Does Batting Average Matter?

I mean: At all?

Tango has a great little piece on his blog where he compares Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry. A comparison between the two players has long fascinated him, but more in an aesthetic way. He has wondered which type of hitter fans enjoy watching more:

The Darryl Strawberry low-average, lots of walks and strikeouts, lots of homers.


The Don Mattingly high-average, few walks and strikeouts, more doubles than homers.

Tango has found that people (and this might surprise you) actually prefer the Strawberry type more. We can get into that another time — I think I prefer the Mattingly type more, especially now that EVERYONE in baseball is Darryl Strawberry — but let’s move on to Tango’s more current question, which is this:

Does batting average matter at all?

Again, he uses Straw and Donnie Baseball. From age 21 to age 29, Mattingly and Strawberry were contemporaries who played about the same number of games (Straw got 286 more plate appearances). As you can see by their numbers, they were very different hitters:

Mattingly: .317/.364/.504 with 288 doubles, 15 triples, 169 homers, 258 Ks, 342 walks, 2,226 total bases.

Strawberry: .263/.359/.516 with 209 doubles, 34 triples, 280 homers, 1,085 Ks, 655 walks, 2,276 total bases.

When you look at those numbers, what difference stands out most? My guess is that most people would immediately point to the 54-point difference in batting average because, even with the recent bashing it has taken, batting average is an obvious thing, an inescapable stat. It still leads ALL the broadcasts. It is still the first number in the slash stat. It still remains powerful in our minds.

The question is not if that batting average difference tells us that Mattingly was the better hitter. We know, for a fact, that batting average alone cannot tell us that.

The question is: Does that 54-point advantage in batting average matter even a little bit?

Tango says “No,” and his argument is pretty difficult to fight off. He believes that not only does batting average not matter, it’s actually a distraction. You are diverted by the shiny sparkle of that .318 Mattingly average and you don’t even see what actually matters in hitting, which is creating runs.

Yes, Mattingly has 54 points of batting average on Strawberry because he almost never struck out. But he also almost never walked, and so Strawberry makes up almost the whole difference in on-base percentage by walking 300 more times.

It’s true that a walk isn’t EXACTLY as good as a hit because there are situations when a single does more.

But a walk is MOSTLY as good as a hit.

Then you go on to slugging and see that Strawberry not only makes up the 54 points difference but actually pushes ahead in slugging percentage. How does he do this? Easy: With triples and home runs.

Now you start adding things up and no matter how you slice it, Strawberry at least pulls even with Mattingly.

Strawberry creates a few more runs:

Strawberry: 851 runs created

Mattingly: 797 runs created

Strawberry has a slightly higher standard weight on-base average:

Strawberry: .375 wOBA

Mattingly: .372 wOBA

Strawberry has a higher OPS+:

Strawberry: 144 OPS+

Mattingly: 138 OPS+

And so on. The batting average makes no difference at all. Why not? Because there’s a tradeoff happening here. What the 54-point batting average difference cannot tell you is that Strawberry trades walks for hits, and he trades homers for doubles.

He loses a little in the walks for hits trade (using linear weights):

Single: .87 runs

Walk: .69 runs

And he gains a lot in the homer for doubles trade:

Home run: 1.93 runs

Double: 1.22 runs

You can do the math on this pretty easily. If I trade 10 walks for 10 singles, I lose 1.8 runs. If I trade three homers for three doubles, I gain 2.13 runs.

And batting average misses ALL OF THIS. It doesn’t care about walks and doesn’t care about what kind of hit you make. It adds absolutely nothing to our consideration of a player’s value. When Tango writes this, I think he’s exactly right:

That’s why the batting average is inconsequential. And that the vast majority of voters used the higher batting average as essentially the tie-breaker is why we should stop talking about batting average. It’s a bias that clouds our view of players.

So, that’s out of the way.

BUT … there is a but.

All of the above is true, as I see it. But this is also true: Batting average has been a vital part of baseball for more than 100 years. It is deeply embedded in the game and in our love of the game. Are we supposed to simply throw away so much history? Are we supposed to just forget that Ted Williams hit .400 in 1941 or that Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average is .366 or that Khris Davis has hit .247 four years in a row (though, alas, it appears that streak might end this year). Are we supposed to stifle our excitement when we see that someone is hitting .389 the first two months of the season and we just might have another .400 chase?

Should we eradicate the term “.300 hitter” from our vocabularies?

