by Adam Newland, Madison County (GA) High School and Matt Thompson, Cass (GA) High School
Despite the protests of Goose Gossage, analytics in baseball are here to stay. Instead of relying solely on the eye test, coaches are now armed with statistics that can help them gain a competitive advantage in ways which may escape the naked eye.The resulting change in managerial philosophy is staggering. Batting average, runs, and RBIs are out; on base percentage, runs created, and ISO power are in. MLB managers have 162 games and occasionally multiple seasons’ worth of data to help optimize their decision-making and project for future seasons. For those who choose to use them to their advantage, analytics have taken former baseball outposts and transformed them into regular playoff contenders.
While any piece of analytics can be beneficial to major league managers if used correctly, the brutish and short nature of the high school baseball season renders many statistics useless to the high school baseball coach. If high school coaches used the same logic as major league managers, they would too often fall into the “small sample size” trap. While the top high school players remain remarkably consistent with their production, most players will have hot and cold spells during any given season. One extended hot or cold spell could easily be half of a team’s high school season. As a result, a lot of analytics you might want to use have to be tossed out. Therefore, the statistics that follow offer the high school baseball coach the best opportunity to project going forward.
A quick primer on stat-keeping: Get a trusted stat-keeper. Don’t leave the stat book to a parent, whose bias will quickly manifest itself in terms of what is and is not ruled a hit. Instead, entrust an assistant with the job. If all assistants already have an important game day role, then your best bet is to use a bench player with a working knowledge of the game. Even then, that player needs to remain in close proximity to a coach.
Stat #1: On Base Percentage (OBP) Definition: A measure of how often a batter reaches base other than fielding error, fielder’s choice, dropped third strike, or obstruction
While OBP can fluctuate with a hot or cold streak, it is still a superior indicator of success to batting average. The number one goal of any high school offense should be to score runs, and a team can’t score any runs without getting on base. Thus, limiting measurements of a player’s effectiveness to the amount of hits he gets fails to capture the totality of a player’s impact on his team’s offense. All other things being equal, a player with .330/.370 split does less for his team than a player with a .250/.400 split. Speed used to be the primary prerequisite for the leadoff spot, but you can’t steal second base without getting on first. Thus, if you’re looking to optimize the top part of your lineup, choose the hitters with the highest on base percentage.
Stat #2: Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) Definition: A measure of how many of a batter’s balls in play go for hits.
On its own, Batting Average on Balls in Play could be an entire article. It is not a complex statistic to determine, but it is a complex statistic in application. However, its potential uses make it worth the headache. Taken in isolation, a player’s BABIP is prone to small sample size fluctuation. Many sabermetricians would argue that a player’s BABIP needs a large amount of balls in play to truly normalize. However, there is enough data out there to suggest an average high school BABIP. Ten years of data collected for the purpose of this article finds a high school player’s average BABIP to be around .340. Now, there are three things that can impact this average number: Defense, luck, and skill.
Defense: If you play in a league filled with quality defenses, then you can expect your player’s BABIP to be suppressed. On the flip side, if you have poor defensive teams, you can expect higher than normal BABIPs. A player can hit the same ball, whether it is a line drive or a blooper, and have a different result depending on the quality of the defense they are playing against on a given day.
Luck: Much like quality of defense can be the final determinant in a hit or an out, luck plays a large role in player’s final counting stats. In an MLB season, luck will tend to normalize over the course of a season. However, because the high school season is so short, a player’s BABIP becomes particularly important when projecting for the following season. If an average high school player bumps up their average by 100 points in a season, a study of that player’s BABIP may provide an answer. On the flip side, if a team’s best player seems to have his numbers depressed, an unlucky BABIP may be the culprit. During the season, check a player’s BABIP before any decision to move him up or down in the lineup. If a player you had projected to hit 8th start the season hitting .350, double check his BABIP (and his batted ball profile (see stat #4)) before making him your cleanup hitter. Chances are he didn’t turn into Bryce Harper overnight.
