Celebrating … batting average?

We spend a lot of time at our little site here talking about the drawbacks and flaws of batting average. You know the problems … though I’ll go over them again for old time’s sake.

Batting average discounts walks as non-events.

Batting average counts some fly balls as outs and ignores others entirely.

If you hit a ground ball out to third that moves a runner from first to second, that’s an out in your ledger. If you BUNT a ground ball out to third that moves a runner from first to second, that’s not an out in your ledger.

Sometimes, if you hit a ball and reach base safely that is still an out in your batting average.

If batting average was a person, it would be like a particularly eccentric king who generally makes sound decisions but every now and again will outlaw something like singing or making left turns or will decide that every citizen must, from this day forward, play Gene Pitney’s “Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” every morning.

Thing is, you can get so caught up in the various quirks of batting average and forget something basic: Batting average is brilliant. Alone, it does not do much of a job telling you a hitter’s value. But it’s a singular and altogether wonderful statistic that has done what no other statistic in sports has done: It represents it’s own language. Everyone talks about batting average. People use it when referring to politics, to law, to sales, to medicine, to dating. “What’s your batting average,” is a wonderful question that stretches into every person’s life.

What, after all, is any of our batting averages?

There’s a point I want to make about batting averages in today’s game … but before that we should go back to the beginning. As it turns out, we probably know the exact date when batting average became a baseball statistic: March 11, 1871. This was before the National League was founded, before the walk existed in any real way, even before Bartolo Colon made his first start. There is reason to believe that batting averages were calculated in cricket for as much as a century before baseball, but batting averages in baseball do not seem to come from cricket. Instead, it first came to prominence in a letter that a man named H.A. Dobson wrote to Nicholas Young, who would in time become president of the National League.

Mr. Dobson was not the most concise of men, as you can see for yourself in the letter, but he did eventually get to his point: The best way to determine a baseball player’s worth, he determined, was by dividing the number of “times first base on clean hits” by his chances.

“Every time he goes to the bat,” Dobson wrote, “he either has an out, a run, or is left on base*. If he does not go out, he makes his base, either by his own merit or by an error of some fielder. Now his merit column is found in ‘times first base on clean hits’ and his average is found by dividing his total ‘times first base on clean hits’ by his total number of times he went to the bat.”

*Several brilliant readers have clarified my thoughts on what Dobson meant by “left on base.” I thought he was referring to be left at home plate — the at-bat still ongoing — but their point is that he is saying that ever batter either makes an out, scores a run or is stranded. That does make more sense.

“According to a man’s chances, so should his record be,” Dobson wrote (you could imagine him smiling a little bit as he enjoyed his grandiose phrase).

This letter was a huge breakthrough in baseball … and would alter the way the game was viewed and played (for better and worse) for more than a century. See, until Dobson’s letter, baseball statistics tended to revolve around runs. Runs per game. Runs per out. And so on. That too makes sense — runs are what matter in baseball.

But Dobson points out: scoring runs is largely a team effort. Dobson’s spark of cleverness here — and this really cannot be underestimated — is focusing on the hit as a way to judge a player’s ability. In doing this, he found a way to isolate a player in a team game. They’ve been playing football for more than a hundred years and we still have not found a meaningful way to calculate the value of an offensive lineman or, in many ways, a defensive lineman. Even closer to home, we still have not found defensive baseball statistics that satisfy the majority of baseball fans. Many fans still cling to the absurdity of errors because, for all their problems, at least you can count errors.

The counting hits and dividing them by times up … this was an almost magic concept. This uncovered stories within the story. I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that that concept of batting average, as much as any single thing, lifted baseball into that national pastime realm because it made baseball an INDIVIDUAL sport as well as a TEAM sport. That, in my view, is what made baseball different and so popular in an rapidly growing American that was also looking for balance between individual and team.

Well, of course, the simple elegance of Dobson’s formula — so right in 1871 — soon was complicated. For some years, it took nine balls to walk a batter (and pitchers were throwing the ball underhand) … in 1880 the walk was changed to eight balls … in 1884 it became six … in 1887 it was five … in 1889 it was finally down to four. That same year, it was ruled that a batter would be awarded first base when hit by a pitch.

Four years later, the pitching mound was moved back from home plate, from 50 feet to 60 feet 6 inches. And with that, the walk was suddenly an integral part of the game. Getting hit-by-pitch was now another way to get on base. What to do with batting average? Nobody seemed entirely sure. In 1887, the American Association and National League decided to experiment by counting walks as hits … this led to a ballplayer named Tip O’Neill “batting” .492 and almost eEveryone hit .300. So nobody liked that. Walks had to go.

