Baseball’s official historian John Thorn has a fascinating article about the origin of batting average. I didn’t know until reading it that the origin of this statistic can be traced all the way back to Henry Chadwick:
Did you know that slugging average is older than the batting average, and was tossed aside in favor of it? And if so, do you know why? I did not, until I came upon Henry Chadwick’s “The True Test of Batting,” in The Ball Players’ Chronicle of September 19, 1867. (I was rummaging through old newspapers, looking for something else in another early baseball weekly; more on that soon.) Chadwick’s article is a genuine crossroads in the history of baseball statistics.
Bases on balls were still uncommon events, having been introduced for the 1864 season, and no one thought of them as batters’ achievements, nor would they for decades to come. So the need for an on base average was not evident. Chadwick had already posited a primitive version of the slugging percentage, with total bases divided by number of games; change the denominator from games to at bats and you have today’s slugging percentage—which, incidentally, was not accepted by the National League as an official statistic until 1923 and the American until 1946. Chadwick’s “total bases average” represented the game’s first attempt at a weighted average—a huge conceptual leap forward from, first, counting, and next, averaging. The weighted average is in fact the cornerstone of today’s statistical innovations.
The article goes on to point out that Chadwick actually had a preference for what we now know to be on base percentage:
Chadwick’s bias against the long ball was in large measure responsible for the game that evolved. What he valued most in the early days was the low scoring game marked by brilliant fielding. In the early annual guides, he listed all the “notable” games between significant teams—i.e., those in which the winner scored fewer than ten runs!
What I did not recognize until now was that the triumph of the batting average was not merely a product of Chadwick’s preference for the scientific style over the brutish slugging. It was his recognition that most runs were scored through some combination of errors (muffs), which were easily counted, and misplays, which were not. In the 1860s a single might easily become a tainted extra-base hit, indistinguishable in the box score from a legitimate one. So in discarding the old practice of crediting batters with only Outs (hit into or run into) and Runs, Chadwick held—and correctly, given the state of the early game—that times reached base on undeniably safe hits was a superior measure to the bases gathered on that hit.
The beauty of this is that we have now come full circle. Thanks to Billy Beane and Moneyball, on-base percentage has once again become a valued statistic. Of course, who knew that we owed such a debt of gratitude to Henry Chadwick for coming up with the statistic in the first place.