By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
A WALK’S AS GOOD AS A HIT
“A walk’s 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 be 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 1 st through September 27 th - 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 twenty
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
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
nineteenth century. To put Williams’ record into perspective, the active player with the
highest OBP is Votto at .422, sixty 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,
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 thirty seven 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’s as good as a walk.” They were just trying to
save me from myself. Alas, they seldom succeeded.