Swinging, Taking, Fouling, and Other Baseball Trivia
"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."
- A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former commissioner of Major League Baseball
For those who don't know me, I'm the author of the blog Dan Agonistes and I also contribute to The Hardball Times. I've long admired the writing of Rich and Bryan and so was thrilled when Rich was kind enough to invite me to pen this guest article. Hopefully, this will be the first of several this season.
But on to today's topic, and that topic is pitches, pitches, and more pitches.
Making My Pitch
While the information revolution may have far-reaching impacts on the economy and speed, as well as the process of democratization across the globe, all that pales next to what it's done for the accessibility and ability to quickly analyze baseball statistics.
And so it is that we can analyze the 191,824 plays from the 2005 baseball season and take an in-depth look at pitches. Today I'll simply lay out some of the leaders and trailers in a few of the categories related to pitch-by-pitch data and then make a few observations. You can think of this as an update to the article "Here's the Pitch..." published on The Hardball Times back in September.
For this article, I looked at the 341 players in 2005 with 200 or more plate appearances which totaled just shy of 600,000 pitches. In order to set a baseline, the average among these players for each of the categories we'll look at are as follows.
Pitches Per Plate Appearance (P/PA): 3.75 Swinging at the First Pitch (1stP/PA): 27.6% Swinging and Missing (Miss/P): 8.0% Fouling off the Pitch (Foul/P): 17.2% Taking the Pitch for a Ball (B/P): 36.7% Taking the Pitch for a Strike (C/P): 17.1% Put the Ball in Play (X/P): 20.1%
It should also be noted that for the third through seventh categories intentional balls thrown to the batter have been excluded from the analysis on the basis that those pitches are not in any sense under the control of the hitter.
I should also note that these statistics correlate very well from year to year. In other words, in some sense, these rates reflect a strategy adopted by a hitter either consciously or unconsciously in response to his physical skills coupled with how pitchers work against those skills, but more on that later.
So buckle up because here we go...
Pitches Per Plate Appearance
We'll start off with a category that gets a lot of mainstream press and for which you can get data readily available on MLB.com, and that is pitches per plate appearance. The top 10 in that category are:
PA P/PA Jayson Werth 395 4.62 Bobby Abreu 719 4.39 Casey Blake 583 4.28 Pat Burrell 669 4.27 Chris Shelton 431 4.26 Gregg Zaun 512 4.25 Adam Dunn 671 4.24 David Dellucci 518 4.22 Mark Bellhorn 355 4.21 Brad Wilkerson 661 4.21
You'll notice that Jayson Werth has a healthy lead over Bobby Abreu mostly due to his 114 strikeouts in 337 at bats. He did also have a decent walk rate and did so 48 times. Werth recorded 4.35 P/PA in 2004. This, and the inclusion of Mark Bellhorn point out that a player needn't have a great season in order to make this list and that the leaders are usually guys who also strikeout a lot which allows them to see more pitches. In looking at the data, however, I found the correlation much stronger with taking called balls (a correlation coefficient of .63 which can range from -1 to 1 and indicates the strength of the linear relationship between two variables) than for taking called strikes (.39) or swinging and missing (.03). In other words, inclusion on this list is more related to good pitch recognition than to simply being a free swinger.
Data from 2000-2004 confirmed that a higher P/PA correlates strongly with OPS as you would imagine, and since OPS is a good proxy for run production, players who see more pitches are on average better contributors.
Interestingly, I also found that there was a weak correlation between P/PA and hitting fly balls and line drives, and a negative one for hitting ground balls and popups. Players who see more pitches are often more feared by pitchers because of their power and so this certainly plays a role.
And that brings us to those who saw the fewest pitches...
