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Lucas Duda, James Loney, and the 39 reasons why you need to look beyond batting average

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Does a superficially good batting average wipe out everything else that a baseball player provides on the field? If you think so, the underlying numbers may surprise you.

San Diego Padres v New York Mets Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

One of the most interesting things that I’ve realized about baseball is how deep-rooted our understanding of the game is based on what we learned when we were between five and 15 years old. When we were just learning to play the game or learning to watch and appreciate it, we learned a few basic tenets. As we grew up and watched, those tenets became the common knowledge that informed our understanding of the game.

One of these tenets that every young baseball fan is taught early on? The “laws” surrounding batting average. The goal? Hit .300! It’s a fine goal and if every single player on a team in every situation hit .300, you’d score a lot of runs and win lots of games with even a decent pitching staff.

There are some people who dismiss batting average as a useless tool and I’ll let you know I’m not one of them. Given proper context, batting average is a perfectly useful and necessary tool that tells us a bit about the quality of contact a player is making along with the amount of luck they’re hitting into.

My problem with batting average, however, is twofold:

  1. When a superficially “good” batting average is considered the be-all, end-all of the metrics, even if that player lacks in other key areas.
  2. How many interpret a batting average at or below .250 to equal a “bad player”, which seems like an issue that harkens back to what we learned in our elementary baseball days.

This is all a way of saying that I am going to further address a cause I’ve taken up on Twitter, refuting the argument that current Mets first baseman James Loney is better than injured first baseman Lucas Duda. Somehow this myth has persisted and though I’ve admittedly beat it to death, I think having some numbers to back it up would do us all good.

Now, before I get screamed at for being mean to James Loney online, let’s get this out of the way here: James Loney has been a solid injury replacement. At 32 years old, he’s played well and before a slump this past week (he’s so consistent!), was having his best season since his resurgent 2013 in Tampa Bay. He’s likely doing the best he can do, he’s a far better option at first than Eric Campbell (that bar is so low that it melted into the Earth’s core months ago), and that’s commendable.

In a world where Lucas Duda is injured and you don’t want to spend money or trade chips for a reasonable facsimile or upgrade, James Loney has been a perfectly fine, not-terrible replacement.

Here’s the thing, though: if I cared a whit about James Loney’s feelings, I wouldn’t be writing about baseball in any form. A nice guy by all accounts, James Loney’s best in 2016, to this point, is still not enough to make him a better Major League Baseball starting first baseman than Lucas Duda.

I feel that the disconnect here, as I alluded to at the start, is our understanding of what results in the most runs and overall value to a baseball team. So with that in mind, I will present an argument I see (and forgive me if I smack a straw man on the way).

Argument: “James Loney hits .300! Lucas Duda hits .240! James Loney is better.”

Ah, there’s the old batting average. That .300 sure seems sexy but there’s a couple of problems here. From the jump, the most obvious one is that Lucas Duda combined to hit .249 the past two years and his batting average always gets nine points lopped off in every argument for some strange reason. I know, it’s only like a 10-hit difference but every hit is important. And, at the moment, James Loney is hitting .275 so let’s not exaggerate.

The more important thing that gets ignored with this argument is quite literally everything else that happens on a baseball field that isn’t a baseball player a) getting a hit or b) hitting into an out.

And there are a lot of those things that happen on a baseball field that batting average completely ignores. Walks and hit-by-pitches, both predictable skills from year-to-year, are incredibly important simply because they are not outs and we can’t ignore them. (If you don’t think hit-by-pitches are a skill, check out the careers of Chase Utley or Craig Biggio, among others.)

The other problem? Batting average works under the assumption that every type of hit is exactly the same. This should be intuitive but in case it isn’t, let’s isolate this problem with an example:

Juan Pierre and Alex Rodriguez are both career .295 hitters! So looking at just batting average alone, we would assume that Juan Pierre and Alex Rodriguez are equal-value players and worth the same number of runs offensively to their teams. Right? Well if that’s the case, Alex Rodriguez’s teams sure overpaid for their production.

With extreme cases like this, we can easily see and understand why Alex Rodriguez, a career .295/.380/.550 hitter, is the more valuable player than Juan Pierre, a career .295/.343/.361 hitter. Further, we can say this while meaning no offense to Juan Pierre, who was certainly a useful major league outfielder himself for a number of years but won’t (and shouldn’t) get the Hall of Fame consideration Alex Rodriguez will get in five years.

It’s the closer and less obvious differences that we have trouble understanding.

Duda, Loney, and why one of them is Good

In order to compare the two, I’ll base Duda on the (ironically consistent) average batting line of his 2014-15 seasons and Loney on his 2016 work up to this point, numbers pretty similarly in line with his 2014 and 2015 performance in Tampa.

For the record, my plan here is to make this argument entirely with regular old baseball card stats and not use advanced stats. This may upset our regular readership (sorry folks) but I’m doing this because I know you already understand that Duda is the better player since the advanced stats easily bear that out.

I’m writing this for the fans who are not advanced stat savvy. Hopefully you’ll see where I’m coming from.

Here are the batting lines we’re working with:

Duda: .249/.350/.483

Loney: .275/.320/.408

Let’s pull this out to a 162-game average for both:

PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO
Duda 648 555 80 138 34 33 93 2 3 77 154
Loney 635 590 53 162 28 3 15 63 33 76
Total Bases GDP HBP Sac Flies
Duda 268 12 13 4
Loney 241 20 8 3

Looking at batting average, .275 to .249 seems like a pretty huge difference but over 162 games, that’d be a difference of about 24 hits. That’s still a somewhat substantial number on its face but that difference ultimately gets wiped out when you account for walks and hit by pitches.

