Can Batters Successfully Modify Their Batting Approach?


Ted Williams heard it. (As if anybody had any business giving Ted Williams hitting advice!) Barry Bonds hears it. It’s very likely that Babe Ruth himself heard it:

Sure, walking is fine. But when you have runners to drive in, you need to swing the bat, be agressive. Expand the strike zone just a little, get the run home!

But can a batter just make an adjustment like that and still be successful? Will Bonds be able to hit that ball that he usually doesn’t swing at? Will he hit it as hard?

Another type of batter hears a different refrain:

You’ve got to cut down on the strikeouts, make contact. Put the ball in play, move the runners up. Make the defense work…

Many years ago I heard an announcer say that if Reggie Jackson could stop striking out, he’d be a .350 hitter. That’s true: Jackson, a career .262 hitter, would have hit .356 if he had never struck out. Obviously, nobody can reduce their strikeouts to zero, but can a batter even, say, reduce his strikeouts by 10-20%, in order to put the ball in play more often? Presumably, he’d have to take something off his swing to make better contact, how would that affect the balls that he does hit?

How Studying Sac Fly Situations Can Help

I try to answer these questions, or at least shed some light on the issue, in this report In a previous study I looked at how batters performed in sacrifice fly (SF) situations (runner on third base, fewer than two out) and compared that performance to their performance in all situations. I found that in sac fly situations batters tend to:

1. Enlarge their strike zone somewhat, walking less and putting more balls in play and
2. Cut down on strikeouts a bit, also resulting in more balls in play.

Here are the numbers:

             Fly     LD     GB    Pop      K     BB     HR      H     TB     AB
All Opps:   4193   2802   6555   1200   3426   1624    603   4777   7752  18183
 SF Opps:   4422   2667   6951   1215   3021   1520    507   5080   7834  18286
    Diff:    229   -135    396     15   -405   -104    -96    303     82    103
Diff Pct:    5.5   -4.8    6.0    1.3  -11.8   -6.4  -15.9    6.3    1.1    0.6

The details of the methodology are given in the previous article, but I remind the readers that I do not consider any plate appearances that resulted in an intentional walk, a hit batter or a bunt. Also, the method used compares players against themselves, so the contribution of any given player is the same in the “All Opps” and “SF Opps” samples. The first seven outcomes considered are all “defense-independent:” batted-ball types, strikeouts, (non-intentional) walks and home runs. It’s clear from the comparison that batters in SF situations put more balls in play by cutting down on strikeouts and walks. However, they also hit fewer line drives and fewer home runs, which suggests that they are losing some power by doing so.

The rightmost three columns above give the results for hits, total bases and at-bats. My goal is to see how the “sac fly approach” compares to the normal approach in general, not just in sac fly situations, so I count “sac flies” as ordinary outs, and an AB is charged for sac flies. We can look at the production of each approach:

         AB      H     2B     3B     HR     BB      K
All:  18183   4777    976     96    603   1624   3426
 SF:  18286   5080   1009    112    507   1520   3021

        AVG    OBP    SLG     RC   OUTS   RC27 
All:  0.263  0.323  0.426   2505  13406    5.0
 SF:  0.278  0.333  0.428   2611  13206    5.3

Recall, these quantities are not calculated in quite the standard way. IBB, HBP and bunts are ignored and a SF counts as an AB, so OBP is calculated as (H+BB)/(AB+BB). Runs Created are calculated using the simplest formula, RC = OBP * TB. So, at first glance, it appears that the “SF approach” is more productive. The reduction in HR (and BB) is more than offset by an increase in non-HR hits. However, this statement is no longer “defense-independent,” since we are now using hits and total bases in the comparison. The defense in the SF situation is likely to be aligned in such a way as to increase hits: infielders drawn in close and perhaps outfielders also. Let’s look at this in more detail.