PA P/PA Robinson Cano 551 3.05 Pablo Ozuna 217 3.16 Juan Castro 292 3.16 Alex Cintron 348 3.18 Yuniesky Betancour 228 3.18 Cristian Guzman 492 3.19 Nomar Garciaparra 247 3.19 Carl Crawford 687 3.23 Neifi Perez 609 3.23 Yadier Molina 421 3.24
Yankee rookie Robinson Cano walked just 16 times in his 551 plate appearances to take the top spot. It's no surprise that Nomar Garciapara and Neifi Perez made the list. Cristian Guzman, for whom nothing went right in 2005, also made the list although historically he's a guy who sees few pitches and recorded a 3.35 P/PA in 2004.
Just missing the list are three players who had fairly good production in 2005; Vladimir Guerrero (3.25), Garret Anderson (3.28), and Jorge Cantu (3.29). Guerrero saw even fewer pitches in 2004 (3.17) and yet performed slightly better and so it isn't necessarily the case that having a low P/PA means you can't have a good season. However, since these players aren't drawing very many walks they must compensate by putting up high batting averages like Guerrero or high slugging percentages like Cantu in order to be productive. That is a difficult thing to do.
Although it at first surprised me, players who see fewer pitches tend also to foul off a greater percentage of the pitches they do see. After a moment's thought though, this is clearly because they take so many fewer pitches.
Swinging at the First Pitch
The second category is one that you see from time to time and certainly reflects a strong preference amongst hitters - offering at the first pitch. The leaders are...
PA P/PA 1st/PA John Mabry 274 3.48 50.0% Corey Patterson 483 3.37 49.1% Pablo Ozuna 217 3.16 47.9% Jeff Francoeur 274 3.41 47.4% Nomar Garciaparra 247 3.19 46.2% Jason Dubois 202 3.82 45.0% Victor Diaz 313 3.67 45.0% Brad Eldred 208 3.60 44.7% Alex Cintron 348 3.18 44.5% Wily Mo Pena 335 3.77 44.5%
Corey Patterson had a horrible final season in Chicago and is a case where the numbers weren't that consistent and therefore are revealing. When he performed better in 2004 he swung at the first pitch 36.4% of the time (making him, of course, one of the last guys you want to leadoff), indicating that as his numbers dropped in 2005 he began pressing and becoming even more aggressive. As a result, he saw fewer pitches, missed more of those he swung at, and ended up hitting fewer line drives. All of which adds up to a trade to Baltimore.
It'll also be interesting to see if Braves rookie Jeff Francoeur continues his aggressive strategy which failed to yield a walk in his first 130 plate appearances and just 8 non-intentional walks in 274 plate appearances.
And those who are reluctant to swing at the first pitch...
PA P/PA 1st/PA Jason Kendall 676 3.93 6.4% Oscar Robles 399 4.02 7.0% Chris Shelton 431 4.26 9.0% David Eckstein 713 4.01 9.5% Chad Tracy 553 3.83 9.8% Bobby Abreu 719 4.39 10.3% Mark Ellis 486 3.99 10.9% Juan Pierre 719 3.71 11.4% Darin Erstad 667 3.84 12.0% JJ Hardy 427 3.57 12.2%
Interestingly, three 2005 rookies (Oscar Robles of the Dodgers, Chris Shelton of the Tigers, and J.J. Hardy of the Brewers) made the list, all of whom appear to have taken the opposite approach of Francoeur. However, as I found when looking at 2000-2004 data there is no correlation between OPS and swinging at the first pitch and it appears that players simply choose the strategy that works best for them. This also revealed in that players who swing at the first pitch are neither more nor less likely to be fly ball hitters.
However, swinging at the first pitch was strongly correlated with swinging and missing (.63) and very strongly negatively correlated with taking pitches for balls (-.84). Both of these associations make sense since players who swing more often at the first pitch are, therefore, less likely to get good pitches to hit and if you're swinging at the first pitch almost half the time you're obviously not being the most patient.
Swinging and Missing
Chicks dig the long ball and you have to take big swings to hit the big fly. Of course, you're also at greater risk to miss entirely and here are the players that did so frequently in 2005.
