The 2010 Yogi Berra Award

As we did last year, we are here to honor a player who showed, during the past season, a trait which is historically attributed to the great Yogi Berra. For those among you who are now expecting a list of exhilarating quotes, I’m sorry but you have to look elsewhere, because in this article we are celebrating another characteristic of the Yankee catcher.

Yogi as a hitter was feared by opposing pitchers because they didn’t know what to throw to him.

Yogi (Berra) had the fastest bat I ever saw. He could hit a ball late, that was already past him, and take it out of the park. The pitchers were afraid of him because he’d hit anything, so they didn’t know what to throw. Yogi had them psyched out and he wasn’t even trying to psych them out. – Hector Lopez

It’s quite easy to swing at anything. Being productive while doing so is a different matter. While Berra was said to swing at bouncing balls as well as at pitches over his head, hard data tell us that Yogi struck out just 414 times in 8,364 plate appearances in his career (19 seasons), and never more than 38 times in a season (thanks to reader Paul Gottlieb for pointing to this while commenting on last year article). Thus, at the end of this piece we’ll award the prize to a player who swung at a lot of really bad pitches while not suffering too much in his production.

Reading the article from last year might be helpful, but it’s not necessary, as the ground rules will be briefly discussed in this one.

A bad ball is defined as a pitch that is called a strike by the umpires less than 10 percent of the time (if the batter doesn’t swing). Only hitters who have been fed at least 300 bad balls will be considered for the award and will appear in any of the following tables.

Let’s start with the players with the highest percentage of swings on bad balls.

               player    pct  pitches
         Miguel Olivo     37  	584
    Vladimir Guerrero     36  	876
       Ivan Rodriguez     35  	559
      A.J. Pierzynski     35  	538
      Alfonso Soriano     34  	871
       Jeff Francoeur     34  	691
       Pablo Sandoval     34  	884
        Alex Gonzalez     32  	785
       Brennan Boesch     32  	693
        Ichiro Suzuki     31   1020

(pct: percentage of swings on bad balls.  pitches: bad balls seen)

Some usual suspects are on the list: As we said last year, swinging at bad pitches is a repeatable “skill.” The correlations between the percentage in 2009 and the percentage in 2010 is 0.85 (95 percent confidence interval: 0.81 – 0.88); last year we had found a value of 0.84 between 2008 and 2009.

Now let’s see who is most likely to make contact with the baseball on bad pitches. In the following table the number of whiffs on balls way out of the zone has been divided by the number of swings on bad pitches.

              player   whiff%   swings
       Marco Scutaro       11       88
         Juan Pierre       16      179
       Bengie Molina       19      117
       Nick Markakis       19      166
          Nick Punto       23       66
       Ichiro Suzuki       23      313
       Jamey Carroll       23       92
      Pablo Sandoval       23      298
         James Loney       24      195
    Alberto Callaspo       24      119

(whiff: percentage of misses on swings on bad balls. swings: swings on bad balls)

The above list is a mix of the most disciplined hitters and the free swingers. (If one doesn’t know the hitting tendencies of Scutaro and Ichiro, he has to look no further than the last column of the table.)

Here are the batters who produced the highest run value when swinging at bad balls.

              player    RV100  pitches
    Cliff Pennington    -0.04  761
     Troy Tulowitzki    -0.11  685
       Josh Hamilton    -0.16  831
        Ryan Theriot    -0.24  760
       Nick Markakis    -0.24  950
       Jamey Carroll    -0.25  587
     Carlos Gonzalez    -0.34  831
       Ichiro Suzuki    -0.37 1020
      Pablo Sandoval    -0.43  884
         Mike Aviles    -0.47  521

(RV100: Run Value per 100 bad balls seen. pitches: bad balls seen)

However, as was the case in 2009, no player produced a higher run value (on those pitches) than he would have totaled had he refrained to swing.

              player    RVnet  pitches
    Cliff Pennington    -0.70  761
       Jose Bautista    -0.86 1025
       Jamey Carroll    -0.88  587
         Ian Kinsler    -0.93  581
       Rafael Furcal    -0.95  555
      Dustin Pedroia    -0.95  436
     Josh Willingham    -1.00  639
        Daric Barton    -1.03  929
      Jeff Keppinger    -1.05  675
       Nick Markakis    -1.07  950

(RVnet: Net Run Value on bad balls. pitches: bad balls seen)

A copy/paste of last year’s explanation on the net run value reported in the above table won’t hurt here.

For each bad ball
{exp:list_maker}if the batter didn’t swing, assign the run value of the pitch (likely the run value of a ball; but if the ump called it a strike, then the run value of a strike);
if the batter swung, assign the run value of the outcome minus the expected run value of the pitch had the batter not swung (that is something like 90-percent-plus-something times the run value of a ball, plus 10-percent-minus-something times the run value of a strike).