How Defense Clouds the Issue

That hits actually do increase due to defensive alignment in SF situations can be checked by determining the fraction of batted balls that fall in for hits in SF situations. To establish a baseline, first let’s look at the generic case. The table given below shows the different possible outcomes for each batted-ball type (bunts excluded). For example, reading the 3rd row of the table, we see that a line drive (L) results in an out 26.4% of the time, a single 51.5%, a double 17.8%, a triple 1.5% and a HR 2.8%.

| batted-ball type | outs  | 1B    | 2B    | 3B    | HR    |
| F                | 0.734 | 0.055 | 0.078 | 0.012 | 0.120 |
| G                | 0.764 | 0.215 | 0.020 | 0.001 | 0.000 |
| L                | 0.264 | 0.515 | 0.178 | 0.015 | 0.028 |
| P                | 0.982 | 0.014 | 0.003 | 0.000 | 0.000 |

If now we look only at SF situations, the numbers change a bit:

| batted-ball type | outs  | 1B    | 2B    | 3B    | HR    |
| F                | 0.755 | 0.068 | 0.069 | 0.012 | 0.097 |
| G                | 0.749 | 0.227 | 0.023 | 0.001 | 0.000 |
| L                | 0.171 | 0.580 | 0.202 | 0.018 | 0.029 |
| P                | 0.977 | 0.021 | 0.002 | 0.000 | 0.000 |

As we saw earlier, fewer HR are hit, but more non-HR hits are dropping in. In particular, the overall hit rate for line drives increases from 73.6% to 82.9%. The defensive alignment employed by teams with a runner on third and fewer than two outs results in more hits dropping in, as we would expect. Overall, excluding HRs, the chance of a batted ball becoming a hit is .299 in SF situations, significantly higher than .283, which is the probability in all situations.

However, I’m interested if the “sac fly” approach is better than the standard approach, not just in sac fly situations but in general. In other words, if a batter hits more for contact, reducing both strikeouts and walks, does he improve his overall production?

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
Putting the SF performance in a generic context

To answer this question, we have to translate his performance in sac fly situations to generic situations. I have used the following technique to do this translation to a defensive-independent (DI) context:

1. Keep the defense-independent stats constant: K, BB, HR;
2. Calculate the number of singles, doubles and triples starting from the batted-ball types and applying the probabilities given above.

The probabilities used are the ones corresponding to generic situations. Here are the offensive components calculated in this way (labelled “DI” below):

         AB      H     2B     3B     HR     BB      K
All:  18183   4777    976     96    603   1624   3426
 SF:  18286   5080   1009    112    507   1520   3021
 DI:  18272   4721    973    102    507   1520   3021

As advertised, the defense-independent quantities (K, BB, HR) are unchanged in the translation. But fewer of the batted balls become hits, so the number of hits is reduced significantly. Here’s how these raw offensive stats contribute to run production.

        AVG    OBP    SLG     RC   OUTS   RC27 
All:  0.263  0.323  0.426   2505  13406    5.0
 SF:  0.278  0.333  0.428   2611  13206    5.3
 DI:  0.258  0.315  0.406   2339  13551    4.7

Here we can see that the performance of the “SF approach” is definitely worse than the “standard approach.” This makes sense, of course, since it implies that batters have chosen the better approach for the majority of the situations.


What can we take away from this little study of batting performance in sac fly situations? That, as a group, batters modify their hitting approach in such situations. They adopt a more “contact-oriented” approach, cutting down on strikeouts and walking less, in an effort to put more balls in play, with the goal of driving in the runner from third. I have not tried to determine if this is the correct strategy in sac fly situations; such an investigation could be performed with the play-by-play data and would be an interesting analysis in its own right. What I’ve tried to do here is answer the question “Is the ‘contact-oriented’ approach generally more productive than the standard approach?” The answer appears to be “no,” as can be seen after translating the aggregate performance in sac fly situations into a defense-independent context.

Can we say anything about what kinds of approaches individual batters should adopt? Based on this study, probably not. I have looked at groups of batters, but each batter is different and there is no a priori reason to believe that the group performance reflects the situation of any particular batter. As we saw in the sac fly article, the samples for individual batters are too small to draw any conclusions. However, the method of using particular situations to isolate a particular batting approach may prove fruitful in this regard. It may be possible to identify more inclusive situations, say “RISP” instead of just “sac fly,” where a particular batting approach can be studied. With some more work, more years can be included in the study (I’ve used 2003-2004 data for this analysis). It may ultimately be possible to answer the burning question:

If Jim Edmonds put the ball in play more often, would he be a more productive hitter?

References & Resources
Among a host of other useful things, Retrosheet makes major league play-by-play data available to anybody for free. Many thanks to the folks there for all their hard work.

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