PA P/PA Miss/P Brad Eldred 208 3.60 24.4% Russell Branyan 242 4.15 19.1% Wily Mo Pena 335 3.77 19.0% Jason Dubois 202 3.82 18.7% Carlos Pena 295 3.93 17.9% Dallas McPherson 220 3.83 17.7% Miguel Olivo 281 3.67 17.1% Humberto Cota 320 3.60 16.3% Dustan Mohr 293 3.80 16.2% Jeff Francoeur 274 3.41 15.9%
Brad Eldred takes the top spot by a whopping margin on the strength of striking out 77 times in 190 at bats, a rate that even Rob Deer would appreciate. He also saw fewer pitches per plate appearance than league average, which is not good when you swing and miss as much as he did resulting in just 13 walks and a .221/.279/.458 line.
As you might guess, players who swing and miss a lot tend to be fly ball hitters and also swing at the first pitch. All is not lost however, as these players can also put up decent numbers as Russell Branyan (.257/.378/.490) and Francoeur did last season. Overall, I found a weak positive correlation between avoiding swinging and missing and OPS.
And who are the contact hitters you might ask?
PA P/PA Miss/P David Eckstein 713 4.01 1.9% Luis Castillo 524 3.94 2.1% Oscar Robles 399 4.02 2.1% Juan Pierre 719 3.71 2.5% Kenny Lofton 406 3.58 2.6% Chris Gomez 254 3.71 2.7% Jason Kendall 676 3.93 2.7% Brian Giles 674 3.92 2.8% Orlando Palmeiro 231 3.76 2.8% Marco Scutaro 423 3.77 2.9%
Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, and David Eckstein all were in the top five for the 2000-2004 period as well and the list is populated with contact hitters. When these guys swing, they usually hit the ball.
What I would not have guessed is that there is a weak but clear negative correlation between making contact and hitting foul balls (-.29). Players who swing and miss more often also hit more foul balls.
Which brings us to...
Fouling off Pitches
Players who foul off lots of pitches are said to be scrappy battlers who wear down the pitcher who finally succumbs to their persistence and throws a meaty fastball that the battler lashes into the corner.
In looking at who does and doesn't foul off a lot of pitches, the common wisdom doesn't seem that strong.
PA P/PA F/P AJ Pierzynski 497 3.56 24.5% Johnny Estrada 383 3.29 24.2% Toby Hall 463 3.30 24.1% Joe Crede 471 3.61 23.6% So Taguchi 424 3.55 22.6% Rod Barajas 450 3.80 22.6% Jose Lopez 203 3.76 22.4% Ivan Rodriguez 525 3.33 22.2% Humberto Cota 320 3.60 22.2% Alex Cintron 348 3.18 22.2%
As mentioned previously players who foul off a lot of pitches tend to also be players who swing and miss but more strongly players who offer at the first pitch. That's probably not a good combination as a quick look at almost any of these players batting lines will tell you. As a group, they stunk in 2005.
The exception to this rule is Francoeur who just missed the list at 21.9%. Somehow he still managed to hit .300/.336/.549. The fact that his name keeps coming up indicates to me anyway, that there was something a bit odd about his short season that may not bode well for the future.
On the other hand, those players who swung and missed the least include:
PA P/PA F/P Dave Roberts 480 3.85 11.3% JJ Hardy 427 3.57 11.3% Oscar Robles 399 4.02 12.0% Luis Castillo 524 3.94 12.4% Bernie Williams 546 3.57 12.5% Bobby Abreu 719 4.39 12.6% Scott Hatteberg 523 3.86 12.7% Brian Giles 674 3.92 12.9% Chris Snyder 373 4.01 12.9% Robert Fick 260 3.71 13.0%
Speaking of fouling off pitches, there were five plate appearances in 2005 that featured 10 foul balls. They were:
I told you that the words baseball and trivia don't belong together.