No, that’s no answer. Batting average may be a distraction in analysis, but that does not mean that it is entirely without value. Packaged together with on-base percentage and slugging percentage, it gives you a quick and easy snapshot of the KIND of player we’re looking at. If may not offer a good answer on if Mattingly or Strawberry was better but it does a very good job (especially when packaged with on-base and slugging) of telling you what Mattingly and Strawberry looked like as hitters.

That .318 average of Mattingly’s evokes the pro at the plate, deep in his crouch, scanning the defense, looking for a gap.

That .260 average of Strawberry evokes the long and beautiful stride that missed often but when it connected … wonder.

But even more than that, batting average is there for nostalgia, for a connection to the past, for an easy entry for casual fans, for a conversation point at the game. Hey, look, Mike Trout is hitting hitting .298! If he gets a hit in his next at-bat, he will be at .300! Does this matter? Sure it does.

These things are not insignificant. In a time when attendance falls and television ratings fall with them, we don’t need to be alienating those fans who live and die with batting averages. And we don’t need to be shutting down baseball avenues that are interesting and fun.

I think, in the end, we could view batting averages the way we view hitting streaks. When it comes to a player’s value, both are beside the point — neither is helpful in telling you how good a player is. But hitting streaks are still cool in their own way. They’re still interesting. They’re still fun. They might not matter at all, but if anyone would ever approach Joe D’s 56-game hitting streak, the nation would be going out of its mind, and I’d be leading the parade.

Two homers: Record Day

We made it, the Major League record, 30 days in a row with a two-homer game

The late and great magician Ricky Jay used to do something really fun. He would have a dozen or so people in the audience pick a different card. Then he would find each those cards in the most delightful and surprising way.

You can see the performance here in his television special, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants. The whole show is wonderful, but if you want to see just the amazing card findings, you can jump to 23:28.

So, what, is the point here to awkwardly tell a magic story as a pitiful excuse to mention — because I don’t know that I’ve mentioned this before — that I wrote a book about Harry Houdini and wonder that comes out October 22?

No. Well, OK, yes, but also no.

The point is that right before Ricky Jay would find the cards, he would say this: “Actually I have to confess at this point during the show every evening, I wonder what it would be like if I didn’t find those cards. … Just a thought."

And I must confess that Tuesday night, when the all-time record for consecutive days with a two homer game was broken, I wondered what it would be like if I just didn’t write about it. What would happen if I just pretended that I had never started this series and never mentioned any of this again?

Just a thought.

Three different players had multi-homer games on Tuesday. That makes 30 days in a row that somebody, anybody, hit two or more home runs in a game. That’s the big league record. And there’s no end in sight.

I keep calling this “a record,” but is it really? See, it’s something nobody ever counted before. I suspect that if I had not started writing about this, nobody would have counted this time either. It’s only a record because some goofball counted.

That is one of the fascinating things about records — it’s only a record if we count it. I’ve often thought that one of the most cherished records in baseball, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, is kind of a random thing. Consecutive days with a hit? That’s a pretty weird thing to count.

Consecutive days with a hit: A record.

Consecutive games where a pitcher broke a bat: Not a record.

Why not? Because haven’t counted that. I imagine the record WOULD belong to Mariano Rivera who seemed to break two bats a night when his cutter was buzzing its loudest. But we didn’t count when Ryan or Gibson or Koufax or Feller were pitching. And so it isn’t a record.*

*This turns sad when you consider all those lost records from the Negro Leagues. Wouldn’t you love to go back in time and actually count just how many home runs Josh Gibson hit, how many strikeouts Satchel Paige had, how many stolen bases for Cool Papa Bell. We can guess, but we don’t know, we can’t know, and that’s just a little bit heartbreaking.

I started counting this two-homer thing because I subscribe to Baseball Reference’s Stathead Newsletter (and you should too!). Every morning when the email arrived I looked at “Yesterday’s Top Performers,” to see if a player hit two homers. It was just this thing I did. And then I started counting days. And then I realized that there was a streak going on. And then, at Day 19 of this endless streak, I started writing about it.

And that led us here: Day 30, the longest such streak in the long history of baseball.

And, like Ricky Jay, I have to confess …

— OK, so I had never heard of this Will Smith before. I’ve obviously heard of Will Smith, the American actor, rapper and media personality (according to Wikipedia). I’ve heard of Bill Smith, who was briefly the Twins GM and Willie Smith, a basketball player who briefly played for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Billy Ray Smith, the Chargers defensive end, and Barkin’ Bill Smith, the blues singer. I’m well aware of the other baseball Will Smith, the pitcher who started his career with Kansas City and this year made the All-Star team as a Giants reliever.

