Backup catcher Bryan Holaday was one of the big heroes of the just-completed two-game series with the Chicago White Sox. His bunt single brought home the winning run in the ninth inning on Tuesday night and his two-run double broke the game open in the fourth inning on Wednesday afternoon. His batting average stands at .292 for the season and he’s seemingly acquitted himself well with the pitching staff.
All of this has a large section of the fan base up in arms, calling for him to immediately replace the “struggling” Alex Avila immediately. He’s hitting .292 after all!
The problem here though is that batting average is a crap stat. I mean, it does have some useful purpose, I suppose, but it doesn’t say what most of us think it says. It tells us how often a player gets a hit in the subset of plate appearances that don’t end in a walk, hit by pitch, or sacrifice fly. One might want to know that information given a particular matchup or situation, but what we’re generally more interested is how often does a player make (or not make) an out when he steps up to the plate.
Really what we want is to combine walks, hits, extra base hits – everything really – together to get an idea of how valuable each player is as a hitter (we’ll get there, stay with me), but the simplest thing to do is to measure outs vs. non-outs. We know this exists generally as on-base percentage.
Alex Avila has gotten on base at a .339 clip this season, Holady has gotten on base at a .320 clip. Or, to put it another way, Avila’s trips to the plate have resulted in an out 66% of the time while Holaday’s have resulted in an out 68% of the time. So, when it comes to making outs, Holaday has been worse than Avila – and this has been true for the season and for their respective major and minor league careers.
Proponents of batting average often respond to on-base percentage arguments with “but hits are more valuable than walk!” And this is certainly true. If we want to get the best picture of how valuable each batter is with the bat, we want to use a linear weights system – like wOBA.
wOBA uses carefully and precisely calculated run values for each batting event. In the wOBA formula, a walk is only 78% as good as a single, which is only 42% as good as a home run.
If we look at wOBA (which is set to an OBP scale, so .315 or .320 is about average), we see that Avila has hit .299 for the year while Holaday has hit .294. It’s very close – so close that it’s not really worth distinguishing much between the two – but it’s clear that Holaday hasn’t (to date) out-hit Avila at all (if anything the opposite).
This isn’t to excuse Avila’s slow start (or claim that he’s been good), but it is to point out that neither are actually producing much value with the bat. Holaday’s .292 “batting average” looks good, but he hasn’t been a better hitter overall than Avila has, even though his “batting average” stands at just .220.