Next, let's take a quick look at those players who tend to take pitches.
PA P/PA B/P Chipper Jones 432 4.02 46.9% Brian Giles 674 3.92 45.9% Jason Giambi 545 4.21 43.7% Lance Berkman 565 3.86 43.5% JD Drew 311 3.88 43.4% Ryan Klesko 520 3.77 42.7% Jeff DaVanon 271 4.06 42.6% Mark Sweeney 267 4.09 42.6% David Ortiz 713 4.00 42.5% Adam Dunn 671 4.24 42.5%
Obviously, these are also players who see more than your average number of pitches per plate appearance and are certainly better than average hitters. Ryan Klesko makes the list but has only a slightly higher-than-average P/PA since he also offers at 34.2% of first pitches.
As mentioned previously, players who take a lot of pitches also happen to be fly ball hitters and hit slightly more line drives than average.
And here are those who hack away...
PA P/PA B/P Angel Berroa 652 3.35 26.3% Aaron Miles 347 3.31 27.4% Juan Castro 292 3.16 27.8% Pablo Ozuna 217 3.16 28.1% Carl Crawford 687 3.23 29.0% Deivi Cruz 275 3.30 29.0% Ivan Rodriguez 525 3.33 29.0% Jeff Francoeur 274 3.41 29.2% Jorge Cantu 631 3.29 29.3% Johnny Estrada 383 3.29 29.3%
We've seen some of these players before since taking pitches has a strong negative correlation with pitches per plate appearance and less so with swinging at the first pitch.
As I showed in the article on THT, this is the category where those in the first list and those in the second exhibit the biggest differences in OPS - a difference of over 130 points between the top and bottom 20%. Much of that difference is, of course, accounted for by the fact that on base percentage is a component of OPS and players who are always swinging simply aren't walking.
Certainly over-aggressiveness at the plate is a major contributor to these low percentages of taking pitches as those of us who saw Aaron Miles play (and bat second during much of the time I might add) last year can attest. However, it's important to keep in mind that pitchers also challenge hitters who are perceived to be weak and so in some at-bats the hitter has little opportunity to take a ball.
Finally, we'll look at a derived statistic I call Plate Discipline or PD. Simply put, this statistic is a measure of the ratio of pitches taken for balls to pitches swung and missed at or fouled off where 100 is league average.
The rationale for calculating it like this is that those players who display plate discipline avoid swinging at bad pitches. To an extent then this skill can be measured by the percentage of balls they take as opposed to the percentage they swing at with an unsuccessful outcome (miss or foul ball). The underlying assumption, of course, is that many of the pitches they miss entirely or foul off are ones that in actuality are out of the strike zone. Now obviously nowhere near all pitches swung and missed at or fouled off are out of the strike zone. Many of them are "pitcher's pitches" and others are right down broadway that the batter misses. Like I said, this measures plate discipline to an extent. Now if I had pitch location data from Baseball Info Solutions like David Appleman at FanGraphs does, then we'd really be in business.
But be that as it may, here are the leaders in PD.
PA P/PA PD Brian Giles 674 3.92 202 Luis Castillo 524 3.94 187 Oscar Robles 399 4.02 186 Dave Roberts 480 3.85 183 Scott Hatteberg 523 3.86 169 Chipper Jones 432 4.02 168 Chris Gomez 254 3.71 166 Craig Counsell 670 4.08 163 Kenny Lofton 406 3.58 160 Scott Podsednik 568 3.89 160
This is an interesting list and is populated with players who have high walk-to-strikeout ratios as in Brian Giles (119/64), Luis Castillo (65/32), and Chipper Jones (72/56). However, it contains other players whose BB/K ratio is right around 1.0 such as Oscar Robles (31/33). The difference is that players like Robles also took a greater percentage of pitches for strikes.
