (Rollins, Guzman) in the minors or guys who were good in the minors (Suzuki, Konerko) but dropped off considerably in the majors.

With the exception of Miguel Cabrera (who dropped off in a tough first year in Detroit) and Guzman (who had a nice contract year), all of them were pretty much right on their major-league averages in 2008.

Again, we have one player, Placido Polanco, who was a substandard on-base guy in the minors (.317), but became an average on-base type in the majors. You could probably throw Cabrera in there, too, but he is another guy who didn't spend a lot of time in the minors.

Otherwise, you have a group who either regressed from above average to average upon reaching the majors or were pretty average to begin with and managed to stay that way.

Okay, now one more group of 10: the bottom 10 in terms of 2008 on-base percentage.

  2008 OBP ML Career OBP Minor OBP
Jose Guillen 300 323 365
Corey Hart 300 323 357
Yuni Betancourt 300 305 311
Kevin Kouzmanoff 299 311 395
Mike Jacobs 299 318 344
Freddy Sanchez 298 336 381
Carlos Gomez 296 295 339
Bobby Crosby 296 307 376
Jeff Francoeur 294 312 332
Michael Bourn 288 299 378

There's our guy Jose, solidly in at number 138, followed by at least two guys who, at various times, have been speculated to be of interest to the Royals (Francouer and Hart).

Some of these players, like Kouzmanoff and Bourn, are still early in their major-league careers and might push their numbers back towards their minor-league marks. In the case of a Bobby Crosby, however, the days of a .376 on-base percentage seem to be long gone.

Kind of hard to envision a Francouer or Carlos Gomez, both of whom were sub .340 on-base guys in the minors, ever getting any above that in the majors (although Gomez could pull a Willie Wilson).

The interesting number, not one of these 10 players has a higher major-league OBP than their minor-league career number.

So, what does this all mean? Well, at least in this very small sample of work, I am willing to make three assumptions:

1. Great on-base guys were almost always great on-base players in the minors.

2. Average major league on-base guys might have been very good in the minors but almost never were bad in the minors and got better.

3. Bad on-base guys in the majors were usually average or worse on-base guys in the minors.

I don't think it is much of a debate that teaching on-base improvement in the majors is just about impossible. The question really becomes can it be taught as a player rises up through the minor leagues and, if so, how much of that is a young player with the innate skill and how much is it a learned skill?

Something to ponder...and comment on.

Tomorrow, we'll do a similar analysis of the Royals. On Friday, we'll attempt to 'go deep' in analyzing players through their careers.

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