Now I fully realize that walks and hit by pitches aren’t totally equal to singles, which can move baserunners further than one base at a time. With very rare exceptions, a walk or a HBP moves runners on base just one base. But they’re pretty close in value to singles in that, simply, they put a runner at first base. So when we add the singles, walks, and HBP together for both players, we get 158 for Loney and 161 for Duda.

Wait, really? That’s awfully close, even if we still fully realize a single is inherently better than a walk.

That’s where all of the other stuff comes in. As you can see, Duda outdoubles Loney by six and outhomers him by 18, the latter of which is a pretty massive difference. That’s 24 more extra base hits (fine, 21 if you want to buy that James Loney will hit three triples even though his last triple before this season came in 2011 with the Dodgers) and 84 extra bases.

This difference naturally shows up when you look to the Runs and RBI categories. Now since a home run rewards the hitter with both a Run and an RBI, we can’t just add Runs and RBIs together since that would be double counting. To remedy this issue, we’ll subtract the home runs from the RBIs to leave a home run as worth one run. Even still, this leaves Duda with 140 runs (93 RBIs + 80 runs - 33 home runs) compared to Loney with 101 runs (63 RBIs + 53 runs - 15 home runs).

This is admittedly a very crude way of doing this but that comes out to a 39-run differential over a 162 game season. Putting that in context, the 2015 Mets scored 683 runs, placing them 17th overall in MLB. Chop off 39 runs from that total and their 644 runs would place them 25th in runs scored, dead even with the 80-win Tampa Bay Rays.

You may argue that I’m shortchanging Loney because his career 162 game averages are 76 RBIs and 60 runs. Maybe I am (even though the last three seasons, Loney’s averaging 64 RBIs and 53 runs). Fine, let’s go with the 76 RBIs and 60 runs. That still puts you at 121 runs, a whole 19 fewer runs than Duda would provide over a full season. Whether it’s 19 runs or 39 runs, we’re still operating at a loss.

The real simple answer? Getting on base more is good. Hitting home runs? Also good. Doing both of these things more often than not is really Good. Duda outhomering Loney by 18 over 162 games puts Loney in a deep hole at the start because a home run is literally a guaranteed run. Unless Todd Pratt is tackling Duda between first and second base on every ball he hits over the wall, it is the greatest possible hit you can have. It is a run and if people are on base for even one of those homers, you’re scoring even more runs!

In order to overcome the difference in home runs, James Loney would have to get on base a lot more than he does, either by hitting for a much higher average or walking more, along with being excellent with runners on base. A .275 batting average and .320 on-base percentage, or even Loney’s career .285/.337 mark with his power profile doesn’t come close to cutting it. Otherwise, a team is only depriving itself of potential runs on the board.

The problem with putting the ball in play

One thing that typically goes hand in hand with a low batting average is the strikeout, and baseball fans who live and die by batting average hate the strikeout. Are strikeouts great? No. Are they fun to watch? When it’s your hitter, no. To be honest, if I had a choice of any player, it would be a guy who doesn’t strike out and hits for power. The problem is that those guys are exceedingly rare. Most power hitters strike out at elevated rates somewhere between 20-30% of their plate appearances. It’s the nature of the beast.

Duda strikes out far more than Loney and players who strike out typically have lower batting averages. If we take what we know about BABIP, that over 162 games it usually hovers around the .300 mark for most players, strikeouts are a killer eating away at your potential batting average (that is unless you’re a freak like Mike Trout and can run a .358 career BABIP).

In the end, though, you have to take what you can get. How can you turn down an extra 39 runs over a full season? Will fewer strikeouts somehow lead to more runs scored? Will it lead to enough runs to come close to wiping out a 39-run differential? Sure, there are ways of scoring runs that don’t count as RBIs but run-scoring double plays, run-scoring errors, and things of that nature likely don’t happen frequently enough over a full season to wipe that differential out. If that’s the case, why exactly are we prioritizing batting average over plain old runs scored?

We also can’t ignore the big issue with hitting the ball in play: double plays. They are the true rally killers and contact hitters like James Loney hit into lots of them. Over their careers, Loney has hit into 153 double plays, an average of 18 per season. As recently as 2014, he hit into 21 double plays. Duda, on the other hand, has hit into 35 total double plays in his career, which averages out to eight per season. His career high came in 2015 with 12 and he’s never hit into more than nine in any other season. You’re taking potential runs off the board by hitting into double plays and runs are ultimately the name of the game.

Conclusion

By choosing James Loney over Lucas Duda, you’re telling me “I would prefer the Mets score 39 fewer runs over a full season.” Despite Loney’s sexier batting average and fewer strikeouts, the reality is that Duda’s home-run-heavy profile is worth a significantly larger number of runs. This is why you can find James Loney available for the league minimum salary.

We all love a nice batting average because when we were young, we were told that was the ideal. Hell, I’d prefer a high batting average and low strikeouts if I had the ability to create a perfect player. Many, however, assume anybody with a high batting average is a good player and anybody with a low batting average is bad, and this isn’t automatically true.

Runs are the currency of the game. When you dive into the numbers, you can see the reason why MLB teams will live with the low average and the strikeouts in exchange for the power. In the end, it’s all worth it when your team is pushing more runs across the plate. And that is Good.