A baseball player’s day at the golf club

It was supposed to be a Sunday spent accompanying our friends and their kids to a Jurassic fossil excavation pit. I know. But, the friends are nice and one of their kids is actually our Godchild, so you do those things from time to time. And it was indeed a Sunday spent accompanying our friends and their kids to a Jurassic fossil excavation pit until the moment where a tennis ball came flying from Heaven.

It turned out that the pit shares a fence with a golf club where they had some sort of an Open Door Sunday. To show his gratitude, the guy whom we retrieved the ball for invited us over, thus mercifully ending our paleontological endeavors. To be fair, he actually invited the *kids* over to play kids golf with said tennis balls, but you know how much crime goes on these days, you can’t be careful enough and should never leave the children unattended.

So, about thirty seconds later, I had filled some sort of score card expressing my interest in joining the club and was assigned an instructor who took me to the driving range. Sunday was saved.

I was given a club and then shown a series of hand grips, slides, finger interlocks, crossovers and whatnots in an elaborate scheme that would put an average NBA handshake to shame. These were (I think) designed to help me understand how to place my hands on the club properly. After two minutes I interrupted the guy, “I know how to grip a bat, mate”, and was finally allowed to take some cuts:

SWINGING STRIKE, 0-1

To start with, I was not given a big-ass club as you see on TV. Actually it wasn’t a club at all, I have no idea why they call them that. It was a tiny thin metal stick. Also, the balls were so small. And they weren’t put on a tee but on some carpet. Which is perhaps not all bad news, because some of my most embarrassing baseball moments did involve balls on the tees. The carpet turned out to be quite helpful, because I could retrace my swing by examining the well engraved mark on it to see what went wrong. So, I adjusted, reared back and let it fly:

SWINGING STRIKE, 0-2

Score one on my consistency – the second mark just deepened the first one, and I’m pretty sure the repetitive skills are what they are looking for in a rookie. By this time I had garnered some additional attention, above the one that might be attributed to the fact that — having chosen our garments to spend the day in a big hole made of stone, mud and dust — we might have been just a tad underdressed for a Sunday in a private golf club.

My instructor saw this as a great occasion to offer some advice. I should concentrate, watch the ball, visualize hitting it without actually swinging. Breathe. So, I did. And he was right, not swinging was the great choice:

BALL, 1-2

I realized the balls were clearly on the outside, so I decided to crowd the plate. Somehow my first two swings prompted the instructor to ask me in that friendly tone usually reserved for suicide prevention hotlines, “So, you’ve never played before?”

I actually did. I played one fraction of one round of golf when I was seventeen. My girlfriend at the time — who, unbeknownst to me, was also the captain of the high school golf team — took me golfing once. My golf career started and ended when I realized she could not only aim better, but also hit balls further. There is only so much your prototypical South European can stomach. Also, I might have been overly emotional because after a month of dating I had just met her father for the first time. An occasion he celebrated by presenting me with a Bible, so there was that, too.

But, I digress. I inched towards the ball and took another mighty swing:

FOUL BALL, 1-2

Now, to each their own, but the golfers didn’t strike me as a particularly intelligent bunch. About ten yards in front of us, there were wooden boards with some warnings or rules or something of a kind. Given, they were placed some 45 degrees to the left and to the right from where we were hitting, but when I get an outside pitch, I *will* drive it to the opposite field. I got a really good hang of that little sucker, and propelled it directly to the board, from where it bounced, with seemingly undiminished velocity, back towards a neighboring box, fortunately unoccupied at the moment, from where it took yet another bounce, all on the line, and landed some thirty, forty yards into the field.

By now, I had *everybody’s* attention.

Other instructors scampered around and took down all the boards. Mine asked me if I might not enjoy swinging with less intent and more control. If the leg kick was really necessary. I calmly explained to him that I saw the three individuals batting before me hit measly 60-yard singles, and that if I were to drive them in then, sorry, I couldn’t risk a ground ball to shortstop. That even a strikeout was preferable to double play. That if I get another pitch in that general area, that then, oh boy, will the pitcher cry.

As it was probably too late to call security now, I was given another try. And then they just hung one in the middle of the zone for me:

HOME RUN

To my great shame, I have to admit I failed to do the club flip. In my defense, I did finish the swing one-handed and I took my sweet time admiring the shot. However, the long gaze was not pimping what turned out to be my first ever 600+ ft drive in any sport, it was just that I couldn’t see where that bloody tiny thing went. In fact, I might have not even realized how far it had gone, if not for a 100-decibel shout from behind me.

