Baseball 101 starts season with offense

By Dave Fultz

First off, I’d like to wish a happy “pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training” day to all of you out there.

Baseball 101 – which will normally run on Tuesdays – is moved to Wednesday this week to coincide with the official return of baseball.

After I seemingly anointed myself Professor Baseball last week, I had a lot of people applaud the idea. But even more complained about the lack of substance in last week’s column and I understand.

So let’s get to it.

Spring training starts today, so not only does this mean we have a little less than two months until Opening Day, but it also means that everyone – from rookies to veterans – will be working on the fundamentals and getting back into the swing of things.

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In light of this, I’ll be starting the Baseball 101 “lessons” (for lack of a better word) with the basics. These are the fundamentals that every person should understand before they get into any kind of statistical analysis.

I’m going to start this week with team offense and what statistics are the best when trying to measure how a team will perform.

The first and most important thing to understand is that the baseball season is long, very long. This is important to remember because over the course of a long season, skill tends to shine through while the effects of luck mostly fade away.

A playoff series is a very different monster because of the small sample size that teams face in a five- or seven-game series. Hot and cold streaks can overcome skill in a situation where as little as three games decide the outcome.

But in a 162-game season, consistency is the name of the game.

The next most important fact – one that I can’t stress enough – is that the three offensive outs in a half-inning are the most precious commodity in all of baseball.

I’ve read a bunch of studies done by baseball analysts that have come to this conclusion, but none have put it better than Eric Walker, an aerospace engineer turned baseball writer.

He wrote: “The most critical number in all of baseball is three: the three outs that define an inning. Until the third out, anything is possible; after it, nothing is.”

Although it might sound like it, this isn’t a philosophical argument about a team’s offensive performance.

When explained simply, it is the easiest thing in the world to understand.

There is no time clock in baseball. If a team never makes an out, it can score an unlimited amount of runs and a game can last forever. In this way, outs are the time clock in baseball.

So – and I’m paraphrasing Walker here – anything an offense does to increase its chances of making an out is bad, and anything that decreases its chances of making an out is good.

It should be simple to see that if making an out lowers the chances a team will score runs in an inning, the most important thing a player can do is to not make an out.

Enter on-base percentage.

In its simplest terms, on-base percentage (OBP) is the probability that a player will not make an out when he steps up to the plate.

Theoretically, if a team had an OBP of 1.000, they would score an infinite number of runs because they would never make an out.

OBP becomes the single most important statistic to measuring offensive performance when you understand all that I’ve written up until now.

OBP is being used more and more by the mainstream baseball media to measure individual performance, but some people still insist on using the traditional triple crown statistics and don’t realize the true value of OBP to team offense.

Let me leave you with a telling statistic.

In 2007, the six teams with the highest team OBP were also the six teams that scored the most runs.

In order they were the Yankees, Red Sox, Rockies, Phillies, Angels and Tigers. All of those teams, with the exception of the Tigers, made the playoffs.

You have to score more runs than your opponent to win a baseball game. Everyone knows that, but the best way to do that is to get on-base at a higher rate.

It’s a simple thing to understand and something everyone should know.