Mike Jacobs Doesn't Do OBP

Forgive the lack of Pirates coverage, but it's a slow weekend and I'm always fascinated when players say stuff like this from new Royal first baseman Mike Jacobs:

“I don’t walk a lot,” Jacobs said. “I believe that when you’re in the middle of the lineup, you’re in the middle of the lineup for a reason — to drive in runs and put the ball in play and try to do damage.”

Walks? Who needs stinkin’ walks?

Hmmm. Wonder if Trey Hillman will agree next spring.

Jacobs did go on to say, “I think I can truly be a .275, .280 hitter in the big leagues. And if I’m hitting .280 or .270 in the big leagues, my on-base percentage is going to be around .320.”

There are a number of problems here:

1) Other than a 30-game sample in his 2005 debut, Jacobs has never batted higher than .265 in a season. Last year he hit .247. He certainly could hit .280, but I wouldn't bet on it.

2) For a starting first baseman, a .320 OBP shouldn't be an aspiration. It should be a baseline, a beginning point. Every qualifying first baseman except Jacobs posted an OBP above .320 last year. Jacobs does have more power than many of them, but still.

3) Jacobs makes the crucial mistake of thinking he's helping his team by playing a role, rather than by actually producing. (Which, come to think of it, is what the Royals may also be doing.) The goal of any hitter is to create offense, and there are any number of ways to do this. If you're especially lacking in any one of them, you have to make it up some other way.

A place in the lineup is not the same as a position in the field. A second baseman does not need to be able to gun down a runner trying to steal second. A catcher does not need to be able to chase down a deep fly ball into the gap. Those skills might be impressive, but they would not in and of themselves make the second baseman any better at playing second base, or a catcher any better at catching.

A position in the lineup is different, in that no matter where you are, you can still help your team by using a skill more commonly associated with another part of the lineup. A No. 8 hitter who improves his on-base percentage will improve his team and thereby become a better No. 8 hitter. A leadoff hitter who hits for more power helps his team, and thereby becomes a better leadoff hitter.

We can think of this whenever someone says that, for example, Nyjer Morgan doesn't need to hit for power because that's not his role. If he doesn't hit for power, he has to compensate for it in some other way. And if he lacks power even compared to other leadoff hitters, then he needs to be especially good at other things.

When it comes to offense, there are any number of ways to skin a cat. A team does not need a prototypically speedy leadoff man like Morgan, followed by a situational hitter, followed by a couple of all-around hitters, followed by some low-OBP sluggers like Jacobs, followed by a glove-first middle infielder. Of course, most teams tend to take the players they have and order them that way, but if you don't have exactly that distribution of players, you shouldn't worry about it--instead, you should try to make the best of what you have.

Worrying too much about archetypes only limits your options. The Pirates wasted over a decade wasting their time with terrible centerfielders (Jacob Brumfield, Jermaine Allensworth, Adrian Brown, Tike Redman, Chris Duffy) because they couldn't get their idea of what a top-of-the-order hitter ought to look like out of their heads. Ironically, they had a potentially great one in the good-hitting, first-pitch-taking Jason Kendall who batted elsewhere in the lineup for much of that time. (The Pirates briefly got it right in parts of 1999 and other seasons.)

The case of Redman, who was given chance after chance despite dismal performances and an undistinguished minor league record, was especially egregious. The only thing Redman had going for him was a two-month tryout in 2003 (after the Pirates traded an actual good archetypal leadoff hitter in Kenny Lofton) in which he really did seem to be the sort of sparkplug every manager dreams about at the top of his order.

So of course OBP is relevant for a player like Jacobs. It's relevant for all players. Jacobs limits himself by accepting the idea that drawing walks isn't his role, just as the Pirates limited themselves by accepting terrible ballplayers as No. 1 and No. 2 hitters just because they happened to be fast. (And if the categorization of Brumfield, Allensworth or Brown as speedy players strikes you as odd, go look at their minor league numbers.)

4) Jeez, if I were a player with a glaring weakness, I would want to fix it, not to minimize it. Not only is Jacobs delusional, but his willingness to explain away a major problem with his game bodes poorly for his future. In fact, he's playing a less dissonant variation on a theme already popularized by the immortal Shea Hillenbrand:

Hillenbrand said on-base percentage is overrated unless you're the leadoff batter. To me, if I get a 7-8-9 hitter on base, it don't mean [expletive] to me." ...

"They don't know what they have with me. If they get rid of me, they'll know what they have. You've heard of Jeff Bagwell?"

The guy with the .408 career OBP? Yep. It's safe to say that future generations will forget Shea Hillenbrand. And if Mike Jacobs doesn't fix his problems at the plate, he probably won't be remembered, either.

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