Which brings me to my wife and to a piece of advice for you young partner-seekers out there. If you ever find a girl who will accompany your dirty ass into a posh golf club, and then raise her arms, walk off and scream “HOME RUN” from top of her lungs over a murmur of checkered-trousers wearers – you know you’ve got yourselves a keeper.

Chasing a dream

A few days after winning the 1994 Amateur Baseball World Series, Jimmy Summers entered the house in Eastern Ohio alone. He was about to negotiate his first baseball contract and all he brought to the meeting was a six-pack of beer, a burning desire to play ball and an open mind.

As he reached the cellar, he saw that Kruno and Damir Karin, the representatives of Baseball Klub Olimpija Karlovac, were already there. The brothers K were standing between the bar and the Ping-Pong table, flashing broad smiles and holding a bottle of vodka.

Jimmy looked at his beer and realized that he had brought a knife to a gun fight.

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Outfield assist of another kind

In a sense, there has been an air of spring training atmosphere around September baseball in Oakland for a while now. Only without the hope part.

The weather is great. The games don’t really decide anything. And not too many watch them to start with.

So, when Jeff Francoeur and his 59-83 Royals rolled into town to take on the 64-77 Athletics last September, the world wasn’t exactly holding its collective breath.

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Another one bites the dust

I’ll be honest with you.

Had I known from the beginning that the idea of designing a model to estimate the difficulty of blocking every major league pitch is not a new one—let alone a groundbreaking one—I might have spent significant portions of my free time doing stuff that involves sun and physical activity instead. But, I didn’t. And, anyway, as Jovanotti already sang: “Se tutti i grandi libri qualcuno li ha già scritti, mi chiedo ragazzi voi che cosa fate?”

And, yes, I am aware you have no idea who Jovanotti is. Your loss, really.
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Home Run Value, Revisited

Who knows?

Maybe it is because I was never really good at hitting them. Maybe it is because Billy Beane wrote that book about how on-base percentage smells better than home runs. Whatever the reason, here I am, trying to debunk the notion that home runs are worth more than what is already accounted for. Again.

I am not talking about entertainment value, of course. The wow factor of a Brandon Allen’s shot over the foul pole is off any chart I could ever make. But, that’s not the question. The question is, are HR – as a working tool for creating runs – underrated? Are they necessary? Can they be replaced with other tools of same quality?

In case you missed it back then, joined AN later or just don’t like my writings, I did a piece on succeeding without HR power. And for what its worth, it backed up the theory that it doesn’t matter what portion of your eggs is in the HR basket. But simulations made in mothers’ basements are one thing, real life baseball something completely different. Here is another attempt to answer the question – are HR new undervalued commodity?

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PxP: Lawyerball

Google search for “A’s offense sucks” returns 912 results, well spread over last 4 years. In contrast, the search for “A’s offense is great” returns one single result, dating all the way back to 2007 and in a sentence that continues with “but”. And we all know – everything before a “but” is a lie.

For some, the reason for glaring offensive failures of our beloved Athletics is not their general ineptitude in proper usage of wooden objects, but rather their faulty approach. Lawyerball did beat C.J. Wilson, but that’s an exception, they’ll say. You can’t take a close pitch with a full count, they’ll argue. You have to protect the plate, expand the zone, swing at the pitches on the black, foul off, make contact with anything borderline, force a pitcher to make a mistake, put the ball in play, make good things happen, be gritty, get another pitch to see, be aggressive, put the pressure on and generally, you know, swing the damn bat.

The others argue that a 50/50 coin flip of just letting the man in blue decide is actually a good thing. Especially when the alternative is having an Athletic, of all people, put the ball in play. That an OBP of .500 is a dandy thing and for sure better than whatever would have happened otherwise. It might be boring to watch, even frustrating at times, they say, but it’s still a smart thing to do.

But so far neither group has really shown convincing numbers to back their theory up. So, let’s go.

1. What’s a borderline pitch?

This is a somewhat crucial question for the following exercise.

Normally, it is a pitch that can go either way, a ball placed close to the edge of the strike zone that is called a ball as often as it is called a strike. This isn’t necessarily equal to the edges of the rulebook strike zone, as careful PxP readers already know. But it doesn’t have to be. Players and umpires are animals of habit and the strike zone that they act upon is the one based on years and years of experience, and not on reading the book.

