This months edition: OBP, better known as on-base-percentage. For pitchers and hitters alike this is a very telling statistic. Baserunners start rallies; the more there are, the more likely it is that the team will score runs. Or allow runs, depending on which side of the ball you are at a given time. OBP is what most often determines wins and losses, evidenced by two games during the series with the Cleveland Indians. In our 6-5 loss, our pitchers walked eight and also hit a batter. In our 10-7 win, the Indians walked eight. Free passes are the key, because once the flood gates are open, it’s hard to shut them until too much damage has been done.
The Royals are 40-42 which, as this morning sports section in the Kansas City Star pointed out, is our best record through 82 games in quite some time. In fact, it took them until July 21 last year to win that many games. They sit five games back of the division leading Tigers, and 3.5 back of the second place Indians. As always, there is plenty of reason for optimism and plenty of reason for pessimism. That’s where OBP comes in.
Let’s start with Tim Collins. The normally reliable 5’6” reliever with a nasty breaking ball has suddenly lost his touch. In his last eight appearances he has faced a total of 27 hitters. He walked nine of them while also allowing seven hits. 16 of the 27 hitters he faced reached safely one way or another. That calculates to a .593 OBP. This has lead to an ERA that has ballooned to 4.03, and the only two homeruns he has allowed all season came during this stretch as well. At this point, it is unnecessary to over-analyze the numbers. With Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino working their way back from surgeries, Collins better figure his game out and quick before he suffers a demotion to Triple-A much like his counterpart Kelvin Herrera.
Now to the offense. There are two hitters I wanted to put the spotlight on here, and they are Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer. Escobar, the sure-handed shortstop with penchant for appearing on Web Gems, is exactly the opposite at the plate. In his last 16 games, he has a whopping .227 OBP. This means that he gets on base a little more than two out of every ten times he comes up to the plate. No other two hitter in the league comes close to being that bad. Now, a number of studies* have been done to show that the lineup doesn’t make much of a difference. After all, Escobar’s speed when he actually gets on base makes him a great two hitter, given that he could most likely score from second on a single or from first on a double. But getting on base is clearly a huge problem for him. However, baseballreference.com’s splits show that his OBP is .327 when hitting ninth, compared to .277 when hitting second. Maybe it’s because there’s less pressure hitting ninth, but those numbers should suggest to Yost that Escobar is the most obvious nine hitter in the league.
*I’d like to point out that the linked study suggests Roger Maris would have hit 65 homers in 1961 had he hit leadoff, allowing him to break the record in 154 games. But it is suggested to take that with a big grain of salt.
A ray of light to this OBP depressor is Eric Hosmer. Yes, he has been tearing the cover off the ball lately, but there is more to his game than homeruns. In his last 16 games, with four less plate appearances than Escobar, his OBP is .366, a huge number when you bat in front of Butler and Perez. Butler is in the top three among AL hitters in terms of batting average with two outs, and Hosmer getting on base is what keeps the inning going, what increases the pitch counts for opposing pitchers. His play has been the most important catalyst for the Royals recent success.
On-base percentage, simultaneously the most frustrating and most good thing about the Royals in recent weeks. They are getting closer and closer to finding balance within the organization, as the offense is catching up to the overall prowess of the pitching staff. I have two suggestions: one, obviously, is bat Escobar ninth. Two, use Hochevar in set up situations. Yost, after the wild 10-7 win on Independence Day, has already hinted at making this move, and I hope he won’t back off from that. If I had said to you on April 1 that Hochevar would soon be the Royals best option out of the pen, you would probably have me committed. But in his last eight appearances – 12 1/3 innings – Hoch has allowed a .167 OBP while compiling 19 strikeouts. Again, numbers speaking for themselves.
The Royals had a 14-10 record in April, 8-20 in May, and got through June at 16-11. It is quite possible that the AL Central champion could come out with only 86 wins, and that is a very achievable number for the Royals at this point in the season. There are a lot of contingencies to reaching that number. One being injuries – hopefully Gordon’s will be as bad as it gets – and two is balancing out OBP on both sides of the ball. Getting runners on while batting and keeping them off while pitching is the key to victory, in the most John Madden way to state such a thing.