But Will Smith, the Dodgers guy who crushed my spirit — he was the first player to hit two homers on Tuesday — no, I had missed him.

That’s on me: This Will Smith is not obscure. He was a first round pick by the Dodgers in 2016. He was a Top 100 prospect before the year began. He has been up and down a couple of times this year.

And he’s been absolutely CRUSHING the ball. Since being called up the last time on July 27, this Will Smith is hitting .356/.392/.911 with six doubles and seven homers in 14 games.

That’s just what these already amazing Dodgers needed, a 23-year-old catcher who is also Lou Gehrig.

Today’s crazy homer stat: The Dodgers hit six home runs in their 15-1 shellacking of Miami. That was the 21st time this year that a team has hit six or more home runs in a game … and, yes, that’s a record. The previous record had been 18 games set back in 2003.

In 1992, 1984, 1982, 1973 and several other seasons, exactly ZERO teams hit six home runs in a game. Just so we understand what’s happening.

— OK, good on ya Tom Murphy. I can’t be mad at you. Yes, you are a backup catcher, and you hit two home runs last SEASON and, yes, you just hit two home runs to contribute to this streak that will never, ever, ever end.

But, I mean … THIS:

That cartwheel just about made this whole series worthwhile. Just about.

— The Phillies brought back the legend, Charlie Manuel, to be batting coach. This has nothing to do with the home run series but I bring it up because my dear friend, the wonderful actress Ellen Adair, does this wonderful thing — when her Phillies do something, she sometimes posts a photo of herself making a face that best represents her feelings. I love this so much that I have now begun to hound her for Ellen Faces on every moment. The minute the Manuel news went public, I demanded an Ellen Face. And, as always, she delivered.

— The third Kyle Seager home run on Tuesday was so ridiculous that … well, let’s see it in pictures.

Here’s the pitch:

Here’s the swing:

Pop-up, right? It’s 98.4 exit velocity, 32 degree launch angle, ball carried 363 feet the other way. Well let’s see what happens! Looks like Tigers centerfielder Niko Goodrum and leftfielder Brandon Dixon are there on the warning track to make the play. It’s Goodrum’s ball!

Wait, what is this madness?

You’ve got to be kidding me.


And here’s where the story ends:

Kyle Seager is the sixth different player to hit three home runs in a game during the streak. We call these three-homer games Mookies after three-homer maven Mookie Betts. This was Seager’s first Mookie.

Brilliant reader in England Alan Clements believes we should have a name for two-homer games as well. He suggests calling them “Hanks” after Hank Greenberg who has the record for most two-homer games in a season (he had 11 two-homer games in 1938). I’m not opposed, though I will say that saying some player had a Hank doesn’t quite feel right.

One other option — while Hank Greenberg does hold the record alone for two-homer games, he is tied with Sammy Sosa for most games in a season with TWO OR MORE home runs. So we could call these games Hankosas.

I’ll leave it to you to decide in the comments.

For those of you who are reading this series for the first time — well, hey, I had to make the record-breaking-day free — thank you and welcome and glad you are here. This is basically what we do here at JoeBlogs. I write absurd blog posts, many about baseball, some about other stuff like who the real villain in A Few Good Men. They are streams of consciousness, littered with all the typos and broken thoughts you might expect from steams of consciousness. This is raw and unadulterated nonsense. I don’t know if that’s much of a sales pitch, but if this sounds like your kind of thing, hey, here’s the subscribe button.

Miller and Hochevar

A Twitter thread last week reminded me of one of the strangest sportswriting experiences of my life. It doesn’t really have anything to do with anything but then, that’s part of the charm/annoyance of JoeBlogs, right?

Bryan went on to say that he remembered showing me how to get to the media room that day (I remember this too, actually) and that my old boss and buddy at Matt Meyers was there as well (I have no recollection of this).

All this brought back what a strange and wild time that was in 2006.

Here are the three basic themes of that crazy time:

  1. The Kansas City Royals had the first pick in the draft for the first time in team history.

  2. The Royals fired general manager Allard Baird SIX DAYS before that draft. Yes, six days. Baird had been working with the scouting department for close to a year preparing for the draft, but the Royals got off to another terrible start and the team thought firing him just before the draft was the right thing to do.

