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How to Win: On-Base Percentage

I know what you're thinking: OBP isn't a category in traditional 5x5 leagues! I have noticed that (and lamented, being a member of the Moneyball generation), but that doesn't mean On-Base doesn't matter. You know that too, of course, deep down. A hitter with a high OBP will have more opportunities to score runs and steal bases. Also, these hitters can take pitches, which I can imagine leads to more homers and RBI's, and higher batting averages. Or maybe those things drive On-Base up. Either way, they go together. Since OBP doesn't show up among the sortable stats on your fantasy website (unless they're a category in your league), finding players with high numbers here can be a great way to sneakily get slightly-better hitters for your overall team. Finally, hitters who can get on base are much more likely to stay in the lineup, or on top of the lineup. So basically, OBP is great.

Of course, you might play in a league that isn't precisely 5x5--if that's the case then you already love high-OBP hitters, because you directly benefit from them, via walks, OPS, or OBP as a straight-up replacement for batting average. There are many choices.

2012's Top 24 
(Min. 350 PA)

1. Joey Votto, .474
2. Joe Mauer, .416
3. David Ortiz, .415
4. Prince Fielder, .412
5. Buster Posey, .408
6. Andrew McCutchen, .400
7. Mike Trout, .399
8. John Jaso, .394
9. Carlos Ruiz, .394
10. Miguel Cabrera, .393
11. Ryan Braun, .391
12. David Wright, .391
13. Miguel Montero, .391
14. Melky Cabrera, .390
15. Dexter Fowler, .389
16. Edwin Encarnacion, .384
17. David Murphy, .380
18. Matt Holliday, .379
19. Robinson Cano, .379
20. Austin Jackson, .377
21. Ben Zobrist, .377
22. Chase Headley, .376
23. Jon Jay, .373
24. Yadier Molina, .373 

The first thing I notice here is just how much higher Votto is than everyone else. If your league does OBP instead of AVG, he might belong among the top couple draft picks. A couple other guys on this list aren't high at all on most draft boards: John Jaso, Dexter Fowler, David Murphy, and Jon Jay. In anything but a standard league, all these guys could be starters at their positions. In 5x5, their OBP still adds value, but they remain second-stringers. If Ruiz wasn't suspended for PED's, I'd heartily recommend him. As it is, I don't see a lot of reason to stash a catcher you can't use and can't put on the DL.

OBP-AVG

Some players get a big value boost from batting average, which is fine, especially in a standard league. Other players lose value from low averages, but you can find extra-useful players of both types by simply finding the players who get the most of their OBP from walks. Also, these players are the ones most likely to put up high On-Base Percentages next year, even if BABIP treats them poorly. They'll also benefit from extra steals and extra runs, relative to other hitters with a similar batting average.

1. Joey Votto, .137
2. Carlos Pena, .133
3. Adam Dunn, .129
4. Dan Uggla, .128
5. John Jaso, .118
6. Travis Hafner, .118
7. Jose Bautista, .117
8. Mike Napoli, .116
9. Jonny Gomes, .115
10. Mark Reynolds, .114
11. Carlos Santana, .113
12. Carlos Quentin, .113
13. Chase Utley, .109
14. Alex Avila, .109
15. Ben Zobrist, 107
16. Josh Willingham, .106
17. Miguel Montero, .105
18. John Buck, .105
19. Edwin Encarnacion, .105
20. A.J. Ellis, .103
21. Kevin Youkilis, .101
22. Matt Joyce, .100
23. Russell Martin, .100
24. Prince Fielder, .099
25. Rickie Weeks, 0.98 

This list is certainly headlined by two types of player: high power, low average guys, and some of the best hitters in baseball. Notice also, players who had down years last year (Youk, Weeks) and, for some reason, quite a few catchers. Catching runs really deep this year, but there's all the more reason to wait till the end to take your backstop if you play in a league that rewards walks or OBP. Alternatively, you would be more justified in paying the premium price for Mauer, Santana, or Napoli.

OBP + Speed

In fantasy baseball, we love power/speed combos. We really like speedy guys with good batting averages too. Maybe more important than either, however, is the OBP of our speedsters. The more they get on the more they steal. When we draft  someone for steals, especially towards the middle and late rounds, each steal they might add is more important than a homer or two, or a handful of points of batting average.

So here are some high OBP (.340 or above) speedsters (20 steals or more): Mike Trout, Michael Bourn, Jose Reyes, Juan Pierre, Jose Altuve, Ryan Braun, Norichika Aoki, Alejandro De Aza, Jason Heyward,* Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Andrew McCutchen, Dustin Pedroia, Carlos Gonzalez

*Heyward's OBP was only .335, but he's got a history of high On-Base years, and he's a great bet to top that number next year.

Speed Without OBP

Here are some guys to watch out for: the opposite of the players listed above. They stole plenty of bases (20 or more), but their low OBP's (under .320) kept them from nabbing more. This also limited their chances to bat at the top of the order and score runs, always a nice bonus from a speedster. Here they are: Rajai Davis, Carlos Gomez, Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton, Jimmy Rollins, Drew Stubbs, Ichiro Suzuki, Jordan Schafer, Cameron Maybin, Michael Saunders, Danny Espinosa, Alexei Ramirez

Some of these guys are great players, and great for fantasy...but remember to discount them for their walk avoidance, and remember that some of them could find themselves sitting next to Davis, their headliner: on the bench.

A Few Final Words

Whether or not your league directly counts OBP, checking this stat is similar to looking at a pitcher's peripheral stats: it tells you a lot about what kind of hitter he is, and what kind of opportunities he'll have to help you in whichever categories your league does score. High OBP hitters are key to maximizing your potential in steals and runs scored. In fact, my Runs Scored article has two sections devoted to the high OBP hitters you might want. If you didn't read it already, check it out. For me, OBP can make a great tiebreaker between two players of otherwise similar value. When comparing similar guys, whether at the top or bottom of a draft, the one who gets on more often is almost always the better choice.


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