Down with OBP

The 2012 Baltimore Orioles struggled to get on base.  Their .311 team On Base Percentage (OBP) was good for just 23rd in the league.  While the ability to get on base – as measured by OBP – is not necessarily the most important element to offensive success, it is certainly a critical one.  An offense’s job is to score runs.  It goes without saying that logically, the more runners a team has on base, the more chances they have to score runs.  It really is that straightforward.

Some have said the Orioles lacked timely hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP) but that’s simply not true.  The Orioles hit to a .772 OPS with RISP in 2012, good enough for 11th in the Major Leagues and comfortably above the .739 MLB average.  Of course as one might expect, the team’s OPS with RISP was largely slugging driven, just as the team’s total OPS was.  Their OBP with RISP was .333, good for only 22nd in MLB in the 2012 season.  Nonetheless, the Orioles showed the ability to hit effectively with runners in scoring position.  Where they failed was in creating RISP situations.

The Orioles had only 1,369 plate appearances (PA) in 2012 with RISP – last in all of MLB.  The team scored 477 runs in those situations (24th in MLB).  By contrast, the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants lead all of baseball with 586 runs scored with RISP.  The Giants also had 1,810 PA’s with RISP.  To put it another way, for every chance the Giants had with RISP, they scored .324 runs.  With every chance the Orioles had with runners in scoring position, they scored .349.  Baltimore was actually more efficient in cashing in on RISP opportunities than San Francisco, but because the Giants had many more opportunities, they scored many more runs in those situations.

It will not come as a shock to find out that the Giants had a team OBP of .327 (8th in MLB).  Teams that get on base more often, have more chances with runners in scoring position, and generally score more runs in those situations.  Sure there are ways to get around a lack of runners in scoring position, like hitting for power.  That is largely what the Orioles did in 2012 but it is a risky approach.  If a team has runners on second and third relatively often, they can score in a plethora of ways – a single, double, triple, homerun, wild pitch (runner on 3rd), groundout (runner on 3rd), fly out (runner on third), error, ect.  If a runner is on first or there are no runners on, a team can still score but they need at least a double if not a homerun.  Teams that rely on slugging in the absence of on base capabilities are at the mercy of extra-base hits much more so than a team that consistently has runners on.

For the Orioles’ offense to take a step forward this season, the team will have to do a better job in getting on base.

To be fair, Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter do realize this.  Duquette commented both this offseason and last about the need for good OBP players.  Nonetheless, the Orioles did little in the way of acquisitions to dramatically improve their team OBP.  Improvement will largely have to come from within.  The good news is that it is reasonable to expect some improvement there.

Let’s start with some low-hanging fruit.  Baltimore 2B produced an abysmal .273 OBP in 2012 which was dead last in MLB.  The failure by Oriole 2B to reach base largely fell on the shoulders of Bob Andino and his .283 OBP.  Andino is gone, as is Omar Quintanilla who saw some time at second last season.  Ryan Flaherty (.258 OBP in 2012) might see some playing time at 2B this season depending on how things work out, but Flaherty was a Rule 5 pick last season and is expected to be much improved this go-around (Ryan owns a modest .347 career Minor League OBP).  Acquisitions Yamaico Navarro and Alexi Casilla could factor in as well, but if there is going to be a dramatic boost in the club’s OBP production from 2B, it is likely going to come from projected Opening Day starter Brian Roberts.

Finally healthy after three largely lost seasons, Roberts brings a career .351 Major League OBP to second base.  Roberts’ strong performance thus far in the Grapefruit League has provided all Orioles fans with hope that he can be a productive member of the team.  Regardless, it might be asking too much to expect an OBP from Roberts that is around or above his career average.  Roberts is 35 years old and likely to show signs of decline even if completely healthy.  A realistic positive scenario might be for Roberts to perform at or around his pre-peak seasons of 2003 and 2004 when he had an OBP of .337 and .344, respectively.  Those numbers – and truthfully anything at or above .330 – would be a huge upgrade over the .273 OBP Baltimore second basemen hit to last season.  It still might not be ideal production from the second baseman or a top of the lineup hitter, but it would certainly make the 2013 Orioles a slightly better offensive team than the 2012 Orioles.

There are other areas where the Orioles could see improvements.  J.J. Hardy had a .282 OBP in 2012, well below his (still-below average) career total of .314.  It would be surprising if Hardy struggled to reach base to that extent again in 2013.  The O’s will – barring injuries – get a full season of Nate McLouth and his solid .335 career OBP as well as a full season from Nolan Reimold and his equally solid .338 OBP.  Nick Markakis is by far the team’s best weapon in terms of ability to reach base and he missed a good chunk of the 2012 season with injuries.  It is also not unreasonable to expect modest improvements from Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Chris Davis in this department as they are all good hitters in the primes of their careers.  Manny Machado – who showed a knack for reaching base in the minors – should better his .294 OBP in his first full season in the big leagues.

Where the Orioles could see the most significant on base gains is simply by managing the lineup a little differently.  OBP is important because the more runners there are on base, the more scoring chances a team has.  By similar logic, the more chances a good on-base player has at the plate, the more times that player will reach base.  Therefore, teams generally seek to put their hitters most adept at reaching base at the top of the order so they receive the most at bats and can reach base for the power hitters further down the line up.

In 2012, J.J. Hardy batted 2nd in the order most of the season which largely contributed to a .277 OBP out of the 2-hole for Baltimore.  The MLB average OBP for #2 hitters in 2012 was .321.  Buck has made it known that his desire is to bat J.J. further down the lineup this season.  If he does that, it will help by giving more at bats to a player more adept at reaching base and placing a better “table setter” in front of the middle of the lineup.  Roberts, McLouth, or Reimold – even if they produce around league average on base percentages – would be a big upgrade in that regard.  On a similar note, despite Nick Markakis having an OBP of .390 out of the leadoff spot in 2012, Orioles leadoff hitters hit to an OBP of .308 – 15 points below the MLB average of .323.  Markakis could certainly help improve that number with a full season atop the order, but even Roberts, McLouth, or Reimold would be reasonable leadoff options and provide better on-base abilities out of the leadoff position.

The Orioles do not need to reach any magic OBP level in order to succeed.  Many teams – including the 2012 Orioles – have gotten by on offenses that relied heavily on power to make up for an on-base deficiency.  However, there is little doubt that the Orioles would benefit from more opportunities to hit with runners on base – as would any team.  The team has a chance to improve the on-base capabilities in 2013 and if they do, it should help to compliment an offense that already has power in spades.