Nov

3

I am a reasonably knowledgeable baseball fan (read a lot of Bill James) but have always wondered about the following very basic question:

Batter hits a line drive, but he is out because he hit right at a defensive player. Is that predominantly luck, a few feet left or right and it would have been a hit? Or has the defense correctly positioned its player and the pitcher correctly pitched to the batter to make it likely he would hit where the player is? I realize it's not 100% either way. But is it, say, 75% luck? Or 75% that the defense has correctly positioned itself and the pitcher correctly pitched to make it come out that way?

Phil McDonnell replies:

P McDThe game is played both ways. The batters try to aim for holes in the defense. The usual infield holes are between 1st and second, up the middle and between the 3rd baseman and shortstop. The outfield holes are the left center gap and right center gap. It is rather easy to hit a ball exactly where you want in a soft toss to yourself. The real problem is when the batter is facing a 90 mile an hour pitcher with maybe a little break on the ball. The key is to time the swing so that the bat hits at exactly the right angle. Sometimes batters just miss.

It is sometimes said that football is a game of feet and inches. If that is true then baseball is a game of millimeters. For example a ball hit squarely on the widest part of the bat will generally result in a line drive. But if the ball hits a little high then it may result in a fly ball or even a simple pop out. A little low and the batter will ground out.

Pitchers know that batters rely on timing the swing in order to hit the ball where they would like it. The key pitching counter strategy is to vary the speed of pitches. There is no pitcher in the major leagues who does not have a fast ball and at least one other off speed pitch. Changing speeds is the key to good pitching.

Pitch placement is also essential to good pitching. Generally most pitchers will throw fast inside and soft away. This forces the batter to read the speed earlier than otherwise if he is trying to place the ball by timing his bat angle.

Sometimes the fielders get into the act as well. The second baseman and shortstop will often read the catcher's signals and signal each other as to who will cover second base and who backs up if there is a runner on 1st. In this situation the batter will try to hit 'behind the runner' aiming for the hole between 1st and second. The double play 2nd to short to 1st is slightly more difficult than the short to 2nd to 1st. The reason is that shorts and 2nd basemen are always right handed. The guy at second has to turn his body in order to make the throw back to second with the shortstop covering.

The defense knows the batter will try to hit behind the runner and counters. The pitcher will tend to pitch fastballs inside to make it hard for the batter. The shortstop will probably play closer to 2nd to take the throw. This frees up the 2nd baseman to field a wider range.

There are statistical services that teams buy which analyze where a player is most likely to hit the ball. Usually it is shown as a scatter chart on a baseball diamond. Ted Williams was famous as a player who would predominantly hit to the right side of the field. Consequently several teams came up with the Williams shift, where they left only one outfielder and one infielder on the left side of the diamond. Initially the shift worked and Ted struggled a bit. But he finally demonstrated the fatal flaw in that defense by successfully bunting toward 3rd base which had a gaping hole.

In any one at-bat using these strategies only gives one a small edge, maybe 10%. The average player bats maybe 500 times in a season and there are nine players, so about 4500 chances in a season. On defense there are about the same number of chances for a total of maybe 9,000. But as in trading and gambling, over time a small edge adds up to a winning strategy.

Dr. McDonnell is the author of Optimal Portfolio Modeling, Wiley, 2008

Dean Davis adds:

On the two youth teams I coach we move our players into spaces where they have a greater chance to make a play depending on the pitch I call. For example I'll signal the right fielder to move in and to his left when I am pitching a right hander at the belt, but off the plate (away). That results in many outs from weakly hit fly balls to right field that would otherwise be singles that drop in. Sometimes we luck into a grounder hit through the hole that the tight right fielder can throw out at 1st. I build a defensive game plan around the tempting pitch that is hard to hit well.

Ken Drees writes:

In early youth leagues we were coached to check out the third baseman's position. If a right handed batter simply turned himself somewhat towards third base and opened his stance towards left, he could aim a hit down the line or in the hole depending on the 3rd baseman's position. This also gave the batter a better chance of making it to first since it was the 3rd baseman or left fielder against runner. The 3rd baseman had to field and make the long throw over to first and beat the runner. This was versus hitting the ball up the middle, where pitcher, second baseman or short stop seemed to be covering and the throws to first were more manageable.

This technique is erased as you go up the ladder, but it does help early players get some action if they seem to always be hitting straight into the defense. It also helps to eliminate hitting into easily turned double plays.

Rodger Bastien responds:

It's my view that it's mostly fortunate for the pitcher that the batter hit it directly to the fielder, with an assist to the defensive alignment, in some cases. In most instances, a batter is trying to simply make solid contact when facing a pitcher with outstanding stuff. When facing a pitcher who is struggling or faced with an at-bat that dictates situational hitting (i.e. man on 2nd no outs, need to hit to the right side to advance the runner) the batter is more likely to attempt to hit the ball somewhere specific. The defensive alignment plays a role due to the positioning of the fielders that is based on the advance scouting that each teams does which determines each hitter's tendencies throughout the season. Like so many things, this part of the game is more of an art than a science.

Laslo Minks remarks:

My belief is that it’s pure luck. You want to hit line drives, usually up the middle. And a good hitter goes with the pitch, you pull an inside pitch (if you are right handed) to left-field and an outside pitch to right. You want to hit it just over the infielders heads, but it is ridiculous to think that you are, for instance, trying to hit around the shortstop. The point of trying to hit line drives is that the horizontal velocity is the fastest and therefore most difficult to field. You hit line drives regularly and you will have a good batting average. You play the odds. If you hit it right to the shortstop or second or third baseman, that is just bad luck. Anyone who says differently is overthinking it.


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2 Comments so far

  1. Steve Leslie on November 5, 2009 10:09 am

    In American sports things are measured in inches, feet, yards and miles. The New York Yankees payroll is miles ahead of the competition. We could debate whether this is fair or not. We could debate whether the economics of baseball may make it virtually impossible for once noble and competitive teams such as KC,Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Cincinatti to be competitive annually.

    That said, the difference between success in sports on the field is measured in inches and feet. Steve Bartman reaches out in Chicago and catches a baseball which otherwise would have resulted in a critical out in a playoff game in 2003. Bill Buckner lets a ball roll through his legs and the Mets go on to win a critical game in the 86 World Series. Carlton Fisk, hits a home run in game six of the 75 WS off the pole. History is replete with many more examples of events which a few inches this way or that way would have changed the path of history.

    How do we explain it. It is luck, skill, fate, Karma, Kismet, sun spots. Is it just the way it is supposed to be? Perhaps there is no explanation that some things in the world cannot be explained.

    How many licks do it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. The world may never know. Look me up on facebook.

  2. Alex Hutton on November 12, 2009 9:28 am

    In no small way, this "luck" is measurable with BABIP. Of course, an extreme defensive alignment (Williams/Bonds/Etc. shifting mentioned above) used against a hitter will make this stat less informative for that particular player, but in the vast majority of cases you can get an idea if a batter was unsustainably "hitting them where they ain't".

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