And what to do with sacrifices? Batting averages had become so important (for a while there were batters were conspiring with official scorers to get extra hits) that nobody seemed satisfied with a sacrifice bunt being recorded merely as an out. A sacrifice bunt should be rewarded! And so the tinkering began, and people have tinkered with batting average ever since. It was decided that walks would not count as at-bats; which made walks the single most under-appreciated weapon in sports. Sacrifices would not count as at-bats, which made batters much happier to make that sacrifice. Reaching on errors would count as outs because, hey, they SHOULD have been outs. This is how batting average became not just a statistic but a moral code. It not only counted what had happened, it made allowances for what might have happened and what should have happened. It was the judge and jury of baseball hitters.

And, hey, give credit where credit is due … that’s EXACTLY what batting average became. If there was a sports statistic Hall of Fame, batting average would go in unanimously first ballot.*

*Uh oh … the sports statistic Hall of Fame. Like I needed ANOTHER project.

These days, people who care to see the flaws of batting average see them pretty clearly. But there’s something about batting average that speaks to the way baseball is played in 2014 … you probably know that batting averages have gone down the last few years. So far this year in baseball, hitters are batting .251 — that’s the lowest batting average in more than 40 years. And while I strongly believe that batting average not sum up a batter’s value, I would suggest it does do something else. I think batting average speaks to how EXCITING the game is.

Think of the most exciting plays in baseball. Off the top of my head, I might rate them like so:

1. Great infield defensive play (dive and throw)
2. Triple
3. Close play at the plate after outfield throw home.
4. Outfielder leaping at wall and catching ball headed for home run.
5. Home run
6. Well-turned double play grounder.
7. Double.
8. Diving outfield catch.
9. Swing and miss strikeout.
10. Line drive single.

OK, if you asked me to do that exercise again, I might have all 10 of those in different spots or I might think of something else. So that’s not an official list. But my point is this: Nine of the 10 most exciting plays on my quickly drawn list involve a batter hitting a baseball with skill. This is at the core of what makes the game exciting: Hitting a ball with skill. Even if the excitement of the swing-and-miss strikeout depends on the rarity of it — if EVERYONE is swinging and missing (and these days, everyone is) then it takes the joy and thrill out of that too.

You hear some nutty talk now and again about Troy Tulowitzki’s chances of hitting .400 … which are nil, by the way. But I’m kind of interested to see if he can hit .350. Only one person this decade has hit .350 — that was Josh Hamilton in 2010. He hit .359 but missed basically the whole month of September. When you look at .350 hitters decade by decade, you see a bit about how the game was played.

Number of .350 hitters:

1900s: 23 (Honus Wagner with 5)
1910s: 30 (Ty Cobb with 10)
1920s: 97 (Rogers Hornsby 8)
1930s: 52 (Lou Gehrig and Paul Waner 4)
1940s: 14 (Ted Williams and Stan Musial 3)
1950s: 9 (Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial 2)
1960s: 3 (Roberto Clemente 2)
1970s: 8 (Rod Carew 4)
1980s: 13 (Wade Boggs 5)
1990s: 18 (Tony Gwynn 4)
2000s: 18 (Ichiro 4)
2010s: 1 (Josh Hamilton)

Were back in the 1960s and 1970s, when lack of offense so threatened the game that the owners panicked and lowered mounds, lowered strike zones and added the designated hitter. I’m convinced that when lack of offense again began to threaten the sport — not to mention the threat of the destructive 1994 strike — baseball chose to look the other way as players bulked up by legal and illegal means and hit massive home runs in record numbers.

And … now what? I’m not for radical changes to baseball because those always are so short-sighted. But let’s not kid anybody: The game is facing a bit of a problem. As batting averages plummet, I do believe that the game loses much of its spirit. The only things that are keeping 2014 from being 1968, best I can tell, are doubles and home runs. Players are still hitting more of those.*

*By “players” I mean “players who are not Kansas City Royals.”

