I've been geeking out on sabermetrics of late.
That, combined with an interest to put the season (so far) of Pirates CF Andrew McCutchen into some kind of historical team perspective has me looking at OPS+ here on Friday, June 15th.
What is OPS+, you ask?
Well, I'm relatively new to this stuff myself, but as I've come to understand it:
OPS+ is the sum of a player's On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage while being adjusted for ballpark and league effects, then put on an understandable scale where '100' is the league average. If a player scores an OPS+ of 90, that is 10% below league average, whereas if a player is a 170, that's 70% better than league average (and really good).
While this metric doesn't account for baserunning, nor defense, and while it doesn't account for the difference in importance between On Base Percentage (proven to be twice as important in scoring runs) and Slugging Percentage, it does give a pretty good indication of how good a year a player has had, and makes it useable in comparing players on different years and different teams.
OPS+ is measuring a combination of how often a batter is not making an out, and how much power he is displaying, in the context of where and when it's happening.
In regards to McCutchen, right now baseball-reference.com has Andrew with a score of 158 in OPS+, good for 7th best in the NL and 12th best in baseball. McCutchen is thus 58% above league average. At this moment, his more traditional lines are a .326 batting average, with 11 HR, 3 3B, 10 2B, 21 BB, and 49 SO (with 37 RBI, 34 R, and 13SB… stats that don't matter to OPS+). Those project to a 162-game pace of 186 hits, 29 HR, and 26 2B, which with 97 RBI, 88 R, and 34 SB make for a really good season if McCutchen can keep up the pace.
Where would his 158 OPS+ and his offensive season rank in Pirates history?
Using OPS+ and looking back through the baseball-reference.com archives, here are a few of the best individual seasons in Pirates history that I found, selecting an all-time great's best individual OPS+ season:
#1 – "Honus" Wagner, with an OPS+ of 205 in 1908 (at age 34)
Honus' OPS+ was the best in the league in 1908, accumulated with a .354 average,10 HR, 19 3B, 39 2B, and 201 hits (with 109 RBI and 53 SB not factored in the formula). Wagner only struck out 22 times in 641 plate appearances. Keep in mind, also, that his 10 HR total was 2nd best in baseball that season, behind someone named Tim Jordan of the Brooklyn Superbas (later the Dodgers). That was also the last season the Chicago Cubs won a World Series, so perhaps things were just screwy. But actually, this was the norm for Honus as he put together a career OPS+ of 154 over 18 years with the Pirates, a number that would slot him top-25 all time in MLB career OPS+ (Babe Ruth leads the way with a career 206 OPS+).
#2 – Barry Bonds, with an OPS+ of 204 in 1992 (at age 27)
Bonds' OPS+ was the highest in the league in 1992 as he hit .311 with 34 HR, 5 3B, 36 2B, 147 hits, and 127 BB (with 103 RBI, 109 R, and 39 SB). His slugging percentage alone was .624 in 1992. Bonds is 3rd all time in MLB with a career OPS+ score of 182 when factoring in his literally unreal seasons in San Francisco. In 7 years with Pittsburgh, Barry's OPS+ was 147.
#3 – Arky Vaughan, with an OPS+ of 190 in 1935 (at age 23)
The best OPS+ of 1935 belonged to Vaughan (ahead of Jimmie Foxx), as Arky had a .385 batting average, 19 HR, 10 3B, 34 2B, 192 hits, 97 walks, and only 18 strikeouts in 609 plate appearances. The future Hall of Famer had an unreal season and got robbed of an MVP finishing 3rd behind Gabby Hartnett and Dizzy Dean. OK, so Dizzy won 28-games that year, not bad. But it's unfortunate the Pirates' third baseman that year Tommy Thevenow was hitting a Pedro Alvarez-like .238, with a 50 OPS+, or maybe the team would have won more games and Arky would have got his due. Vaughan's career OPS+ with the Pirates was 141 over 10 years.
tied#4 – Willie Stargell, with an OPS+ of 186 in 1973 (at age 33)
"Pops" had a league-best OPS+ in 1978 behind an incredible 44 HR, 3 3B, 43 2B, 156 hit, and 80 BB season with a .299 average (and 119 RBI). It was a slightly better OPS+ season than Stargell's 1971 season of 48 HR and a 185 OPS+. In '73, Stargell slugged .646 with 337 total bases and finished 2nd in MVP voting to Pete Rose (who had 230 hits). By the way, in 1973 the PIrates' starting SS Dal Maxvill had an unreal low OPS+ of just 40. All told, in 21-seasons as a Pirate Stargell's career OPS+ is identical to Bonds at 147.
tied#4 – Ralph Kiner, with an OPS+ of 186 in 1949 (at age 26)
The team was 71-83 and finished in 6th place, but Kiner's 54 HR year at Forbes Field is incredible stuff. 170 hits all told included 5 3B, 19 2B, and 119 BB as Kiner hit .310 for the season. The season was only 4th best in the MVP voting that year in the NL, behind Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, and Enos Slaughter. His 54-HR were far and away the highest, with Ted Williams 2nd at 43-bombs. Kiner's lifetime Pirates' OPS+ of 157 over 8-years is 2nd only to Honus Wagner in Pirates career OPS+.
#6 – Roberto Clemente, with an OPS+ of 171 in 1967 (at age 32)
Bobby's OPS+ that year was only 6th best in baseball (at Forbes Field, where an accurate 'park factor' in the OPS+ formula would be of great importance considering the park's difficulties). Carl Yastrzemski's 193 led the way, but Clemente hit .357 with 23 HR (which may be worth 40 in another park), 209 hits, 10 3B, 26 2B and 41 BB (with 110 RBI to along with 9 SB). Incidentally, the Pirates finished in 6th place in 1967 with a team ERA 9th of 10 NL teams, so they wasted (arguably) Clemente's best year. Clemente's lifetime OPS+ of 130 is dragged down by four below-league-average years in 1955, 1957, 1958, and 1959 when Clemente was in his younger 20's.
#7 – Dave Parker, with an OPS+ of 166 in 1978 (at age 27)
"The Cobra" and his 166 OPS+ led all of baseball in 1978 behind a .334 average with 30 HR, 12 3B, 32 2B, 194 hits, and 57 BB with 23 intentional (to go along with 117 RBI, 20 SB, and 340 total bases, three more than Pops had in 1973). Parker was MVP with 95% of the vote that year. Too bad Rennie Stennett and Omar Moreno dragged the team's OPS+ down, as the Pirates finished 2nd to the Phillies in the standings.
#8 – Paul Waner, with an OPS+ of 157 in 1936 (at age 33)
"Big Poison" was 8th best in baseball with an OPS+ of 157 in his highest ranked OPS+ year. His batting average was .373 with 218 hits, but only 5 of his hits went for HR. 53 doubles were no joke, though, to go along with 9 3B, 74 BB, and just 29 BB. Perhaps more impressive with Paul Waner was his consistency, with his first 12 Pirates seasons (of 15) at least 29 % better than league average. His 15-year career OPS+ with Pittsburgh was 131.
What does all this mean?
If Andrew McCutchen's 158 OPS+ continues, might it be considered one of the best individual offensive seasons in Pirates history?
At least in the world of one metric, it would defeat Big Poison but fall haplessly short of The Flying Dutchman.