Baseball used to analyze hitting by batting average, runs scored, runs batted in, and possibly on base percentage. The new science of baseball analytics is called sabermetrics and it goes far beyond these four statistics – into many many statistics gathered on each game, player, manager, play, pitch, hit, walk, run, weather, day of the week – you get the idea.
The first notion that became important in the 1980’s and 90’s is that every pitch is important. They are important for pitchers and defenders also and here we’ll talk about their importance to batters.
Pitchers have more pitches in their arsenal. They can impart spin in order to make a ball rise, sink, bend, or stay flat. The batter has to know the pitcher’s set of pitches, his general tendencies, and his situational tendencies.
This is the area that best demonstrates the weakness in the batting average statistic. In a situation with a runner or runners on base, a run can be created without a home run. Also, in a situation where there is no one on base, a run can begin to be created by the batter getting on base. So, decades ago, people argued that walks needed to be considered along with batting average. That gives you on base percentage.
Situational hitting is similar to playing the cerebral Vegas casino games online. In blackjack and poker you have to think about the situation. The chances of winning are vastly enhanced when players do so.
Observers then argued that the number of bases a batter can generate is more important than batting average and might be more important than on base percentage. The statistic you get when you divide at bats with total bases is called slugging percentage. The new statistic born of this observation is OPS which is on base percentage plus slugging percentage.
Situational Hitting Revisited
Many players can’t generate a high slugging percentage. Many players can hit a lot of doubles or just some doubles but few triples and home runs. How, then, can we gauge their offensive ability? We look at how they contribute to run production for their team.
The first parameter is on base percentage. Following this measurement is the ratio of strikeouts to walks. A player who strikes out a lot contributes far less to overall team run production than a player who makes contact.
Then analysts look at rate of grounding into double plays. This failure on offense takes teams out of run producing situations more than all other failures except strikeouts. So, in many situations, a pitcher will either try to strike out a batter or will try to get him to ground into a double play. Efficient batters will know this in the applicable situations and will adjust their hitting to compensate for the pitcher’s strategy.
Sometimes this entails fighting off a pitch. This ability can be seen in the number of foul balls a batter hits and especially with two strikes on him. In this way, situational hitting, which has been understood to be important for many decades, is married to strikeout to walk ratio, to on base percentage, and to a player’s ability to contribute to team run production.
On base percentage becomes a good measure of a batter’s ability to adjust within an at bat and keep his team’s run production possibility alive.
Radical Theory of Hitting
Especially in modern baseball, where teams and players value home runs above all else, there is a radical theory that no team is trying to use to generate runs. That radical theory is that while on base percentage is important because it takes into account a player’s patience at bat and his ability to avoid poorly hit balls or strikeouts, the most important hit in baseball is the double not the home run.
We all know that outer space is mostly empty space. This is true despite the incomprehensible number of stars, asteroids, and other heavenly bodies.
In baseball, empty space is represented by where home runs land and where foul balls land that can’t be caught. That space is completely empty. But defenses allow hitters a great deal of empty space down the lines and in the outfield gaps. Players trying to hit balls in this empty space can generate many half runs in the form of doubles.
Relief to Pitchers
Many pitchers who give up a solo home run feel a sense of relief. The run has scored; there is no pressure to prevent the run from scoring. The pitcher doesn’t have to change his windup. Statistically, a double with no outs is almost as likely to score as a home run but it puts a tremendous burden on the pitcher.
In trying to stop the man on second base from scoring, he often makes a mistake regarding the batter who gets a hit to drive in the run and the pitcher still has to contend with a runner on base.
Both doubles and home runs involve batted balls. But players who hit a lot of home runs also strike out a lot while batters who hit a lot of doubles strike out far less. Thus, players who strike out less may in the long run contribute more to overall team run production than players who hit a lot of home runs but also strike out a lot.
In other words, it’s very easy to overvalue home runs and concomitantly undervalue on base percentage and OPS.
Taxing Opposing Pitchers
Teams that value OPS over home runs tax opposing pitchers far more than the reverse. Since baseball teams play three or four games against each other at a time before one or both travels to a different city, batting with an eye on OPS in the first game of a series may tax the opposing team’s pitchers to the extent that it contributes to winning one or both of the next two games in a three game series.