Sabermetrics: wOBA

For my second sabermetrics post, I thought I would talk about a complex sabermetric that combines many simpler, more widely understood statistics: wOBA, or weighted On-Base Average. An improvement from the tradition triple slash-line, the goal of wOBA is to assess a player’s “offensive value” in measuring how capable a hitter is of moving himself and his teammates around the bases to generate runs.

Before I attempt to explain wOBA itself, however, it is important to understand the simpler stats that factor into wOBA. Batting average measures how often a player gets a hit, but does not factor in walks. On-base percentage measures how often a player reaches base, regardless of how. Slugging percentage weighs how many bases a hitter covers per hit, but does not include walks. wOBA attempts to combine all of these stats into a number that takes into account not only how many bases are covered per hit, but the odds of a hit also removing another play from a base, so it takes walks into account.

The formula itself uses average weights of how valuable a type of hit is to the overall possibility of said type of hit generating a score in order to correctly factor in all ways of reaching base (walks, hits, homers, getting hit by pitch) to calculate what a player contributes offensively.

With that in mind, I’ll let FanGraphs present the wOBA formula:

wOBA = (0.690×uBB + 0.722×HBP + 0.888×1B + 1.271×2B + 1.616×3B +
2.101×HR) / (AB + BB – IBB + SF + HBP)

**FanGraphs specifies that the weights in this formula are for the 2013 season, and change slightly each year.**

It is important to remember that wOBA does not take into account disparities in ballparks (some ballparks are considered “hitters ballparks,” meaning it is easier to hit a home run, for example, based on the outfield configuration/ length of the outfield than other ballparks) or in-game context (this includes runners on base or the score of the game during the player’s at-bat).

In general, an average wOBA is about .320, with anything above that being about average to excellent; excellent is .400. There are a number of MLB players currently with season wOBA averages significantly above even the excellent mark. They are all in close contention,  none of their names are surprising, and some have absolutely fabulous haircuts. Joey Votto (.429), Bryce Harper (.427) and Aaron Judge/Paul Goldschmidt (.426) are the current 2017 wOBA leaders. These players, then, are exemplary in scoring production solely from the plate–stolen bases and other on-base events do not factor into wOBA, so these guys are some true productive sluggers.

Cue Bryce Harper hair flip.

The Wiffle Ball League

In eighth grade, my Little League Juniors team came in first place in our league. I don’t remember how I played in that game, what our celebration was, or how our trophies looked. I don’t even remember which team we beat.

The only detail I remember about that game was that it would be, until now, the last baseball game I ever played.

Let’s get this out of the way now: knowing that I am a woman, I bet you expected that the word following “last game of” in the above sentence would be “softball.” Instead, I wrote baseball. Because I played baseball for over eight years leading up to high school, in your neighborhood-usually-all-male-only-except-for-me-and-two-other-girls-who-quit-eventually-so-then-it-was-just-me Little League. I played until age 14, when I was barred from trying out for my high school baseball team and then offered a spot on the varsity softball team as a consolation. I bitterly declined, pursued track and field instead (I never got caught stealing one base in my entire Little League life) and thus ended my baseball “career.”

I have not played any form of baseball–not during the summer with the boys, not on vacation on the beach, not in college intramurals–since that last game in eighth grade.

That is, until three weeks ago, when two of my friends commissioned an informal summer Wiffle Ball League. Once a week, we play a casual, six inning game where the only shoes on the field are the flip-flops that make up the bases, as footwear is strictly prohibited on the field. We play with whoever shows up, and then we usually go to the pool. It’s a great way to hang out with our friends, laugh and play a casual game.

But for me? Not exactly…

Playing wiffle ball has been one of the strangest, most déjà vu-inducing experiences of my life. When I stepped into the “batter’s box” three weeks ago, wielding the much-too-light and much-too-thin yellow wiffle ball bat, I realized the game was not, and never could be, casual for me.

Every aspect of my baseball life came rushing back. I remembered the batter’s box jitters, the quick mental checklist of my stance, my pre-plate ritual–tap home plate with the bat and whip it around once before settling into my stance–and even the way I used to try to lock eyes with the pitcher before he entered his windup. I remembered just how much playing baseball is so damn fun.

But I also remembered the crippling nerves; the awkwardness of a woman in a “man’s” game, the expectation of failure based on my ponytail–which was much longer back then–and the knowledge that every strikeout, every mistake, every swing-and-miss even, was a silent affirmation to everyone that I was in over my head.

Wiffle ball is a game anyone can be amazing at. Some of our players, who had until now never picked up a bat, can routinely smack screaming grounders and high flies to deep left center with the most creative swings I have ever seen. That’s the beauty of wiffle ball–you can hit a comfortable triple by swinging only with one hand.

At today’s game, I found myself up at the plate in the bottom of the 6th–and last–inning, with runners on second and third and two outs, my team down by one run. Everyone was laughing and joking about the “intensity” of the moment, except for me; in case you haven’t noticed, I am ridiculously competitive and serious about anything baseball related.

My at-bat was twelve pitches, culminating in a quiet groundout to end the inning and the game.

During that at-bat, I kept flashing back to Little League playoffs, where I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders not only because I was a member of a team that I wanted to contribute to, but also because I was the girl. I know that is not true of the Wiffle Ball League. Looking back, I probably should have closed my eyes and swung the bat like I was hitting a piñata–then maybe I would’ve hit a homer.

For better or for worse, the Wiffle Ball League has forced me to revisit memories from T-Ball to Juniors. From the smell of the grass to the surprised cheers when I got a hit to the sexist taunts from players in the “good game” line, I remember everything.

But above all, the Wiffle Ball League has reminded me how much I love baseball from every perspective–not just as a fan and writer, but as a participant as well.