I do not know for sure if the general shift away from batting average (assuming you even believe there has been a shift) has changed the way the game is being played, but I suspect it has. Valued statistics have a massive impact on play — look at what the save has done for relief pitching. For most of baseball history, the single most coveted individual honor was not the MVP award but the batting title. Newspapers all across the country would write weekly stories about the batting race, who was leading, who was gaining, who was trending up or down. Teams would look first at a player’s batting average when making trades or salary negotiations. Newspapers, radio broadcasts, television broadcasts would refer to batting averages as the singular way to define a player. Some of this endures.

Because there was SO much emphasis on batting average, there was a lot of emphasis on putting the ball in play. Hitters choked up with two strikes (or, for some, with no strikes). In 1954, one player in all of baseball struck out 100 times (Mickey Mantle) and again in 1957 (Duke Snider). Well, you can follow the chart.

Batters who struck out 100-plus times:
1953: 4.
1958: 3
1963: 22
1968: 18
1973: 22
1978: 21
1983 27
1988: 38
1993: 42
1998 75
2003: 60
2008: 90
2013: 105

Right now, there are 119 players on pace to strike out more than 100 times.

We know all the reasons — pitchers are throwing harder, there are more relief pitchers coming in with fresh arms, players are swinging for more power, defensive shifts are altering the game somewhat, hitters are trying to work the count more (though, quick aside, I found this interesting: Walks are actually DOWN not up. Pitchers are walking roughly 3.07 batters per game since the start of 2011, which is a lower walk rate that in the pitching rich 1960s or 1970s (or 1980s, 1990s and 2000s).

But I think the popular decline of batting average might be a factor too. Players respond to what is in demand. When batting average was the key to fame and riches, players learned how to avoid strikeouts and find holes in the defense. When the home run was the driving force of the game, balls got lighter, bats got harder, stadiums and strike zones got smaller and hitters got bigger.

And now the game is a little bit rudderless — batting average has been picked apart, home runs bring as much suspicion as fame, pitchers are throwing their arms out to tilt the radar gun and two hour games are lasting three hours so that batters can step out of the box and pitchers can take sabbaticals between pitches.

With all that, baseball is still great — best game there is in my view. But here I am, the guy who has written as many anti-batting average screeds as anyone, finding myself wishing that we would all start caring a bit more about batting average again. Not for the analysis. For the fun.

48 thoughts on “Celebrating … batting average?

  1. Richie

    Sounds like your next draft with Ken Tremendous should be Sports Statistics. I’m guessing neither of you draft the Pitcher Win.

    Reply
    1. Pat

      <> You already lost. Ken T will take it with the final draft pick and announce that he has therefore won the draft (Joe, you fool!), on the grounds that the pitcher win is the ultimate zombie stat—that no matter how often its meaningfulness is skewered, it still arises in the Cy voting, that it cannot be killed.

      Reply
  2. Patrick

    Regarding the “left on base” line … couldn’t Dobson have meant that the batter got a hit but was stranded on base and did not score? That still seems to satisfy his three true outcomes of (1) out, (2) run, and (3) left on base.

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  3. Loren

    “he either has an out, a run, or is left on base”
    I think Dobson is using “left on base” in the conventional sense here. Either you’re out during your at-bat or you get on base and you eventually score a run or are left on the bases.

    Reply
    1. Colin Dew-Becker

      That’s right. This logic resulted in walks being counted as at-bats in the first year of the National League in 1876.

      Reply
  4. Patrick Bohn

    Who says you can’t enjoy it for fun?

    Analysis and enjoyment are two separate things. I think one of the biggest issues with the old stats vs. new stats debate is that some members of the old stats group think the new stats group is trying to stop them from enjoying a player hitting .350, or winning 25 games, or winning the Triple Crown. But you can enjoy the same aspects of the sport that you might dismiss in analysis.

    For example, I know wins are a terrible way to judge a pitcher, but I thought it was great to see Mike Mussina win 20 for the only time in his career in 2008 by winning his last start. Why? Who knows? But that’s what happened. Roberto Clemente is the same player with 2,999 hits or 3,000, but we can still look back on his last at-bat and be glad it was a double and not a fly out.

    Reply
    1. Matt Vandermast

      >…some members of the old stats group think the new stats group is trying to stop them from enjoying a player hitting .350, or winning 25 games, or winning the Triple Crown.

      As a “new stats” person (Bill James fan since 1982), I also think this is true of *some* of the other “new stats” people. Some, but not all.

      >But you can enjoy the same aspects of the sport that you might dismiss in analysis.

      Absolutely.

      Reply
  5. wogggs

    Hey, the Royals do too hit doubles! I am listening to the game right now and they hit 2 in one inning (although one was a hustle double, so that should probably not count when we figure out Hosmer’s “doubles average”).

