For O's, on-base percentage is a priority to reach for

Beattie, Flanagan make getting on base a top goal

March 19, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - When the Orioles started analyzing a potential trade for Jack Cust this past winter, they looked at his minor-league numbers and decided batting average, home runs and runs batted in - baseball's Mount Rushmore of statistical categories - didn't tell the whole story.

The Orioles liked the fact Cust had averaged 26 home runs over the past four years, but the number that really stood out was his on-base percentage: .439.

They sealed the deal last week, getting Cust from the Colorado Rockies for outfielder Chris Richard.

This has become a recurring theme in recent years, with the letters OBP becoming more important to baseball evaluators than RBIs. Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman, among others, have been building successful offenses by emphasizing on-base percentage, and the rest of baseball has taken notice.

Now, with Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie running the Orioles' baseball operations department, it looks like another organization is down with OBP.

"I don't know what was done here in the past, but it's certainly in a lot of our conversations now," Beattie said. "And it's a major part of what we're teaching at the minor-league level."

To calculate on-base percentage, one takes the number of times reached base (hits, walks and hit-by-pitch) and divides that by the number of plate appearances. In some ways, by stressing this now, the Orioles are returning to their past.

"That was certainly [Earl] Weaver's battle cry," Flanagan said. "When things were going poorly and we weren't scoring, the whole thing was get on base for the next guy. Take the walk or whatever it takes."

The Orioles had the second-worst on-base percentage in the American League last season at .309. They also had the worst batting average (.246), drew the second-fewest walks (452) and scored the second-fewest runs (667).

Their attempts to upgrade the offense through free agency and trade have been limited, so it could be more of the same this season, unless there's a lineup-wide improvement in performance.

They signed Deivi Cruz to replace Mike Bordick at shortstop because they liked the bargain and they liked Cruz's glove, even if his career OBP is .294. Perhaps their biggest boost will come from B.J. Surhoff (career OBP .331), who looks healthy and poised to replace the injured David Segui as the No. 3 hitter in the Opening Day lineup.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove has stressed the need for the rest of his hitters to improve their OBP, as well.

"I don't think you're teaching old dogs new tricks," Hargrove said. "I think you're teaching athletes a better way to do something. The more opportunities you give yourself to score runs, the better off you are. That's what we're looking to do, obviously, is increase our run production."

Hargrove, Flanagan and Beattie watched the Anaheim Angels march to a World Series title in October and decided that could be one way to model the Orioles' offensive approach.

The Angels wore down opposing pitchers by fouling off pitches, avoiding strikeouts, drawing walks, stringing together base hits and being aggressive on the base paths. Looking at last season's statistics, the Orioles out-homered the Angels 165-152 and nearly matched them in doubles 311-333.

But the Angels outscored the Orioles 851-667.

The reason? Anaheim had 236 more singles than the Orioles and 188 more walks.

The Angels' OBP was .341.

"I think when you see things like that happen, you try to model yourself after those types of teams," Hargrove said. "We're more a team like the Angels than we are a team that just has mashers, like the Yankees or Boston."

The increased on-base efforts don't just apply to Orioles leadoff hitter Jerry Hairston, whose OBP jumped from .305 two years ago to .329 last year.

They also apply to budding young power hitter Jay Gibbons.

In 2000, Gibbons posted a .404 OBP at Double-A Tennessee in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization, but in two years with the Orioles, his OBP is .308.

"I used to be the guy with the walks, hitting to all fields, and I can get back to that," Gibbons said. "I really think you can change if you want to."

Regardless of what happens this season with the major- league club, Beattie and Flanagan hope to build a new foundation in the farm system. Minor- league director Doc Rogers is putting together a minor-league manual, and hitters will eventually have written guidelines for OBP.

"You don't just pay it lip service in spring training and kind of let it slide," Beattie said. "Every day when you get into the batting cage, you focus on it and say, `This is what we're trying to do.' "

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