... a walk is as good as a hit. That is why, according to modern day baseball numbers-crunchers, on base percentage is a better gauge of a batter's effectiveness than the old-fashioned batting average.
"A walk is as good as a hit."
That's a baseball axiom with which I became very familiar as a kid, having heard it called out to me by my teammates virtually every time I stepped into the batter's box. They knew that if I kept the bat on my shoulder there would be at least a chance that I'd reach base safely with a base on balls. Whereas, if I swung away, I'd run the risk of actually making contact with the pitch resulting in, at best, a weak ground out to an infielder. More likely, I'd simply swing and miss, and three such futile attempts would guarantee my return to the bench in disgrace (so what else was new?). Thus in my case waiting and hoping for a walk wasn't just a good strategy: it was the only strategy.
And guess what? My teammates were right -- a walk is as good as a hit. That is why, according to modern day baseball numbers-crunchers, on base percentage is a better gauge of a batter's effectiveness than the old-fashioned batting average. A guy who hits for a .275 average and has a .350 OBP is of more value to his team than someone who hits .290 but has an OBP of only .315.
On base percentage is easy to calculate; simply add up the number of times a batter reaches base via a hit, walk, or hit by a pitch and divide that by the number of plate appearances he makes and voila! You've figured out his OBP. It just doesn't have the cache of a batting average, though, much less that of a batting streak.
That explains why Joe DiMaggio's streak of getting a base hit in 56 consecutive games is one of the most iconic in all of baseball while the record of reaching base safely is hardly even known to the average fan. But it is at least as impressive. In 1949, Ted Williams reached base safely in every game from July 1st through September 27th -- that's 84 consecutive games. There are only two times in baseball history that record has even been approached, and one of those times it was by Williams himself in 1941, when he reached safely in 73 consecutive games. No one was paying much attention, though, because it was done in the shadow of DiMaggio's hitting streak, which was preceded by a game in which he drew a walk; he also drew a walk in the game in which his hitting streak ended, and then went on another hitting streak of 16 games, making it a grand total of 74 games in a row reaching base. It was an unbelievable streak, but still 10 games shy of what Williams accomplished in 1949.
No one other than DiMaggio and Williams himself in '41 has ever come within 20 games of challenging the 84 game record. The best any active player has done is 48 consecutive games, a mark reached by Joey Votto of the Reds in 2013 and matched by Mike Trout of the Angels in 2015.
Streaks are one thing, but the true measure of effectiveness is how one performs over the long haul, so let's take a look at the lifetime on base percentage records. Whaddayaknow? There at the top of the list is Ted Williams with an average of .482. That means he was on base almost half the time he came up to hit, not just when he was having good years but over the course of his entire career, which spanned parts of four decades, 1939-1960. That's a record for the ages, one which will probably never be broken.
Trailing Williams, with an OBP of .474, is Babe Ruth, who was also a pretty good hitter. Behind them at .466 is John McGraw, who played the vast majority of his games in the 19th century. To put Williams' record into perspective, the active player with the highest OBP is Votto at .422, 60 points lower than that of Ted. Trout (.418) is the only other current player who exceeds .400.
The other great measuring stick of a batter's effectiveness is slugging percentage, which measures the total bases a player accumulates. The leader in slugging is, no surprise, Babe Ruth, who had a slugging percentage of .690. Following him at a respectful distance with a SLG of .634 is -- you guessed it -- Ted Williams. He edges out Lou Gehrig, who finished at .632. Williams always said his ambition was to be the greatest hitter of all time. Were it not for the imposing figure of Ruth, he would have achieved it, hands down.
The elephant in the room with all these numbers is, of course, Barry Bonds, whose on base and slugging percentages exploded by almost as much as his hat size with the dawning of the steroids era. Between 1991 and 2001, his OBP jumped by over 100 points and his SLG by more than 200 points. And in 2001 he was 37 years old, an age where most players, if they haven't already retired, are planning to do so. Bonds was just starting on a four-year binge during which he would shatter practically every hitting record extant and win almost no friends in the process. The steroids era was an unhappy time for baseball and its disfigurement of the record books looks more and more gross with the passage of time. Former baseball commissioner Bud Selig, in his recently-published memoir, devoted the entire first chapter to how unhappy he was as Bonds broke record after record, forever tainting the sacred annals of the grand old game.
All that being said, none of my teammates had Barry Bonds, Ted Williams or Babe Ruth in mind when they'd call out to me, "A hit is as good as a walk." They were just trying to save me from myself. Alas, they seldom succeeded.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.