Situational Baseball: Batting Approaches | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

This might not seem like a logical follow-up to my survey of Productive Outs last week. However, one of my contentions — that situational baseball just happens, it’s not something a batter can purposely seek — requires an investigation of batting profiles.

Successful baseball players are not blank slates. That is, they are not neutral athletes tossed into a game to answer a particular situation. It’s not as though a batter can actually look for a walk with no one on, look to hit behind a runner on first, look to hit a sacrifice fly with one out, etc. Each of those outcomes, should they occur, arise out of the particular approach of the batter: what pitches he recognizes, what pitches he can drive, what pitches he cannot hit, etc.

In the place of the idea of elastic ballplayers that play according to the situation, I propose the inverse: it is rather the ballplayers that are monolithic and determined, by their abilities, approaches, recognition, preferences. The players, then, impose their abilities and approaches on the game, forming elastic situations with outcomes that depend on those players.

This doesn’t mean that baseball is not a game of adjustments; it certainly is a game of adjustments between everyone involved. But, adjustments don’t mean that non-contact, power batters that sit and wait for their pitch to drive should change their approach with two strikes or tailor their approach to each particular situation; rather, it is their approach that leads to their ability to succeed. Adjustments occur within that approach.

In order to determine the best way teams can influence the game and swing situations in their favor, we can analyze their aggregate batting approaches by looking at individual players’ ability to bat the ball in play, alongside their other tendencies. Here’s one way to think about breaking down the game of baseball:

Contact: Think about contact as a player’s dependence on the batted ball in play to produce batting outcomes. A contact hitter is not necessarily a batter that doesn’t strike out, but rather, a batter that doesn’t strike out, walk, and hit home runs at rates that consistently keep his batting outcomes out of play.

Typically, in recent National League seasons, the average league player bats the ball in play around 70% of his plate appearances. A contact hitter would be a batter that not only bats the ball in play during more than 70% of his plate appearances, but does so at a significant rate (let’s say, more than 75% of his plate appearances result in batted balls in play).

By contrast, we can recognize players that rely on home runs and walks at higher rates as non-contact batters. These batters also typically strike out at high rates. So, we might call a non-contact batter one that bats the ball in play in less than 65% of his plate appearances.

Discipline/Patience: It’s nearly impossible to quantify discipline without knowing what a player thinks his best pitch is to hit, and how that player recognizes that pitch against all others. So, analysis of discipline necessarily reverts to ratios such as strike outs against walks, and percentage of swings at pitches outside of the strike zone. But, even this is not necessarily satisfactory, as some players have a huge range of pitches they can hit, and therefore swing at almost anything (Vlad Guerrero is this type of challenging player; a perfectly disciplined batter that happens to be able to hit anything).

Discipline is simply knowing what pitch is yours to drive, and the ability to recognize it and hit it. Patience is how you get there. For instance, players who build their game around driving the ball also tend to strike out a lot, not simply because they are whipping their bats through the zone, but also because they will lay off pitches that they cannot drive. Recent retiree Mike Cameron is a great example of this type of batter, and he was extremely successful at a discipline/patience/non-contact approach. To the frustration of many Brewers fans, Cameron simply would not swing at something that wasn’t his pitch; he might strike out because of that, but he also drew a ton of walks, and furthermore, bunches of home runs.

Patience is a batter’s ability to work through plate appearances in order to enact their best batting approach. Of course, this means that some extremely patient batters might not necessarily be extremely disciplined, as mistakes in pitch recognition could tilt the balance between strike outs, walks, and home runs in one direction.

It’s difficult to determine the best way to quantify the relationship between discipline and patience, but one of the best standby ratios is that between strike outs and walks, and then home run rates.

Some of these names will cross-reference with the productive outs survey I posted last week. For 2011 National League, I looked at the batters with the most plate appearances — 600+ PA, through 90% of 600 PA. This yielded a list of 51 batters.

