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June 7, 2006

Prospectus Today

OBP Is Life

by Joe Sheehan

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OBP is Life. Life is OBP.

That's not mine. It's Gary Huckabay's, one of the many pithy-but-salient observations he's made over the years. It's one I've been repeating a lot this morning as I talk about the Yankees' success. Despite losing $24 million worth of corner outfielders, getting nothing from a $10 million starter (Carl Pavano) and below-average pitching from another $20 million combo (Jaret Wright and Randy Johnson), the Yankees are 35-22, atop the AL East by a game-and-a-half and tied for the second-best record in baseball.

The Yankees have achieved their success by leading the majors in runs scored with 344, and they've done that by leading the planet in OBP with a whopping .375 mark. You can't understate how impressive that figure is. The post-1900 record for OBP is .385, set by the 1950 Red Sox. (Six teams, including three John McGraw/Hughie Jennings Orioles squads, topped that figure between 1894 and 1897.) Just 19 teams have ever had a .375 OBP, and none have done so since those '50 Sox. Since then, a mere two teams have cracked .370: the 1994 Yankees and the 1999 Indians. The latter is the only team in the last 56 years to score 1000 runs, while the former went into the season-ending strike second in the AL in runs scored.

Even during the recent high-offense era--called another name by some, but not by me, not without more perspective--team OBPs tended to peak in the .360s. From 1993 through 2005, 21 teams had OBPs between .360 and .369, but only the aforementioned two cracked .370.

The Yankees' OBP is a reflection of both good hitting and a high walk rate. They're second in the AL with a .291 BA, and tied with the Red Sox for the league lead in walks drawn (252). Individually, they're being led by Jason Giambi--hey, did I ever point out how stupid I was for getting on the "Giambi needs two weeks in Columbus" bandwagon last year?--at .458. Derek Jeter is combining a career-high walk rate (32 in 248 PA) with a near-career-high BA (.344) to post a .435 OBP. Jorge Posada is resurgent at .420 while Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon are right around expectations.

When you have a core of players who combine for better than a .400 OBP, you can get away with a lot of lineup problems. You can get away with a DH/OF hitting .265/.312/.365, the way Bernie Williams is. You can survive a spate of injuries that forces Bubba Crosby and then Terrence Long into the lineup. You can survive the decline of Randy Johnson and the pumpkinization of Shawn Chacon and Aaron Small, not to mention a bullpen so shaky that Scott Proctor might throw 110 innings.

That's why the Yankees are in first place right now, and why they may very well stay there all season long in spite of a series of injuries and disappointing performances. The power of a high team OBP is that strong.

Take a look at the list of high-OBP teams. Since the strike zone and mound were returned to their upright and locked positions in 1969, 22 teams have posted a .360 OBP or better.

                     OBP   Record   Place

1994 Yankees        .374    70-43       1
1999 Indians        .373    97-65       1
1996 Indians        .369    99-62       1
2000 Indians        .367    90-72       2
1994 White Sox      .366    67-46       1
1996 Mariners       .366    85-76       2
1999 Yankees        .366    98-64       1
1998 Yankees        .364   114-48       1
1999 Mets           .363    97-66       2
1993 Tigers         .362    85-77       4
1997 Yankees        .362    96-66       2
2000 Rockies        .362    82-80       4
2000 Giants         .362    97-65       1
2000 Mariners       .361    91-71       2
1999 Rangers        .361    95-67       1
2000 Astros         .361    72-90       4
1995 Indians        .361   100-44       1
1996 White Sox      .360    85-77       2
1996 Yankees        .360    92-70       1
2001 Mariners       .360   116-46       1
2003 Red Sox        .360    95-67       2
2000 A's            .360    91-70       1
All data thanks to Lee Sinins' Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia and baseball-reference.com.

I haven't gotten into park or era factors here, and those are obviously important given that every one of the above teams played in the past 13 years. Nevertheless, the relationship between a very high OBP and team success is pretty clear. Not only were most of these teams good, the list includes two record-breaking teams--the 1998 Yankees and 2001 Mariners--plus a team that might have been just as good as those two but played a shortened season, the 1995 Indians. Twenty-one of 22 teams finished above .500, 19 finished no worse than in second place and 16 of them made the postseason.

In the divisional era, having a .360 team OBP gives you a better than 70% chance of being a playoff team. The Yankees have more going for them than just a high OBP, but it's that high OBP--in fact, a historic one--that drives their offense and their chance of winning a ninth consecutive AL East crown.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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