Team On-Base Percentage and a Balanced Lineup

Teams that get on base often score more runs than those that don’t. We know this, and it comes as no surprise. In 2013, the Red Sox had the highest team OBP (.349) and also scored the most runs in MLB. The Tigers had the second-highest team OBP (.346), and they scored the second-most runs. Team OBPs can tell us a lot about the effectiveness of an offense (obviously not everything), but they can also be misleading if proper context isn’t applied.

The Cardinals scored 783 runs in 2013, good enough for third in MLB. The rival Reds scored 698 runs, 85 fewer than the Cardinals. There are many reasons for this gap in runs scored, but I would like to examine just one of them.  The Cardinals had a team OBP of .332 while the Reds had a team OBP of .327. On first look, it appears that the Cardinals and Reds got on base at a similar rate. But a major difference exists below the surface. Take a look at the chart below of the top eight hitters by plate appearance for both teams (Chris Heisey gets the nod over Ryan Hanigan as to not have two Reds’ catchers on the list).

Reds OBP Cardinals OBP
Joey Votto .435 Matt Carpenter .392
Shin Soo Choo .423 Matt Holliday .389
Jay Bruce .329 Allen Craig .373
Todd Frazier .314 Yadier Molina .359
Brandon Phillips .310 John Jay .351
Devin Mesoraco .287 David Freese .340
Zack Cozart .284 Carlos Beltran .339
Chris Heisey .279 Pete Kozma .275

The difference is quite evident. The average OBP in 2013 was .318. Seven of the top eight Cardinal hitters got on base at an above-average clip. Besides the pitcher, there is one easy out in that lineup. The Cardinals maintained a ridiculous batting average with RISP, but that matters much more because they always had people on base.

On the other hand, the Reds had two on-base Goliaths. Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo camped out on the bases. They became one with the bases. The problem was that the Reds had only one more player with an above-average OBP, Jay Bruce at .329. The other five players struggled to get on base consistently. Three of them had OBPs under .300.

So while the Cardinals achieve a high team OBP through balance, the Reds had two hitters who significantly raised the team OBP. Take Votto and Choo away, and the other six Reds on this list have a combined OBP of .305. That is a staggering low number for six of the top hitters on a playoff team.

What does this teach us? Well, team OBPs do not provide insight into how balanced a lineup a team has. The Reds would be foolish to think they have a lineup that gets on base enough to be an elite offense. With the loss of Choo, the Reds offense may struggle to produce runs at a league-average clip as Votto and Bruce could be stranded on base countless times.

A balanced lineup was a major factor in the Cardinals scoring the most runs in the National League. Their team may have had an excellent .332 OBP, but their top eight hitters by plate appearance had a .355 OBP. As a group they were excellent. The Red Sox were similar in that their top eight hitters by plate appearances all had above-average OBPs with Stephen Drew coming in eighth at .333. Think about that! The Red Sox eighth-best hitter at getting on base was 15 points above league average.

Even though the Reds finished 6th in team OBP in 2013, their on-base skills were lacking. While the Cardinals had only a five-point advantage in team OBP over their rival, they were much more adept at clogging the bases. Team OBPs are great, they just don’t always tell the whole story.

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Brandon Firstname

Interesting argument, I wonder if this holds up over a larger sample. And if so, just how important is it?

This is similar to the concept in football where not only is the average yards per carry important, but the lower the standard deviation of a team’s yards per carry the better. If this is indeed true–that low standard deviations in team OBP cause for a team to outperform their average–we’ve just unearthed quite a little gem here.


So if I’m understanding correctly, your argument is this: Teams that have less variation among their primary hitters’ OBP will score more runs than we might expect based on their aggregate performance (and vice versa). Is that fair? Because I tested that and I don’t see it. Firstly, I calculated the residual of a team’s actual runs scored compared to the number of runs we would have expected them to score given their team OBP. (obviously other factors affect run scoring, but introducing them would be questions about their correlations with OBP). The Cards scored 36 runs more than their… Read more »


Thanks for the clarification and link to Brandon’s follow-up. I made the mistake of not noticing that your article was a bit old — followed a link from a new post on our forum. Your basic point is well taken and Brandon definitely covered the hypothesis you posed.