    Reply
  6. Kevin

    I think an easy fix would be to move the outfield walls back. If not every player could hit 30 HRs a year putting the ball in play would be a more valuable skill. Also, it MAY, save arms if a pitcher is facing the 7-8-9 guys who really don’t have the power to take them yard, the pitcher can take a little off and hope they hit it at someone while trying to stay fresh for the later innings.

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  7. chuck

    Here’s a reason to celebrate batting average: it wins in the postseason.
    Of the 133 postseason series since 1995, 55% were won by the team with the better batting average on offense during the season. 56% were won by the team allowing the lower batting average for the opposition.
    Combining the team batting average and average allowed into a differential might look like this:
    A team hits .275. They hold their opposition to a .255 average.
    .275/.255 = 1.078.
    For ease of use, multiply by 100 to get 108. They hit 8% better than they allowed their opponents to hit.

    Ok, I looked at which teams in the postseason won, having the better batting avg differential. Overall, for 133 series, it’s 58%. But for the 86 series in which the spread between the team differentials was the largest, the team with the better one won 70% of the series. That was in 86 of the 133 series. With a spread of 4 or more, e.g., one team has a 108 differential and the other team a 104, the team with the better number won 70% of the series.

    Strikeouts, which are part of the picture in having a good or bad batting average, also correlate well with success in the postseason. One can make a differential the same way out of strikeout rates, both for the team batters and its pitchers. In this case, put the pitchers’ rate as the numerator. The teams with the better strikeout rate differential won 59% of series. But when paring it down to the half (66) of the 133 series with the largest spreads, the teams with the better differential won 67%. When paring it further, to the biggest spreads among 33 teams, the teams with the better differential won 26 of 33 series, or 79%.

    Reply
    1. Jake Bucsko

      Saying that batting average is what wins in the postseason is kind of like noting that to win in the NBA playoffs, you have to make the most baskets.

      Reply
      1. chuck

        You may be misunderstanding the batting avg-postseason thing. I’m not saying the team IN a series that bats better is the winner most of the time. Of course that’s the case most of the time. I’m saying the team with the better batting avg differential over the course of the season is the team that wins the postseason series the majority of the time.

        Reply
        1. Jake Bucsko

          Sure, but isn’t that like saying, to use the basketball comparison again, that the team that has scored more points throughout the season is more likely to win? Or that the team that has allowed fewer points is more likely? If a team has an offense or defense that is significantly better, it follows that they are the better team.

          For your thing, the team with the better batting average wins 55% of the time, sure. But the same is probably true for on base percentage too.

          Reply
          1. chuck

            Well, I looked at a lot of things besides batting avg and strikeouts.
            On offense: runs scored, contact pct, batting avg, batting avg on balls in play, slugging avg, on base pct, adjusted OPS, isolated power, hits, total bases, singles, doubles, triples, home runs, HR-to-batted ball rate, strikeouts, strikeout rate, hit batters, walks, non-intentional walk rate, stolen bases, stolen base attempts, caught stealing pct, intentional walks, sac hits, sac hits, sac flies.

            For pitching: runs, starting pitcher shutouts, team shutouts, e.r.a., adjusted e.r.a., strikeouts, strikeout rate, K/9, K-to-BB ratio, non-intentional walks and walk rate, intentional walks, hit batters, opposing singles, doubles, triples, and HR allowed, HR-to-batted ball rate, hits, hits/9, batting avg, on base pct, slugging avg, isolated power, OPS, adjusted OPS, WHIP, earned runs, percentage of runs that were unearned, contact rate allowed, batting avg on balls in play, and reached-on-error allowed.

            For defense: defensive efficiency ratio, errors, wild pitches, passed balls, double plays, stolen bases allowed, caught stealing and CS %, stolen base attempts.

            And for team categories and differentials:
            wins, losses, winning pct, road winning pct, strikeout rate differential, batting avg differential, run differential, on base pct differential, HR rate differential, average age of the top 8 position players, average age of the top 5 pitchers by innings, home field advantage, head-to-head record vs the series opponent during the season, and which team had the more recent postseason appearance or better success.

            For each of the above I tallied season numbers for each of the 2 teams in the 133 postseason series, and 2 of the top categories that correlated with the winners of series were strikeout and batting avg differential. There were others, but as batting avg is much-maligned these days I thought it worth mentioning here. If on base pct or OPS had correlated better, I wouldn’t have bothered to mention batting avg.