And those who don't exhibit that discipline include:
PA P/PA PD Brad Eldred 208 3.60 51 Jeff Francoeur 274 3.41 53 Angel Berroa 652 3.35 54 Humberto Cota 320 3.60 55 Ivan Rodriguez 525 3.33 58 Miguel Olivo 281 3.67 59 Jason Dubois 202 3.82 60 Corey Patterson 483 3.37 61 AJ Pierzynski 497 3.56 62 Johnny Estrada 383 3.29 62
No strangers on this list as it contains lots of impatient and free swingers. Although Jorge Cantu didn't quite make the list (PD of 65), David Appleman has a nice piece on him at THT that reveals that by the end of the season he was swinging at 37% of the pitches out of the strike zone.
Boiling it Down
So what does it all mean?
I find these lists interesting because they illuminate a part of the game that isn't readily accessible to our limited senses. Even fans who watch their team religiously have a hard time spotting these trends because of the sheer number of observations involved and our bias for remembering dramatic events along with those that occurred most recently.
They also reveal that in some sense hitters can succeed at the plate with a variety of different strategies akin to the notion that pitchers can be successful in variety of ways that include:
1. Strikeout a lot of batters in order to minimize the number of balls put into play and, therefore, balls that will be hits (Nolan Ryan).
2. Walk very few batters and give up very few homeruns to minimize the effect of the hits you do give up (Greg Maddux).
3. Walk fewer batters than average but strikeout more than average to minimize base runners and balls hit into play (Fergie Jenkins).
4. Rely on deception to decrease the number of hard hit balls, thereby decreasing the percentage of balls put into play that turn into hits (Charlie Hough).
5. Walk very few batters but rely on keeping hitters off balance to minimize base runners and the number of line drives (Jamie Moyer).
But probably what I like most about these statistics is that you can use them to help understand how a hitter might have changed his approach in a given year. For example, below are three players whose performance changed from 2004 to 2005. You'll notice that I also included ground ball, fly ball, pop out, and line drive percentage along with the percentage of fly balls that are homeruns.
PA P/PA 1st/PA GB% FB% P% LD% HR/FB% Miss/P F/P B/P PD Derrek Lee 2004 688 3.94 32.7% 41.0% 36.4% 5.4% 17.4% 16.5% 10.1% 14.9% 40.0% 111 2005 691 4.03 29.2% 39.6% 33.9% 6.3% 20.1% 23.4% 8.4% 16.4% 40.3% 112
Derrek Lee had a monster year in 2005, leading the league in hitting at .335 while smacking 46 home runs. As you can see in 2005, he was a bit more patient seeing more pitches per plate appearance and reducing the number of first pitches he offered at. As a result, his line drive percentage increased as did his fly ball percentage. Since roughly three quarters of line drives end up as hits and three quarters of fly balls end up as outs, you would think his batting average wouldn't change. But notice that his percentage of fly balls that went out of the park increased from in 2005 (23.4%) over 2004 (16.5%). When you put this together with the increased line drives his average goes up over 40 points as it did in 2005.
Andruw Jones hit 51 home runs in 2005 and was more aggressive at the plate as can be seen in the table. This resulted in 42 more fly balls which means more home runs as his percentage of home runs on fly balls also increased from 23.3% to 29.6%. However, hitting fewer line drives and more popups served to keep his average basically the same from year to year.
And with the retirement of Sammy Sosa, I thought it appropriate to look at the difference between his 2004 campaign--when he was already well below his peak performance of 2001--and his last season with the Orioles. As you can see, he dropped a third of a pitch per plate appearance to below league average while offering at the first pitch 8% more often. He hit fewer fly balls and line drives and more popups which, along with a plummeting rate at which his fly balls left the park (30% to 13%), caused his batting average to crash and his power to diminish. His overall plate discipline decreased dramatically as well. As a Cubs fan, that's not the way I wanted Slammin' Sammy to go out, but that's a topic for another day.