I surveyed each batter, calculating their K%, BB%, and HR%, and for kicks I posted their Runs Created according to Baseball-Reference. .

Between “Average,” “Contact,” and “Non-Contact” batters, I also looked for certain sub-groups, analyzing players that hit for power separately (in some cases), and analyzing players with high K% or high BB% separately in some cases.

The general idea is, by understanding how these batters rely on the ball in play, while either leaning toward disciplined/undisciplined or patient/impatient approaches, we can understand how these players will influence ALL baseball situations, thereby composing the game. (Perhaps this will allow us to move away from the view that situations master ballplayers).

Stats Note: Read Each entry as PLAYER /K% / BB% / HR% / RUNS CREATED

Entries are not meant to be ranked in any particular way. If anything, players appear in order total PA.

Average Contact (K+BB+HR between 25% and 35%)

In 2011 National League, the average batter struck out just over 19% of the time, walking just over 8% of the time, and hitting home runs at 2.3%. What really struck me throughout this survey is that, even for players with average runs production, there really weren’t any players that approached the game at a perfectly average contact ratio.

As a result, even players within the “Average” contact range, i.e., players that rely on batted balls-in-play at a basically average rate, will fall toward certain extremes. For instance, we would not really consider groups of players that hit home runs at average or worse rates while striking out and walking at rates worse than league average to be the same type of “contact” batter as those players that hit home runs at above average rates while walking at above average rates (and striking out relatively infrequently).

If anything, this set of players, between 25% and 35% K+BB+HR, should prove that there are a high number of contact, discipline, and patience profiles. For these reasons, I do not believe that we can judge each player according to the situations in the game, but rather, we need to determine how each player influences the game overall.

Contact Batters (K+BB+HR below 25%)

(Upon further review, I should have placed Carlos Lee in the “true contact / discipline” section).

To divide contact batters, I found it instructive to organize players according to their walk ratio. It seems strange, but the contact batters with above average walk ratios were also pretty much the ones who hit home runs at high rates. Brandon Phillips and Aramis Ramirez are the two out-liars in this case.

However, I could have divided the other “True Contact” batters list into different groups, for even at low contact rates, there remain batters that have uneven K/BB ratios, (such as Starlin Castro and Yuniesky Betancourt), whereas others are more disciplined (James Loney and Brandon Phillips are examples here).

Non-Contact Batters (K+BB+HR above 35%)

Joey Votto and Prince Fielder, not unlike Albert Pujols, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos Lee, are just in their own world. Fielder’s and Votto’s walk rates are absurd, they hit a ton of home runs, but they don’t strike out. I don’t know what to call those two, other than “special.”

Not unlike our group of true contact-hitters, within this group of players that don’t rely on the batted ball-in-play to drive their batting approach, there remain several different types of discipline/patience profiles. For instance, Carlos Pena and Chris Young strike out at high rates, but they also have particularly strong walk rates (Dexter Fowler should probably be here, too). By comparison, some guys just strike out a lot — that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily any less disciplined than batters such as Yuniesky Betancourt and Starlin Castro; it simply means that their discipline/patience profile works in a different direction.

Of course, the difference is, most of these non-contact batters hit home runs at average or better rates; by my count, 11 of 13 non-contact batters hit home runs at average or better rates, whereas 6 of 14 contact batters hit home runs at average or better rates.

Batted balls in play determine the limits of the game of baseball. The rates at which players strike out, walk, and hit home runs frame those limits. It is the cumulative outcomes of these batting approaches that build situations, and as a result, we can expand our understanding of how teams can play situational baseball by moving beyond the constraints of allowing particular situations to influence our judgment of batting outcomes in those situations. As a result, we can learn about how players influence the game by performing in situations that are not typically considered “clutch” or “small ball” or “productive out” situations. It is through their batting approaches and abilities that players influence the game and determine situations; we will misunderstand baseball situations if we judge players according to the constraints of particular situations (rather than their own abilities).

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