            Some of those categories above might surprise you in how they correlate, or don’t, to postseason winners. For instance, teams that walk more batters during the season do better in the postseason. Teams that hit more batters do better. Teams that allowed fewer singles during the season won 73% of series, among the 81 series with the largest spreads. On the other hand, teams with the better OPS+ during the season won 53% overall; but paring it to the largest spreads did not increase the winning percentage. Teams with the better HR rate differential did worse in the postseason, and did even worse when cutting the data to the biggest spreads.

            In the postseason, I think, you generally have teams that all can hit for power to some degree, and get on base, and prevent the opposition from doing those things better than they do themselves. Otherwise, they wouldn’t likely be IN the postseason. But once there, and facing other teams that do those things well, I think those advantages are neutralized and much of the focus shifts to the more basic level of making contact more often than the other team.

            For batting average, the overall success rate for the team with the better average was 55%. Cutting it to the series with the largest spreads got that success rate closer to 60%.
            For batting average allowed, the overall success rate was 56%. But looking at the 90 series with the largest spreads the success rate for teams allowing the lower avg was 63-64%. Combining the two into a differential, the success rate was even higher.

    2. Pat

      I thought Nate Silver looked at this when he was still at Baseball Prospectus and found that offensive stats were largely not correlated with playoff success (to a degree that was statistically significant). Google “nate silver secret sauce” if you want the article.

      Reply
  8. Jake Bucsko

    There’s no way batting average is getting voted in unanimously. Touchdowns only got 97% of the vote and home runs 96%, and by gawd, if they didn’t get in unanimously, NO ONE WILL

    Reply
    1. J Hench

      Big fan of the Gene Pitney reference … Liberty Valance was one of my regular bedtime songs growing up. Although out of the entire Pitney catalogue, I prefer “I’m Gonna Be Strong,” “Looking Through the Eyes of Love,” “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” and “24 Hours to Tulsa”.

      I’d put “Just One Smile,” but I prefer the Blood, Sweat & Tears version.

      Reply
      1. southpawcom

        Pitney was the Al Oliver of ’60s pop music. Tons of hits, largely overlooked.

        I’ll take “Every Little Breath That I Take,” myself; Pitney’s 1961 collaboration with Phil Spector.

        Reply
  9. edfromyumaaz

    Just a note. I believe that moving the pitcher’s position further from the plate was not as drastic as it is usually presented. If I understand correctly, the 50′ was the end of the pitcher’s box and he could not go beyond it. But 60’6″ is the location for the pitching rubber which is the place where the rear foot of the pitcher must begin the delivery of the ball. So there is not 10 feet of difference. Also, I don’t believe there was a pitcher’s “mound” back in those days. Am I right about this?

    Reply
  10. DM

    In reading this post, I’m reminded of the entry from the 1987 Baseball Abstract in which Bill James included a rather lengthy essay on “Meaningful and Meaningless Statistics”. He essentially examined a whole range of stats and rated them (on a scale of 1-10) according to their “importance” (how well does it correlate with winning), their “reliability” (how well does it reflect the ability it’s trying to measure) and their “intelligibility”.(how well can a typical fan comprehend the information).

    Batting Average ended up 4th overall, behind ERA, OBP, and Slugging Pct. Like any stat, batting average certainly has its shortcomings, but it’s still has its place.

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  11. Frog

    Thank you for this. Baseball is most fun when the ball is in play. It opens up 90% of the possible plays. I know people fetishize the long ball, and I get that it is a significant in a game winning way, but the solo home run is surely one of the least interesting events in baseball (the least interesting is the batter and pitcher getting themselves ready each pitch).

    Reply
  12. James

    I much prefer OK Corral by Frankie Laine or Tex Ritter Do Not Forsake me oh my Darlin, from High Noon.

    Reply
  13. Rick Rodstrom

    Thank you, Joe, for an eloquent and courageous post that I’m sure will leave certain readers scratching their heads, if not grabbing their pitchforks. I understand, as you do, that batting average is an imperfect stat (what stat isn’t?), but to the extent that it measures making contact it celebrates baseball’s most fundamental element—hitting the ball. Baseball doesn’t exist as a game without it.