  3. The Royals hired new general manager Dayton Moore FIVE DAYS before that draft, but with a catch. Moore — because he had been working closely with Atlanta scouts on their draft preparation — publicly recused himself from the Royals draft. He didn’t think it would be fair to take his scouting from the Braves with him to Kansas City. So he announced that he would not officially begin his work rebuilding the Royals until the draft was over.

These three factors led to what Vince Blight would call: “Chaos.”

Think about it: The Royals were terrible, they had the No. 1 pick, the most important pick in team history, and nobody even knew who was in charge. The Royals did have a scouting director, Deric Ladnier, who was left over from the Baird regime. He would be responsible for making the pick. But he also knew that Moore was going to become his boss the day after the draft, so he obviously wanted to make a pick that would make Dayton happy. And he also knew that the Glass family had just fired Allard Baird, so he wanted to make a pick that would make them happy.

Yes. Chaos.

I was columnist for The Kansas City Star at the time, and so I was generally used to Royals chaos. But even for Kansas City, this draft fiasco was something new. I diligently worked my sources for months and months and figured out that there were four players who the Royals were targeting:

No. 1: Andrew Miller, a 6-foot-7 lefty fireballer at the University of North Carolina who reminded some of Randy Johnson.

No. 2: Brad Lincoln, a righty at the University of Houston who impressed Royals scouts with his feel for pitching. You heard them saying that Lincoln was “closest to the majors,” a tag that is fraught with all kinds of baggage. Usually when you are talking about someone being “closest to the majors,” you are also talking about a player who has a low ceiling, a player who has a good shot at making it but less of a shot at being great.

No. 3: Tim Lincecum, a 5-foot-11 whirlwind of a pitcher out of the University of Washington. Lincecum was widely viewed as a freak — or perhaps, more correctly, THE FREAK:

Even then, Lincecum had this crazy windup that looked like Tommy John surgery in human form. But nobody could hit him. Would he get hurt? Would he be a reliever? Would he be Sandy Koufax? Everything seemed on the table for Lincecum.

No. 4: Brandon Morrow, a pitcher at the University of California, seemed to be the choice of the scouting moderates, those scouts who thought Miller and Lincecum too risky and Lincoln too safe. Sort of the Sherrod Brown of prospects.

One thing that everyone agreed on — the Royals would DEFINITELY take a pitcher. The talk before the draft was that it was rich in pitching prospects. And, not to jump ahead, but this turned out to be true — the 2006 first round featured two of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.

Unfortunately, the Royals never talked about either one of them.

There was a Texas high school pitcher named Clayton Kershaw. The Royals were not interested in high school pitchers that year.

And, absurdly, there was a pitcher less than two hours from Kansas City pitching at the University of Missouri named Max Scherzer.

To be fair to the Royals, nobody saw Scherzer as the No. 1 overall pick. He was taken with the 11th pick, and that seemed to be about where he was projected to go. But to be unfair to the Royals — Max Scherzer was RIGHT UP THE ROAD. They failed to draft Albert Pujols, who went to high school and junior college in Kansas City. They failed to draft Max Scherzer, who went to the University of Missouri.

How much different would everything have been if they had taken those two guys?

Anyway, getting back to the moment: Once the firing and hiring happened, it was unclear who knew what. I still worked over my sources to get any information I could, and just days before the draft it became clear that Andrew Miller had moved into the lead. Mock drafts mostly had Miller going No. 1. My sources generally confirmed.

Still, I didn’t have it locked down. The weekend before the draft, I was charged with finding out who the Royals were going to pick and then traveling to write a story about him. It sure looked like Miller. But I tried to get a confirmation by using a classic reporter tactic, a version of one that you might have seen in All the President’s Men.

OK, it wasn’t exactly like All the President’s Men, but here’s what I did: I called my best source with the Royals and I said something like this: “Look, I know you’re not going to tell me who you are drafting. But I’m about to get on a plane to go see Andrew Miller pitch. So please just tell me: Am I wasting my time?”

And here’s what he told me: “No. You are not wasting your time.”

Looking back, I suppose I was a bit blind in thinking that he was actually telling me something. He might have simply meant, “Hey, you’ll like watching Miller pitch, that won’t be a waste of time.”

Or: “You being there might throw people from other teams off the scent of who we are really picking, so that’s certainly not a waste of time.”

