Seemingly out of nowhere, J.R. Towles burst onto the major league scene in September 2007 and had everyone thinking the same thing: "FINALLY, a catcher who can hit." It wasn't just Astros fans who took to Towles, as fantasy baseball owners the nation over saw Towles as a legitimate 10 HR/10 SB combo that is virtually unmatched at the catcher position. Why the unbridled optimism?? 40 AB's, that's why. As a September call up, J.R. came in and pulverized the baseball to the tune of a .375/.432/.575 line. Impressive to say the least, but as we know from his 2008 season, it was not a precursor to success in the immediate future. What eventually did Towles, and to an extent the Astros, in was the same fate that has befallen many a young major leaguer- overinflated statistics due to a small sample size. Those 40 AB's are nowhere close to enough to be able to get a read on how a player will continue to develop.
Particularly, his batting average (BA) was the biggest mirage created by his small sample size. When we look at BA in and of itself, the statistic does not tell us all that much. Sure, we know that a player who bats .300 hit safely ,in essence, 3 out of every 10 AB's. What is not included in batting average is much of what makes a player who he is. For instance, in those other seven AB's, did the player do anything else to get on base? What are his walk totals? To that point, if the player has poor plate discipline, did he strike out chasing pitches that weren't in the strike zone?
Basically, my biggest qualm with the statistic is that it does not isolate the player enough to allow us to get a holistic picture of his skill as a baseball player. The true skill of an offensive player, at least to me, is not so much getting hits, as it is not making outs. Going back to what I wrote earlier, BA doesn't tell us what our .300 hitter is doing in his other seven AB's. Does he help his team by being selective at the plate and taking walks? Or is he impatient and struggle to get on base other than by the a hit?
This is why One-Base Plus Slugging (OPS) is a superior statistic to evaluate a hitter's skill, relative to others. OPS is the sum of a player's On-Base Percentage (OBP) and their Slugging Percentage (SLG%). While in and of itself, OPS is not blemish-free statstic, it does allow fans and front office personnel alike to examine the two most basic components of a hitter: how frequently they get on base (and therefore do not make outs), and what type of hitter they are, based on their ability to hit for power.
For a comparison that will surely please any Astros fan, let's take a look at David Eckstein's 2006 season when he was named World Series MVP, and Craig Biggio's 1999 season when he was, well...not named World Series MVP.
In 2006, David Eckstein had an ok year overall (for a guy that wear footsie pajamas to sleep in). He hit .292, which when you consider an average major league hits around .265ish, is far above average. The .300 BA has been lauded by in-game commentators as a magical marker for any batter. It is a round number that does separate the top echelon of high BA guys from their average or below average counterparts. A look behind his batting average, however, betrays the admiration one might have for Mr. Eckstein. His OPS in the leadoff spot was a mere .694. If you click on Eckstein's name and look at the stat column labeled "OPS+", you can see his OPS+ in 2006 was 93. This is a measure of his OPS, relative to other hitters in the majors, taking out external influences such as the ballparks that each player played in. His total bases- which is divided by total plate appearances to get SLG%, was only 172. His rather low total bases can be partially explained by his having only two home runs during the regular season. Again, not a poor season, but Eckstein was clearly a player who had a great six game series (sample size, anyone?) and went on to win a prestigious award because of it.
In 1999, Craig Biggio , like Eckstein in 2006, hit leadoff for a club that won the NL Central. Unlike Eckstein, Biggio and the Astros lost in the Divisional round to the Atlanta Braves. A look at Biggio's numbers from that season though, tell us that he did more to help his club than did Eckstein in 2006. Bidge's BA that season was .294. Almost identical to that of Eckstein. Where Biggio separates himself from Eckstein is in his OPS of .843, especially his OBP of .386. From that, we can see Craig Biggio in 1999 recorded an out roughly 4 percent less frequently than did Eckstein in 2006. It may not seem like much, but when your team has only 27 outs with which to work with in most games, that four percent surely made a difference in their respective team's success. Biggio's OPS+ was 113, or 13% better than the average major leaguer. Comparing total bases wouldn't be fair, as Biggio had 139 more AB's than Eckstein.
It is easy to see why Craig is a future Hall of Famer, and Eckstein will be remembered for being the spunky little guy who always played hard, etc. For what it's worth, it always seemed like Eckstein received much more attention throughout his 2006 season, than Biggio did during his 1999 campaign. True, the Cardinals had the advantage of making a deep playoff run, but because baseball enthusiasts and commentators put more weight on a player's batting average than just about any other statistic, Eckstein and Biggio's two seasons could have been preceived as a wash. Intelligent fans, such as ourselves, know better.