    There are things that can be done to increase the likelihood of making contact. There are rules changes, such as one dictating that a pitcher must record one out or give up one run before being relieved, which would deter managers from employing a carousel of relievers in the late innings. There are equipment changes—Charlie Finley once advocated using a yellow baseball, and while purists scoffed, a yellow ball is easier to see than a white one, which would help the hitter (tennis switched to yellow balls years ago for similar reasons). There should be changes in the culture of baseball, which would reward choking up on the bat and shortening one’s swing, especially with two strikes. Walks be damned, I think that nearly every batter in nearly every situation should be given the green light on 3-0; it’s silly that batters are prohibited from swinging at what is most likely the fattest pitch to hit in an at-bat.

    I fear, however, that the dearth of hitting in baseball may have deeper roots. It is said that hitting a baseball is the most difficult task in sports. Just being a fantastic athlete is not enough, as Jim Thorpe and Michael Jordan found out. Hitting is a skill that must be honed with constant practice from childhood on up. It is here that the demise of youth baseball in America should be a grave concern to fans of the game. Basketball and soccer require far less in the way of equipment, and so attract pick-up games in ways that baseball no longer does. I never see baseball being played in parks anymore, and I live in southern California, which has been a cradle for so many great players over the years. Major League Baseball really needs to step up its efforts supporting baseball in the little leagues, or it will continue to see a shortage of players who really know how to hit.

    Reply
  14. jim louis

    Great post Joe.

    Frog (above) nails it: Baseball is fun when the ball is in play.

    Kevin (above) brings up a VERY INTERESTING idea that will likely never happen: move the outfield fences back. I say WAY back. Make a rule that the minimum distance to the outfield wall is 425 feet. (Organizations like the Royals might decide to make their wall 450 or 475 feet deep.)

    Pitchers wouldn’t be so careful all the time, throwing breaking balls in the dirt or nibbling at the corners. Pitchers wouldn’t feel the need to throw upper-90′s fastballs or to throw nasty sliders to the big boppers. They’d pitch to contact more often. (Might help the stress on pitchers’ arms?) Batters wouldn’t be stepping out of the box for 25 seconds between pitches to slow down the pitcher. Teams would care more about acquiring FAST and ATHLETIC players who could chase down the balls in the outfield AND be able to fly around the bases when they hit a ball in a gap. I’m probably in the minority, but I’m not a big fan of seeing bulked-up guys hitting a ball over the fence. I want to see doubles and triples, guys running and pitchers not being afraid of batters connecting on a fat pitch. The inside-the-park home run, the most exciting play in baseball that basically never happens, might come into play.

    SIDENOTE: Joe, you brought this to my attention years ago: the more I watch baseball (of all ages), the more I realize how utterly DUMB the error statistic is to a batter. Earlier this year, I saw Escobar hit a ball through the legs of an infielder and get credited for a hit. I saw a routine pop-up hit by Ortiz that dropped untouched between 2 fielders. It was ruled an error. Then a hit. If you hit the ball and make it to 1st without anybody making an out, it should be a hit.

    Reply
    1. southpawcom

      I like your deep fences idea. How about no fence at all in CF?

      Remember though: Bud and Co. will do nothing at all to please us baseball “purists.” He already has our loyalty. Any new rule change will be aimed at pleasing the emerging markets: the young and the foreign.

      And that means that any problem will be solved through means of more technology.

      Reply
  15. Herbert L. Klein

    As something of a semi-literate amateur Sabermetician, I appreciate OPS and OPS+, WAR and the rest of the new age statistics designed to more accurately measure performance. But…somehow or another, the old BA, and the list of BA champions dating back to the end of the 19th century, from the obscure (Elmer Flick) to the famous (Cobb and Hornsby) holds a special appeal for me. Cobb’s .366 BA is not just a dusty statistic. Reading it evokes his snarling belligerence, flashing spikes, meanness and excellence. Comparing eras and players by measuring BA’s is meaningless, like comparing filet mignon and Rice Krispies. Newer statistical formulas more accurately measure and harmonize performance through the ages. Mike Schmidt is the greatest third baseman ever even though he only hit .267. Bill Madlock will never make the HOF even though he won four battings. But let’s show some respect for that old fat batting average. And…also show some respect for “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. One of the great schlocky tunes of all time. A song that John Ford hated so much that he refused to use it over the movie credits after the studio contracted it. But every time I hear it dully summarize the movie’s plot I re-visit one of my favorite movies!

    Reply
  16. Richie Wohlers

    This got me thinking.

    Joe DiMaggio holds the record with getting a hit in 56 straight games.