Talent: As with all statistics, a player’s talent level plays a large role. As mentioned above, the average high school player will have a BABIP around .340. However, most high school baseball teams have players that cover a wide spectrum of talent levels. Therefore, when a really talented player has a BABIP of .400, a coach should not presume he is getting lucky. More than likely, the high BABIP is a manifestation of the player’s talent. A talented player is more likely to have higher line drive percentages than an average or poor player, and line drives at the high school level are hits 75-80% of the time. Thus, a player’s talent must be considered when assessing the impact of his BABIP.
Stat #3: Isolated Power (ISO) Definition: A measurement of the number of extra bases a player generates per at bat.
Much like OBP is a step beyond a player’s batting average, ISO power is the step beyond a player’s slugging percentage. ISO allows a coach to more accurately discern a player’s offensive impact. ISO’s best trait is its ability to minimize the importance of the batting average as an offensive signifier. However, taken in a vacuum, Isolated Power can also be a bit of a trap. A player with a .200 average and a .400 slugging percentage has the same ISO as a player with a .300 batting average and a .500 slugging percentage even though the latter player is obviously the significantly better player. So, even though Isolated Power is a stat worthy of a coach’s consideration, context does matter.
Stat #4: Line Drive, Ground Ball, & Fly Ball Percentages (LD%/GB%/FB%) Definition: The percentage of a batter’s balls in play that are line drives, ground balls, or fly balls.
As stated earlier, line drives at the high school level are base hits 75-80% of the time. Ground balls go for hits around 27% of the time, while fly balls typically fall in at about a 20% rate. The goal here should be clear: hit line drives. Nevertheless, teaching high school players to hit the ball in the air is a contentious subject, with a common argument being, “high school players aren’t strong/talented enough to make trying to hit the ball in the air worth it.” The numbers simply don’t agree with that sentiment, though. Turning a ground ball into a line drive increases the chance of a hit by around 50%, whereas turning a ground ball into fly ball decreases the chances of a hit by only 7%. Simple adjustments to swing plane and launch angle could make a lot of high school hitters much more productive, which in turn would make their teams more productive.
When making a lineup, these batted ball stats can help a coach determine who to hit and where to hit him. Players that hit the ball in the air more should be in the upper middle part of the lineup to get on base and drive in runs. Players with a low batting average but a high LD% are most likely getting unlucky and will probably start finding holes eventually, if given the chance to keep hitting.
Stat #5: Walk Percentage (BB%) Definition: The percentage of a hitter’s plate appearances that end in a walk.
Like strike out rates, walk rates don’t tend to fluctuate a lot for a team from year to year (it’s usually somewhere around 10-15%, or 2-4 per game). Still, at the individual level, walk rates can help in building a lineup and seeing which players might need adjustments in approach. For building a lineup, a player that walks a lot typically has a high OBP, which is desirable at the top of the lineup. Also, a lot of coaches like to utilize a “second leadoff hitter” in the 9 spot of the batting order. Whether you agree with that strategy or not, using a high walk guy there (even if he has low average or power numbers) can help set the table for the top of your order.
As for approach, a player that doesn’t walk a lot might be chasing a lot of pitches out of the zone, or at least out of his zone. Unless his other numbers (average, ISO, OBP, etc.) are exceptional, that player would probably benefit from improving his approach at the plate. There isn’t necessarily a threshold walk percentage that everyone should strive for, but typically, the players with the lowest walk rates also have the lowest OBP.
Stat #6: Strikeout Percentage (K%) Definition: The percentage of hitter’s plate appearances that end in a strike out.
Outside of an occasional dropped third strike or avoiding a double play, nothing good ever happens when a batter strikes out. Understandably, coaches will often focus on putting the ball in play. Typically, a high school team will strike out 20-25% of the time over the course of a season. That’s between 4 and 6 outs per game. Interestingly, strike out rate seems to have little to no correlation with how many runs per game a team scores. Therefore, don’t give up on players with high strikeout rates, especially if their other measurables, such as ISO or slugging percentage, are strong. A player that strikes out 35% of the time, but has a .200+ ISO probably needs to be in the lineup. Sure, he may strikeout 1-2 times per game, but he also has a good chance of hitting at least a double and driving in multiple runs every game. Coaches happily give up outs (sacrifice bunts) to try to score 1 run an inning. Why not potentially give up an out or two for the opportunity to score multiple runs in one at bat? Yes, some outs are more productive than others, but ultimately an out is an out no matter how it happens.