Pirates' Recent Trades Disregard On Base Percentage, the "True" Metric

Tom AuSenior Analyst IIJune 9, 2009

CHICAGO - MAY 27: Nate McLouth #13 of the Pittsburgh Pirates takes a swing against the Chicago Cubs on May 27, 2009 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Pirates 5-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

I'll be the first to admit, that after a rocky start, Andy LaRoche was a decidedly better player than I had given him credit for. But he is still not as good as the man he replaced.

This is a reference to Jason Bay, for whom he was traded, right? No, Jose Bautista.

Is Jose Bautista the laughing stock of the Pittsburgh Pirates? Jose Bautista, a star player on some other team than the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Bautista is hitting .265, just a bit better than Pirate fans may remember him. LaRoche is now batting around .300. But get this: Bautista's on base percentage (OBP) is around .400, about the same as Jason Bay's. (Both men are near the top of their respective teams in this regard.) LaRoche's is around .370, a strong (but "inferior") OBP.

On base percentage, not batting average, is how a player's offensive productivity is measured nowadays, by the better teams such as the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays (who acquired Bautista), and the formerly good Oakland Athletics, but not the Pittsburgh Pirates, apparently.

This reflects the fact that walk is as good as a single. That's because barring double plays and caught stealings, the number of runs scored correlate strongly with the number of men put on base. It really doesn't matter (hit or walk) how they get there.

But the Pirates (wrongly) felt that Bautista needed to be replaced, and used Bay as trade bait for replacements for a third baseman and an outfielder. (OK,we did get Robinzon Diaz for Bautista.)

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In essence, we traded two "Bays" (or maybe one and two-thirds to allow for the fact that Bautista is not an every day player in Toronto), for Andy LaRoche and the weaker Brandon Moss, plus a failed major league pitcher, Craig Hansen, and a minor leaguer, Bryan Morris, plus Diaz.

The same kind of fuzzy thinking was used to justify trading Nate McLouth. He was hitting "only" .256 when he left, slightly below league average, and below Andy LaRoche, Nyjer Morgan, Freddy Sanchez, Brandon Moss, and even Jack Wilson.

But McLouth's OBP was around .350. That put him below Andy LaRoche, but in a statistical "dead heat" with Freddy Sanchez, and well above league average. And as a tie breaker, McLouth has hit more home runs so far in 2009 than any other Pirate. 

Andy McCutchen will probably produce a better batting average than Nate McLouth. He probably won't produce a better on base percentage. So we will have lost, not gained, by the replacement.

The Pirates are too much about power, and not enough about finesse. In their pitchers, they prefer 95-mph throwers, who often lack control, like Tyler Yates and Evan Meek. That's why they'll never hire a Jamie Moyer or a Chad Bradford (with slow" pitches) even in their prime, and even when they are winners.

And arguments about trading Bay and McLouth, or even Bautista "at their top" don't hold water (for high OBP players). Such players are about finesse (specifically plate discipline), rather than power, which is to say they maintain or even increase their numbers as they get older.

A disregard for OBP caused the Pirates to trade away three of their best players without realizing how good they were. With this lack of understanding, it will be a long time before they amount to much.

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