    Has anybody else had a longer streak of reaching base (either by walk, fielder’s choice, error, hit, etc.)?

    Reply
    1. DM

      Hi Richie,

      I believe the record for most consecutive games reaching base via base hit, walk, or HBP is Ted Williams with 84 in 1949 (Jul 1 – Sep 27)

      Williams is listed with 155 games played that year (looks like the Red Sox and the Tigers played a tie game that counted, plus the other 154) and he got on base at least once in 149 of them.

      In the 84 consecutive games that he got on base, he got at least one hit in 70 of them, so the other 14 he needed a walk to keep the streak alive (he didn’t get hit by a pitch during the streak).

      Reply
  17. Dan W.

    Players walk too much and they strike out too much. I’m not entirely sure what the answer is but this anecdote illustrates the problem that is all too pervasive.

    I noticed my little leaguer would get a 3 and 0 count and then take the next two pitches for strikes. I told him I understood him not swinging at a 3 and 0 pitch but figured he should swing at the 3 and 1 pitch if it was a strike. He answered “How many pitchers can throw 3 straight strikes?” His point being that his getting a walk is good for a triple or homerun since he will easily steal second and third and then has a good chance of scoring on a wild pitch.

    This strategy works well in the moment for my son. He gets on base and he scores. But he is not developing his hitting ability and the process of taking pitches results in long innings and lots of standing around. Is it no surprise so many kids and parents choose not to participate in baseball?

    Baseball needs to become more of a game of pitching and hitting. Currently it is too much of a game of pitching and watching or pitching and swinging (and not hitting). But how does one nudge the game to be played this way?

    Reply
    1. Patrick Bohn

      Teams and players inherently want to win baseball games, so they will pursue the strategy that allows them the best chance to do it. That’s what your son’s situation demonstrates. While it may be more boring, if it’s more effective, you’ll have to convince him to pursue a less than optimal strategy to achieve his goal.

      It’s no different than the shift, which people are already decrying. If it saves runs thus winning games, why shouldn’t a team employ it as a strategy? Because it leads to groundouts, which are boring?

      Reply
    2. jim louis

      I TOTALLY agree with “Baseball needs to become more of a game of pitching and hitting. Currently it is too much of a game of pitching and watching…”.

      And stalling. There’s 28 seconds, on average, between pitches.

      I feel baseball is the best game. But I never sit and watch more than 3 innings at a time. It’s dull most of the time.

      I don’t know what the solution is but forcing pitches to be thrown more quickly is a good start. Moving the fences could back solve problems as well (pitchers might throw more hittable pitches to the sluggers), but then people would complain there’s not as many home runs.

      Reply
  18. Dan W.

    Unfortunately if the only purpose was winning that could be accomplished in a 5 minute contest of Rock – Scissor – Paper. The point of the game is to play a game and if the game devolves into a contest of balls & strikes ever fewer kids will play it.

    Reply
  19. Chris M

    I know it will never happen, but I wonder if baseball would be better if they increased the amount of balls needed for a walk back to 5. It would make it more difficult to draw a walk, which in turn might make players a little bit more aggressive at the plate. The whole point of walks in the old days was to force pitchers to throw pitches a batter could hit. It worked for 100+ years. Unfortunately, in the past decade, teams figured out that the cost benefit analysis makes walks more valuable than not hitting is valuable. If you make walks harder to achieve, that cost benefit analysis swings back towards hitting a bit.

    Reply
    1. Jeff

      The answer is to enlarge the strike back to where it used to be. (I would say enforce the rulebook strike zone but, if I remember correctly, that was even shrunken several years ago).

      Hitters would be forced to expand their swinging zone. Pitchers would attack more. As Joe mentioned, walk rates are lower now when players are trying to walk than the ’60′s, ’70′s, and ’80′s when the strike zone was bigger.

      On-base percentage will still be valued but swinging the bat will result in more hitting, shorter at bats and, thus, shorter games. There is nothing wrong with a crisply paced 2 1/2 hour game. Much better than a 2 1/2 hour game surrounded by another hour of mound walking, glove tightening, and general ennui.

      While we’re at it, if teams want to change pitchers every other batter, bring back the bullpen cart and get those bastards in there in a jiffy.

      Reply
      1. Richard Aronson

        I strongly disagree. Read Ted Williams’ book, “The Science of Hitting”. Enlarging the strike zone means more pitches will be strikes in places that are hard to hit well. You’ll get more strikeouts, fewer hits, fewer walks. See the 1960s.