Finally, the difference in run production between swings on bad balls and swings on sure strikes (pitches who would have been called for strikes at least 90 percent of the time had the batter held his wood on his shoulder).

              player delta
        Brendan Ryan  3.15
       Chone Figgins  2.77
    Cliff Pennington  2.41
    Michael Brantley  2.30
       Ronny Paulino  2.10
      Scott Hairston  2.00
      Pablo Sandoval  1.52
          Mark Ellis  1.44
         Juan Pierre  1.33
          Nick Punto  1.28

(delta: Run Value from swings on bad balls minus Run Value from swings on pitches down the middle)

It’s quite surprising to find batters who perform better on pitches out of sight than on offerings right down Broadway. Some adjustment is probably needed here as ball-strike count is not in the equation and neither is pitch type; thus it might be that the players on top of the list are seeing pitches down the middle in different counts (for example on 3-0 counts and thus taking them for strikes most of the time), or they are served only with breaking balls on the fat part of the plate.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Well, it’s time to crown our 2010 Yogi Berra Award winner.
It’s a two-man race between Ichiro Suzuki and Pablo Sandoval, both among the top 15 in the following categories: percentage of swings on bad balls, run value per 100 pitches on bad ball swings, lowest whiff rate on swings of bad balls, difference in production between bad balls and sure strikes.
A honorable mention is due for Cliff Pennington, who has great numbers across the board except for the percentage of swings, which is sort of the point for the award. If he starts biting, he is a good candidate for next year.

Meanwhile, the Award goes to…

drum roll…

Pablo Sandoval!

The Panda wins the prize for the second year in a row.

References & Resources
Bad balls have been defined according to pitch locations provided by PITCHf/x.

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Daniel Wong
11 years ago

Hi Max,

I read your 2009 Yogi Berra Awards article and was very excited to see the 2010 version. I feel that the most important category in determining the best bad-ball hitter in the game is the last category that highlights the difference in run production between swings on bad-balls against those on sure strikes so I am glad to see you included it in this year’s analysis. David Pinto just wrote an interesting piece on the end of Garret Anderson’s career in which he highlights Anderson’s recent inabilities to hit strikes that seems to serve as an example of a player who is just a better bad-ball hitter. I also read a post from June that tried to explain Pablo Sandoval’s first-half slump was a result of being too much of a free-swinger. This led me to believe that he must not be the same kind of bad-ball hitter that he was in 2009. However, your final analysis proves otherwise, as it seems as though he is actually the fourth most productive batter on balls outside the strike zone in the Majors. Do you think improving Sandoval’s plate discipline would hurt his overall production? It is obvious something needs to change based on the incredible decreases from 2009 to 2010 (wRAA from 35.2 to -3.3), but it seems as if his approach at the plate did not significantly move between the years (similar runs on bad-balls).

As you most certainly know, 2010 seems to have been a year where pitching dominated. However it looks like some of the data that you presented might contradict this. Comparing the 2009 numbers to those from 2010, this year’s net run value on batted balls seems to be significantly lower. Why do you think this is the case? It appears to me that this phenomenon would be indicative of hitters improving to the point where they are able to get base hits on balls that, in previous years, would have had an alternative outcome. It is amazing to me that players like Pennington, Tulowitzki, and Hamilton are able to essentially breakeven on swings where the pitches had a 90% chance of going for balls. Do you think that a slight tightening of the strike zone by umpires might have skewed the numbers a bit from last year, or can the difference just be attributed to variance? Finally, writer Tim Kurkjian wrote an article in 2002 that looked to find some of the best bad-ball hitters of all-time. He mentioned Clemente, Guerrero, Gywnn, and Puckett among others, all Hall of Famers or future ones. In your opinion, is the ability to hit a bad pitch an innate baseball skill, or something learned or incorporated into a playing style at a young age? I have always found it interesting to try to imagine Vladimir Guerrero with Frank Thomas like plate discipline. Anyways, thanks for your time as I really enjoyed your article and find this study extremely fascinating.

Max Marchi
11 years ago

thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment.
I’m going to read the suggested articles before trying to cover every point you brought up.

Here, I’ll try to give my point of view regarding your last question:
“In your opinion, is the ability to hit a bad pitch an innate baseball skill, or something learned or incorporated into a playing style at a young age?”

As in everything else in life, I believe bad-ball hitting is part nature, part nurture. But I also think bad-ball hitting is a by-product of another trait.
A kid is born either selective or free-swinger, or becomes either one at a very young age; I suspect that plate discipline can be taught after a certain age, but it’s a hard work turning a Francoeur into a Scutaro.
So you have the disciplined kids and the hacking kids (obviously they are in a continuum). Among the free-swingers some will hit the wind, others will get good wood on whatever pitch they get.
The first group is soon out of baseball (except for pitchers or extremely good fielders).
Those in the second are unlikely to give up a style that is productive for them.
Summing up, I believe the not-being-selective part is more innate than learned; becoming productive while being a free-swinger is
something you acquire to survive the diet of bad balls you’ll be served as soon as they discover your tendencies.