Exactly halfway through the season, the No. 25 Michigan baseball team is just a half-game out of first place in the Big Ten, and its run-scoring ability is a big reason why. The Wolverines’ offensive output — including 151 runs scored and 136 RBI, both good for second place in the conference — is prodigious.
The secret behind that success isn’t too secret. Players and coaches give it credit for nearly every win. It’s converted into a percentage, updated after each series and posted somewhere in the bowels of Ray Fisher Stadium.
That stat is quality at-bat percentage. Only Michigan coach Erik Bakich can calculate it — not because he’s the only one in the dugout who can do math, but because he decides if each at-bat is quality or not.
“It’s totally subjective by me,” Bakich said. “It’s pretty much hard contact, moving a guy over, getting a guy in, drawing a walk, hit by pitch. If you get up there and see eight or more pitches in an at-bat and don’t hit it hard, but you made the pitcher work, that could be a quality at-bat, too.”
Bakich and his coaching staff put no stock in batting average, instead training their players to take quality at-bats. And for good reason, given batting average’s flaws.
It’s easily manipulated by factors outside the hitter’s control; a gust of wind could turn a lazy fly ball into a bloop hit, and a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop could field a barrelled ball in a web-gem play, but batting average would reward the hitter for the weather and punish him for the defensive excellence. It also doesn’t account for walks or sacrifices, making it an incomplete and imperfect picture of a hitter’s ability.
On the other hand, QAB% isolates the hitter’s performance, is responsive to anything that happens in a plate appearance and rewards consistency and preparation more than results.
“The best of the very best fail a whole lot more than they succeed,” Bakich said. “So for us, it’s really just about consistent routine, consistent preparation and giving yourself the best chance for success.”
When Michigan strings quality at-bats together, the result is usually a big inning, like the eight-run, ninth-inning comeback against Michigan State on Mar. 21.
“We were just trying to pass it onto the next guy,” sophomore catcher Jimmy Obertop, who started the ninth with a single and ended it with a walk-off home run, said after the game. “Just getting good quality at-bats in there, trying to get the next guy up.”
The Wolverines brought the same approach to the eight-run eighth inning against Ohio State last Sunday. They posted 12 quality at-bats that inning, many of them walks or singles, and got the next guy up so many times that they more than batted around.
Bakich also uses QAB% to evaluate his players. By all baseball-card metrics, junior second baseman Riley Bertram limped into the second game of last weekend’s series against the Buckeyes. But when he posted a career day at the plate, Bakich wasn’t shocked.
“He’s been on the barrel more than what his statistics show,” Bakich said. “His quality at-bats, at least in the last couple of games, have been pretty good.”
Bertram’s QAB% is rising, but he isn’t yet a member of the “500-club,” a group of eight players who’ve met Bakich’s goal of taking quality at-bats more than half the time. That group includes many players who bat in the top and middle of the order, including redshirt sophomore outfielder Jordon Rogers and fifth-year third baseman Christian Molfetta. Thanks to this club, Michigan has posted a team QAB% of over .500 in five of six weekend series.
“The name of this game is consistency,” Bakich said. “So you build a consistent routine to help that success translate onto the field.”
The Wolverines’ emphasis on drawing quality at-bats and the accompanying philosophy of consistency and preparation has already netted significant returns.
Perhaps just a few more could lift them over that half-game deficit.