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Individual Hitting Performances

Publication Date: October 2, 2001

The Center of the Game

This week I'm starting a series where I want to head into some new territory. I've always avoided talking about individual performances in this column, preferring to focus on team levels of performance. That's not because of any particular aversion to talking about the players, of course; they're the heart of the game. That's been more because, although there are obviously no hard and fast rules about what I can write about here, I view my preferred role more as an analyst than anything else, and, for the most part, the data just wasn't there to do any serious analysis on player performance. The NCAA maintains leader lists for some traditional categories, but there are problems with those stats that we'll go into a bit later, and the slightly more sophisticated numbers that are needed aren't really compiled anywhere.

Nonetheless, this is an area that deserves more attention, so I've done the background work needed to be able to at least begin addressing this, pulling together stats on players from all but about 30 or so of the 282 Division I teams from 2001. While it was definitely time-consuming, this wasn't quite as hard as I had expected, because there's been some good work done on consistent reporting formats by the SID's, mostly through their professional organization, CoSIDA. The reports which most teams use are produced by a marvelous piece of software called The Automated Scorebook, produced by a company called Stat Crew Software, who is probably worthy of a column of their own one of these days. Among all its other great features, Automated Scorebook includes OBP and slugging for each player, which is enough information to begin do some actual analysis of player performance.

I'm having to walk a rather delicate tightrope here. Some of you have come from the background of being well-read in modern baseball analysis, and to you what I'm going to say next will seem a bit remedial. Stick with me, it gets better next week. For the ones of you who come from a general college sports background with no history of reading baseball statistical analysis, this is going to be somewhat revolutionary, although the ideas are over a decade old by this point. I'll try to head down the middle so everyone learns something. We'll start with hitter's stats this week and next week and then hit the pitchers.

Forget All That

The first thing to learn when trying to get an honest feel for player performance, and the thing that turns off a lot of people right at the gates, is that the traditional baseball offensive stats -- batting average, home runs, RBI's, and runs -- are not really all that useful in evaluating how much a player contributes to his team's offensive success. There are tons of material out there on the Web about why this is and what the best replacements are -- the Baseball Prospectus, the Baseball Primer, and are great places to start -- and I won't go further into that at this point (although I'll be glad to point you along the path if you write me), but trust me when I tell you that, while they're better than not knowing anything, the stats I referred to above only give you a badly distorted view of player performance.

There are some really sophisticated replacement measures out there, many of them extremely complicated, but the good news is that, in 99% of the cases that come up in the real world, you can come up with a really good measure of player value by adding together the player's on-base percentage (OBP) and his slugging average (SLG) to get a measure usually referred to as OPS. These ideas aren't really new -- Branch Rickey built the great Dodger teams of the 40's and 50's around the notion of OBP, for example -- but it's mostly in the last two decades that there's been a popular movement to looking at them in order to track what players are worth more. What constitutes a good OPS is, of course, subject to the offensive levels and context that it's performed in (more on this kind of adjustment next week), and nothing annoys me more than being told that Joe Shlabotnik hit .428 with 37 steals in the Mid-South-Central League last year without having any idea how unusual that is, but in the NCAA in 2001, .800 was probably around the average for a starter (there are no total offense figures available, so I'm guessing a bit here, but that's probably pretty accurate). .900 starts to be pretty good -- there were an average of around 2.5 players per team last year who were over .900.

Just for context of the kind of numbers that are possible in a different context, Barry Bonds is currently at an OBP of .510, with a SLG of .842, for an OPS of 1.352. This is probably the second-best offensive season in MLB history. College players, on the other hand, with aluminum bats against younger competition, regularly put up numbers higher than that.

This week, having gone through a bit of a long-winded introduction of the topic, I'll close with the top 25 for OPS in Division I this year. Next week, I'll look into adjusting these numbers a bit to see if we can find out who was the best offensive player in the nation.

Kent                     John VanBenschoten       1.533
Southern                 Michael Woods            1.479
Southern                 Rickie Weeks             1.394
Delaware State           Scott Martin             1.367
Florida State            John-Ford Griffin        1.356
Tennessee                Chris Burke              1.352
Nebraska                 Dan Johnson              1.327
Maine                    Jon Hambelton            1.318
Marshall                 Jason Brooks             1.288
Memphis                  Daniel Uggla             1.288
McNeese State            Kevin Mitchell           1.286
Monmouth                 Jason Law                1.274
Cincinnati               Kevin Youkilis           1.263
Northern Iowa            Ryan Brunner             1.263
Stony Brook              Alex Trezza              1.239
William and Mary         Brendan Harris           1.238
Clemson                  Jeff Baker               1.232
Western Carolina         Alan Beck                1.230
Utah                     Chris Shelton            1.212
Southeast Missouri State Clemente Bonilla         1.209
Ohio                     Ryan Kyes                1.204
Toledo                   Phil Pilewski            1.202
Southern Utah            Curtis Jacobsen          1.187
Miami, Ohio              Jason Knoedler           1.185
Michigan                 Brock Koman              1.180

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