        Reply
  20. :-)

    What some people forget is that, at one time Batting Average was an advanced statistic. It would be easy to count who has more hits and say that the one with the most hits is better, but batting average computes efficiency.

    Reply
  21. Reagan

    First off, most exciting play is the steal of home on the pitch. Nothing cooler.

    Second, given that walks are down too, couldn’t this whole article have been written about OBP instead of BA and still reach the same conclusions?

    Reply
  22. PJ

    Hey, Josh Hamilton is not the only player this decade to hit .350+. Magglio Ordonez 2007 won batting title at .363 and flirted with .400 for a while in july.

    Reply
  23. Richard Aronson

    Moving the fences back is impossible. Many stadia don’t have the room. If more hits is the goal, I say shrink fielding gloves by about three inches. More diving plays (good), more balls sneaking through the infield (good) more fly balls just out of reach (good), more hits, more base runners, etc. Speed becomes more important everywhere compared to power (also good). Cheap, simple to do, easy to enforce, and no changes in real estate.

    Reply
  24. Katlak

    Sadly I just don’t enjoy the game anything like I used to. Don’t get me wrong I love seeing good pitching, but I think the problem with a mostly pitching driven league today is that it’s harder to single out any one pitcher who stands out. If there was anything you could say about pitching during the steroid/expansion era is that the great pitchers stood out more, because there was only a handful of them unlike today where it seems like we see them left and right.

    I mean a 2.80 ERA in today’s game just doesn’t have the impressive feel in my eyes that it did during the steroid era. I mean if we are to be blunt about this, it doesn’t really come as a shock if a pitcher pitches to a 2.80 ERA today, because we’ve come to expect it in a pitcher driven league. Whereas in the steroid era if you pitched to a 2.80 ERA, not only did it come off as more unexpected, but was simply more impressive. I mean how am I supposed to be equally as impressed with a pitcher pitching to a 2.80 ERA today compared to a pitcher that could pitch to the same ERA in the steroid era, which albeit had cheating hitters, but definitely much harder hitters to get out thus making it more impressive.

    I agree with someone else on here that baseball needs to get back to a pitching and hitting driven league, not one or the other. It’s painfully hard to watch when I see hitters swing at breaking pitches in the dirt, because that’s what I’m coming to expect on a regular basis.

    One thing on batting average I would like to say. Even though I realize the place advanced metrics have in team success of today’s game, I prefer batting average simply because I like seeing more things happen. I want to see a hit and run more often. I want to see guys take the extra base going from 1st to 3rd more often. I want to see more great plays at the plate.

    I think there is one other thing worth mentioning about the strategy sabermetrics are imploring on hitters. Obviously we know the strategy today is for hitters to take more pitches. I would have to say that strategy while still successful overall is getting negated much more by the better pitchers, because they are making adjustments to throw more strikes. If a hitter today is told by the hitting coach to go up there and take at least the first 2 pitches against someone like Clayton Kershaw, there’s a high likelihood he’s going to be looking up at a 0-2 count. Kershaw is smart in the sense where he’ll say look I dare you to hit your way on with a mediocre batting average by pumping in strike after strike and getting the hitter into bad counts. So it’s in this way where I think the common strategy for a mediocre, pull happy, high OBP hitter will play against him.

    I’d like to see hitting get to the point where hitters just keep it simple. This means a hitter should have one thing in mind when he goes up there to swing at a pitch and that’s to hit the ball hard to be a success. There’s a big difference between hitting a ball hard to try for a homerun and hitting a ball hard to be successful. Hitting the ball hard to be successful means that you don’t care what then end result of hitting the ball hard is as long as it results in a successful outcome. Today’s players though care too much about the type of result from contact and not a successful result on contact. I mean Edgar Martinez was a guy that when he went up there and hit a 2 run single with the bases loaded, he wasn’t thinking MAN I DIDN’T HIT A GRAND SLAM WHAT A TERRIBLE AT BAT! The point is it doesn’t matter, to a fan a 2 run single isn’t looked at as any more or less disappointment in a bases loaded situation as a grand slam. Problem is hitters today don’t see it that way, they are stubborn players who want style points for hitting homeruns instead of doing what’s right. So if the only thing a hitter has to do is hit a 2 run single to tie the game in the 9th inning with 2 outs, you can rest assure he is up there with bigger things in mind.

    Reply

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