Or “I’ve read your stuff, I mean, you write like 10,000 word posts on infomercials so, uh, heading to Chapel Hill and watching Andrew Miller pitch seems as good a use of your time as anything else you do.”

Or he could have meant nothing at all. But I took his meaning as, “Oh yeah, Miller is still our No. 1 target,” and so I flew Chapel Hill to watch him pitch. I remember that the flight was seriously delayed, which stunk but it did allow me to do all sorts of research on Miller. I found out that he pattered himself after — well, you guess:

A. Randy Johnson
B. Sandy Koufax
C. Steve Carlton
D. NASCAR driver Tony Stewart

Correct, it’s D, Miller saw himself as a hard-charging race-car driver as a pitcher, and I prepared to really dive in on that theme. The Royals were drafting a NASCAR pitcher! Whoo hoo!

I got to the ballpark late — plane issues, if I remember right. I sat down. And no kidding within two minutes of arriving, a scout I knew came up to me and said: “Hey, what are you doing here?”

And I said: “Um, I’m here to see Miller.”

And he said: “Really? I hear the Royals are set on Luke Hochevar.”

Two minutes after I got there, he told me that. TWO MINUTES.

So, yeah, I should have called HIM with the wasting time question rather than the Royals dude.

Hochevar was a crazy story himself. He was a Dodgers first-round pick in 2005 but his agent was Scott Boras, which tells you all you need to know. Hochevar held out for more money, the Dodgers refused to pay more money, and Boras/Hochevar decided to go pitch independent ball in order to showcase his stuff for the next draft.

The Royals went to see him pitch more or less at the last minute. And apparently, they had been blown away.

None of this sat well with me. Well, obviously it didn’t sit well with me because I actually was wasting my time in Chapel Hill. But that was not really a big deal; there’s a lot of wasted time in sportswriting. No, my big question was: Why would the Royals want to draft a guy with the first overall pick who had been taken with the 40th pick a year earlier and then sat out a whole year and was going to be a hassle to sign and, not insignificantly, was about to turn 23 years old? What were the chances THAT was going to work out?

It made no sense to me at all.

But it does now.

See, in the years that have passed, though, I’ve developed a theory about what happened in 2006 — it’s a a theory I often apply to difficult decisions. I call it the Option J theory. I remember something Ladnier told me during the madness:

“I’d rather lose my job making the right choice than keep my job making a choice based on public opinion.”

The Royals were TRYING to make the right decision under the most bizarre and extreme circumstances. And in that setting, I’m sure they went round and round and round on their choices, to the point where none of them sounded too good. My guess is that they had gone over each player so many times that they could only see the negatives. They could only the injury risk with Lincecum. They could only see the low ceiling with Lincoln. They could only see the inconsistent delivery of Miller. And so on. And so on.

And — haven’t you been here when making a decision? — you finally get to the point where you’re not excited about any of your choices. Option A? Blech. Option B? Worse. Option C? Gross. You need something totally different, something entirely out of the box … you need Option J.

And then … Luke Hochevar became available. Whoa! Who would have thought that? He was supposed to be on the Dodgers. He was supposed to be out of reach. And that idea started sounding pretty good. And then they went to see Hochevar pitch independent ball and … whoa! He looked good! Electric stuff!

And, suddenly, the Royals saw a way out of their mess. They could just take Option J.

Option J flopped because Option J always flops. The Royals rushed Hochevar to the big leagues even though he struggled in the minors. He went 13-25 with a 6.06 ERA his first two seasons with the Royals and sort of chugged along from there. He led the league in earned runs allowed in 2012. He was not the worst No. 1 overall pick, not by a long shot — he got almost 1,000 innings in the big leagues — but when you look back at what the Royals could have done with that first pick in 2006 … well, as Satchel Paige said, don’t look back.

Speaking of Satchel Paige, here’s a photo of the guy the Royals almost drafted, Andrew Miller, standing next to the Paige statue at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

That’s awesome You know that MIller has had an amazing career. He, like Hochevar, couldn’t quite make it as a starter (21-29 with a 5.79 ERA his first six seasons, most of them as a starter). But then, Miller became a super-reliever and a bit of a legend. Since 2012, he has a 2.38 ERA, a .970 WHIP and has averaged 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings. I can’t say he would have done that for the Royals and so cannot say the Royals made a mistake not drafting him — it’s more the Scherzer and Kershaw misses that leave a mark.

But I can say that Miller, in the end, did become a NASCAR pitcher, and I can finally use that material in a story.

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