F/X VisualizationsAugust 14, 2009
One of the Game's Stranger Hitters
By Dave Allen

One of the things that I, and I assume most of us, love about baseball are its peculiarities and oddities. The historical oddities, like when was the last time a pitcher gave up two triples in the first inning of his first major league start. Strange park dimensions like the Green Monster. And players who succeed in atypical manners. One such player is Pablo Sandoval.

He seemingly takes a horrible approach at the plate, swinging at tons of pitches out of the zone, but he is a very productive hitter. He is not particularly fast or hit that many line drives, but he has sustained a high BABIP over his major league and minor league career. He has two great nicknames. In this post I want to highlight what makes Sandoval such a stranger hitter.

The most remarkable fact is that he swings at almost 45% of pitches out of the strike zone, second only by his teammate Bengie Molina. I wanted to show just how extreme this is. So below I have his 50% swing contour compared to the average hitter. What I mean by this is a plotted all the pitches he swung at and took. Then I had the computer draw a smooth line so that pitches inside the line are more likely to be swung at and those outside are more likely to be taken. I discuss the methodology more specifically in the comments section of this post. Sandoval is a switch hitter so I broke it up for his at-bats as a lefty and righty. Sandoval is in orange and the average hitter is in gray.
There is a drastic difference between his and the average. Remember that the images are the catcher's perspective so as a RHB he stands to the left of the zone and as a LHB to the right. So it seems he is particularly fond of the low and inside pitches. The only place where he is close to league average is away when batting as a righty, he lays off those pitches. But everywhere else he swing zone is much larger than the average batter. It looks like he swings at more pitches batting lefty than righty.

He can get away with this because, somehow, he can make contact while swinging at these pitches far out of the zone. He makes contact on out of zone swings 76% of the time, solidly above league average of 62% for out of zone swings. And not only can he just make contact he makes good contact out of the zone. Check out the location of his extra base hits.
If you compare that to my HR heat-chart and the locations of other specific hitters HRs you will see this is a very strange pattern. He is hitting lots of HRs out of the zone, below the zone, above it and in from it. Batting lefty he has a large number of doubles off pitches off the zone away, opposite field doubles I would guess. Sandoval is leading the league in out-of-zone HRs and out-of-zone extra base hits. Not surprising, I guess since he swings at some many pitches out of the zone. It all shows that he can swing at pitches way out of the zone regularly, and not only make contact, but make very solid contact.

A batter's job is to score runs, to do that you need some combination of hitting for power and not making outs. Sandoval goes about that in one of the stranger ways possible. He hits for power even when swinging at pitches way out of the zone. He can avoid outs because he rarely strikes out, he has good contact skills even when swinging at pitches way out of the zone, and it seems he can sustain a high BABIP. All of this in some one who just celebrated his 23rd birthday. San Francisco fans, and baseball fans, have lots more of Sandoval's strange ways to enjoy.


I've always wondered if it was even theoretically possible to have a higher BA than OBP.

Take two extreme types of seasons. One player has a batting average of .200 and an on base percentage of .400. The other has a batting average of .340 and an on base percentage of .350. They had the same number of at bats and you have no idea what their other stats are (assume they are a wash, don't assume the second player was more likely to get extra base hits). Which player was more effective?

I'd take the batting average guy, just because I'd guess his slugging would at least be in the low 400's. If he had average power probably closer to 500.
The low BA guy would need to have considerably more power, even after considering the higher value of OBP.

Thanks, this is great!

We Giants fans know about Panda's out of zone ways, but your graph is great for showing just how bad it is. His OPS is over 900 in the one year since he joined the majors!

I also love the other charts showing where XBHs were hit. How did you create that graphic? It's pretty cool.


Tom Tango has found the run value of each event in baseball. How many more or less runs a team, on average scores, after that PA outcome. A single is worth 0.46 runs, a walk 0.3 runs and an out -0.27.

Let's assume your two players each get 100 PAs and assume all hits are singles. The first one gets 25 BB, 15 singles and makes 60 outs. He produced -1.8 runs.

The second player gets 1.5 walks, 33.5 singles and makes 65 outs. He produces -1.69 runs and is marginally more valuable.

Sandoval sounds like a Yogi Berra kind of hitter, althogh Yogi's walk totals increased as his career progressed.

It is most certainly possible -- although unlikely -- to have a higher BA than OBP.

Early in the season I believe that was the case with Bengie Molina, who was hitting lots of sacrifice flies and hardly ever walking.

If a batter has 30 hits in 100 at bats, two walks and eight sacrifice flies, his batting average would obviously be .300, but his OBP would be slightly lower at .291.

I will say this: If a batter's BA is higher than his OBP, he likely isn't an overly valuable hitter. Too many outs.

On the BA being higher than obp, in 1989, a certain Oakland outfielder had 82 plate appearances and finished the season with a .241 ba and .238 obp, perhaps compiling the longest season ever with a higher ba than obp. Proving that the power to learn is inherent in all of us (or that knowledge and ability do not always coincide), this hacker has become the leading symbol of OBP in baseball today -- current Oakland GM Billy Beane.

Doug B.

Wow that is a great little piece of baseball history, thanks.


Thanks. I made the graph in R. If you want I can send you the code that I used to make the figure. But you could make it pretty easily in excel too.

The difference between Molina and Kung Fu Panda is that the Panda is willing to learn and work on things, he has no ego nor chip on his shoulder. He talked about working on this during the off-season plus one of the coaches said the Giants were working on getting him to swing only at pitches in the zone.

As a sign of this, the comparison to Yogi applies for last year, not this year. His BB% (BB/PA) by month this season, starting April: 4%, 5%, 12%, 5%, 9%. At the low end, that is tolerable for a .300 hitter, and he has been generally getting better as the season (and his HR hitting) progressed. His BB/K by month: 0.3, 0.4, 0.8, 0.3, 1.0. Again, he seems to be getting better. Or at least, pitchers have been getting more cautious. :^)

Thanks Dave. Never heard of R. I used to be a programmer, but now not so much, so I will pass on the code. I cannot imagine making that chart in Excel, let alone easily, does that involve VBA macro writing?

Sorry to be so late with this question, but I notice that the only place Pablo's swing zone doesn't extend outside the strike zone is the outside corner when he bats right-handed. I also see that none of his extra base hits from the right side have come on pitches in the outside quarter of the strike zone.

Prior to this season Pablo had never hit well from the right side. Last season he had a breakout year from the left side, and this year it has come from the right. He's actually hitting much better from the right side than the left, going .383/.422/.626/1.048 as a right-handed batter.

My question is: As a right-handed hitter, has Pablo laid off the outside pitch this year, giving him a tighter swing zone than last season against southpaws? Is there any other clue you can find that has enabled him to break out from the right side this year?

Last year after his callup Pablo went .237/.268/.289/.557 from the right side, albeit in only 37 at bats. But his issues from the right side showed up as .269/.309/.385/.694 in 130 at bats in the 2008 minor league season.

Over his full minor league career Pablo hit only .267/.320/.371/.691 against southpaws.

Is there anything you can tell from his swing zone that might indicate how he has turned it around from the right side?