Does Batting Average Matter?

I mean: At all?

Tango has a great little piece on his blog where he compares Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry. A comparison between the two players has long fascinated him, but more in an aesthetic way. He has wondered which type of hitter fans enjoy watching more:

The Darryl Strawberry low-average, lots of walks and strikeouts, lots of homers.

Or

The Don Mattingly high-average, few walks and strikeouts, more doubles than homers.

Tango has found that people (and this might surprise you) actually prefer the Strawberry type more. We can get into that another time — I think I prefer the Mattingly type more, especially now that EVERYONE in baseball is Darryl Strawberry — but let’s move on to Tango’s more current question, which is this:

Does batting average matter at all?

Again, he uses Straw and Donnie Baseball. From age 21 to age 29, Mattingly and Strawberry were contemporaries who played about the same number of games (Straw got 286 more plate appearances). As you can see by their numbers, they were very different hitters:

Mattingly: .317/.364/.504 with 288 doubles, 15 triples, 169 homers, 258 Ks, 342 walks, 2,226 total bases.

Strawberry: .263/.359/.516 with 209 doubles, 34 triples, 280 homers, 1,085 Ks, 655 walks, 2,276 total bases.

When you look at those numbers, what difference stands out most? My guess is that most people would immediately point to the 54-point difference in batting average because, even with the recent bashing it has taken, batting average is an obvious thing, an inescapable stat. It still leads ALL the broadcasts. It is still the first number in the slash stat. It still remains powerful in our minds.

The question is not if that batting average difference tells us that Mattingly was the better hitter. We know, for a fact, that batting average alone cannot tell us that.

The question is: Does that 54-point advantage in batting average matter even a little bit?

Tango says “No,” and his argument is pretty difficult to fight off. He believes that not only does batting average not matter, it’s actually a distraction. You are diverted by the shiny sparkle of that .318 Mattingly average and you don’t even see what actually matters in hitting, which is creating runs.

Yes, Mattingly has 54 points of batting average on Strawberry because he almost never struck out. But he also almost never walked, and so Strawberry makes up almost the whole difference in on-base percentage by walking 300 more times.

It’s true that a walk isn’t EXACTLY as good as a hit because there are situations when a single does more.

But a walk is MOSTLY as good as a hit.

Then you go on to slugging and see that Strawberry not only makes up the 54 points difference but actually pushes ahead in slugging percentage. How does he do this? Easy: With triples and home runs.

Now you start adding things up and no matter how you slice it, Strawberry at least pulls even with Mattingly.

Strawberry creates a few more runs:

Strawberry: 851 runs created

Mattingly: 797 runs created

Strawberry has a slightly higher standard weight on-base average:

Strawberry: .375 wOBA

Mattingly: .372 wOBA

Strawberry has a higher OPS+:

Strawberry: 144 OPS+

Mattingly: 138 OPS+

And so on. The batting average makes no difference at all. Why not? Because there’s a tradeoff happening here. What the 54-point batting average difference cannot tell you is that Strawberry trades walks for hits, and he trades homers for doubles.

He loses a little in the walks for hits trade (using linear weights):

Single: .87 runs

Walk: .69 runs

And he gains a lot in the homer for doubles trade:

Home run: 1.93 runs

Double: 1.22 runs

You can do the math on this pretty easily. If I trade 10 walks for 10 singles, I lose 1.8 runs. If I trade three homers for three doubles, I gain 2.13 runs.

And batting average misses ALL OF THIS. It doesn’t care about walks and doesn’t care about what kind of hit you make. It adds absolutely nothing to our consideration of a player’s value. When Tango writes this, I think he’s exactly right:

That’s why the batting average is inconsequential. And that the vast majority of voters used the higher batting average as essentially the tie-breaker is why we should stop talking about batting average. It’s a bias that clouds our view of players.

So, that’s out of the way.

BUT … there is a but.

All of the above is true, as I see it. But this is also true: Batting average has been a vital part of baseball for more than 100 years. It is deeply embedded in the game and in our love of the game. Are we supposed to simply throw away so much history? Are we supposed to just forget that Ted Williams hit .400 in 1941 or that Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average is .366 or that Khris Davis has hit .247 four years in a row (though, alas, it appears that streak might end this year). Are we supposed to stifle our excitement when we see that someone is hitting .389 the first two months of the season and we just might have another .400 chase?

Should we eradicate the term “.300 hitter” from our vocabularies?

No, that’s no answer. Batting average may be a distraction in analysis, but that does not mean that it is entirely without value. Packaged together with on-base percentage and slugging percentage, it gives you a quick and easy snapshot of the KIND of player we’re looking at. If may not offer a good answer on if Mattingly or Strawberry was better but it does a very good job (especially when packaged with on-base and slugging) of telling you what Mattingly and Strawberry looked like as hitters.

That .318 average of Mattingly’s evokes the pro at the plate, deep in his crouch, scanning the defense, looking for a gap.

That .260 average of Strawberry evokes the long and beautiful stride that missed often but when it connected … wonder.

But even more than that, batting average is there for nostalgia, for a connection to the past, for an easy entry for casual fans, for a conversation point at the game. Hey, look, Mike Trout is hitting hitting .298! If he gets a hit in his next at-bat, he will be at .300! Does this matter? Sure it does.

These things are not insignificant. In a time when attendance falls and television ratings fall with them, we don’t need to be alienating those fans who live and die with batting averages. And we don’t need to be shutting down baseball avenues that are interesting and fun.

I think, in the end, we could view batting averages the way we view hitting streaks. When it comes to a player’s value, both are beside the point — neither is helpful in telling you how good a player is. But hitting streaks are still cool in their own way. They’re still interesting. They’re still fun. They might not matter at all, but if anyone would ever approach Joe D’s 56-game hitting streak, the nation would be going out of its mind, and I’d be leading the parade.