Tom Tango’s Triple-Slash Conundrum

MLB Senior Data Architect Tom Tango posed an interesting question on Twitter today:

The best questions are usually simple, and this one is perfect. What does average matter? What does slugging percentage mean in the context of two different batting averages? If your OBP and slugging are the same, does it even matter how you get to them?

The first-level answer is “give me the average.” If I’m going to get the same OBP and slug, I’ll do it with extra hits, because hits advance more runners. As you can see, that was the most common answer on the poll.

Go a level up, and you might end up where I was at first. With a lower batting average but the same slugging percentage, Player B is hitting for a ton of power. An easy way to think about the trade-off is that Player B is getting the same number of bases per at-bat (slugging percentage) and reaching base as often (on-base percentage), which means there’s an exchange where Player B adds a base to a hit (stretching a single into a double or a double into a triple) and converts a single to a walk.

Since the increase in wOBA value from adding a base to a hit is higher in every instance than the loss from changing a single to a walk, option B looks like it should be better. But wait! Slugging percentage and on-base percentage don’t look at the same population of plate appearances. Slugging percentage only cares about at-bats, while OBP cares about all plate appearances.

Player A slugs a ton (the league average slugging percentage is .436), and does so on more plate appearances than Player B. Put another way, both players are above average at getting on base over the exact same number of plate appearances. Both players also generate an above-average number of bases per at-bat — but Player A gets to do so over more at-bats. It’s not a clean tradeoff, not exactly exchanging a hit for a walk and an extra base, because the two ratios have different denominators.

In fact, the question was carefully calibrated — take a look at these two players with 1000 PA each:

Player Comparison
Metric Player A Player B
PA 1000 1000
Outs 635 635
Singles 186 95
Doubles 63 77
Triples 11 15
HR 32 36
Walks 73 142
BA 0.315 0.260
OBP 0.365 0.365
Slug 0.510 0.510
wOBA 0.367 0.367

The lines are so close that which player has more value changes based on whether you use 2019 weights or pre-rabbit-ball weights for wOBA.

The general concept holds true for other weights as well. Take a look at two worse hitters with the same trade-off:

Player Comparison (but worse)
Metric Player A Player B
PA 1000 1000
Outs 680 680
Singles 171 117
Doubles 35 40
Triples 8 10
HR 33 38
Walks 73 115
BA 0.266 0.232
OBP 0.320 0.320
Slug 0.428 0.428
wOBA 0.318 0.318

If you want to know how good a hitter is, wOBA is great, and wRC+ is even better if you want to adjust for park and league. If you can’t have wOBA, though, you don’t even need batting average — two hitters with identical OBP and SLG are probably going to be very similar, regardless of whether they get there mostly with walks and extra bases, or mostly with singles. That’s a neat little fact.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Mean Mr. Mustard
2 years ago

This is an interesting thought experiment; it’s really hard to choose one just based on what’s given.
Without any further information, I’d likely take player B, as they’re more likely to drive themselves in or be in scoring position.
However, if player A has teammates who also get on base with frequency, the greater quantity of hits might lead to more runs driven in as well as frequently being in scoring position.

EDIT: I scrolled to comment before reading the meat of your article and realized belatedly that you made basically the same arguments, albeit without the teammate angle.

2 years ago

The value to the team does hinge on the rest of the team.
Oftentimes it’s not justhow good tbe best player is but how well the mix of skills balance out. A team with a lot of power but lousy defense or low OBP won’t get the full benefit of the bat. The total lineup matters.

Also defense, not addressed by the thought experiment.
What the bat gives, the glove throws away.
We’re seeing this in the depreciation of bat-only 1B/DH types.

2 years ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Right, a real life choice between those two players would depend on the rest of the lineup and where the manager was going to choose to hit the chosen player. wOBA deliberately strips all context from every plate appearance, which is helpful in some ways, but is not necessarily ideal for lineup construction. As mentioned elsewhere, you’d also want to think about BABIP, HR/FB and other things that can indicate luck on batted balls. You could explore this question so many ways!

2 years ago
Reply to  lilpudge

That’s why WAR is so prevalent. It tries to roll in more factors than the traditional rate stats.

A WAR-based thought experiment might be interesting. Two equal but drastically divergent 5 WAR types.

Mean Mr. Mustard
2 years ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Given that these hitters will face the gamut of defenses from world-beating to atrocious over the course of the season, I didn’t feel that would be worth considering (for the purposes of this thought experiment), especially since the parameters of the question don’t include how well their teams do – just the value of the hitters themselves.
However, a team’s lineup remains fairly constant given good health, so felt that was worth considering.