And experience says the following – if we were to draw a roughly four-inch wide line along the edges of the strike zone in such a manner that one inch of it is inside the strike zone and just over three inches are on the outside, we would create an almost perfect borderline area.

It would look something like this:

In 2010 about the quarter of all pitches thrown landed in this gray area. Those are pitchers’ pitches as this is where they want to locate – close enough to have a chance to get a strike call, yet not much one can do with them. The ones that were not swung at were called strikes just as often as they were called balls.

Gray area pitches called strikes: 42,381
Gray area pitches called balls: 42,228

That’s the borderline pitch that we will analyze.

 

2. Expand the zone and protect!

Everybody who has ever picked up the bat has been taught this – two strikes is the time where you want to be swinging at the close pitches. You want to expand the zone and protect, because if you don’t that might be the last strike that you’ll see.

Major League hitters are no different.

Borderlineswing_medium

That’s a huge, huge jump. A Major League hitter is almost twice as likely to swing at the borderline pitch once he already has the two strikes against him. All that teaching paid off.

Funny enough, the umpires do exactly the opposite.

Borderlinecount_medium

Once the count reaches two strikes, the umpires will deviate from their 50/50 baseline and be significantly less likely to call a strike on the borderline pitch. While this can partly be explained by a different mix of pitches left to call on two strike count, playing Lawyerball on borderline pitches with full count is not really like a coin flip, it’s more like betting on a rainy day in London.

 

3. Are the A’s so much different in handling the borderline pitch?

Not really. They are among more disciplined teams, but not league leading, neither prior to two strikes, nor after:
Borderlineteam01_medium

Borderlineteam2_medium

 

4. So… should I swing or should I hope?

What to do with the count full and a borderline pitch coming? Does it pay off to be patient? Or is it being aggressive that gives best results?

The tool to test it is wOBA. Now, if you were attracted to this FanPost by shiny graphs, but do not know much about acronyms, don’t worry. wOBA measures how much on average the most common events have helped a batting team. A single is worth more than a BB, for example, because there are situations where it does bring more. All numbers are real life averages, thousands and thousands of MLB situations and effects the hitting events had on them.

If you really care about how wOBA is made, ask Dan. If you don’t, just remember two things. One – it works. And two – the bigger, the better.

A baseline wOBA for batting with a full count in 2010 is .398, largely fueled by much increased on-base percentage. Tango has made a nice table for different averages on different counts, have a look – it’s pretty informative.

And here is what happened in 2010 when pitchers threw a full-count borderline pitch:

Borderlinewoba_medium

The first column is simple – it’s either strike outs or bases on balls.

The second one shows what happens once the ball is put in play. In short – not much. Definitely not “good things”, as wOBA of .268 is worse than what Cesar Izturis does with a bat. The best that players can hope for when they swing the bat under these circumstances is that they hit the foul ball. But not to “prolong the at bat and punish a pitcher’s mistake” – both their slugging and their ISO are lower than Jason Kendall’s career mark. Rather, they can hope to go all Lawyerball and get that walk later. That’s what third column shows – how did the plate appearances where the borderline 3-2 pitch was fouled off end.

So, you should try to foul that pitch – right? Unfortunately, fouling pitches off is not a skill. Looking at our borderline pitch, here are the percentages of foul balls among swings:

With less than 2 strikes: 37%
With 2 strikes: 38%
With full count: 35%

You see a pattern there? Exactly, neither do I. If fouling off tough pitches were a pronounced, repeatable skill, you’d think you would see much more of it when batters actually want to do it, as opposed to when they have zero incentive for it.

The final column/number (.321) is the combined wOBA for swinging the bat. It replaces the pitches that were fouled off with the final result of that at-bat, and combines it with the balls that were put in play. The results are very, very convincing. Bigger is better, remember.

Or if you are more of a pictures person, look at this:

On the left is an offensive threat equivalent to taking a borderline pitch with a full count. On the right is an offensive threat equal to swinging at it. There is a reason Rajai Davis is pictured without a bat.

PxP: Aus aktuellem Anlass

Aus aktuellem Anlass is a German phrase meaning “due to current events”. It is very widely used around here, replacing the description of an event everybody knows everything about anyway. So, when your company starts a workforce management round you might be called to an informational meeting aus aktuellem Anlass. They will not say An Informational Meeting In Which We Describe How We Will Fire Your Sorry Asses, no, aus aktuellem Anlass sounds so much more elegant. And it’s not like anybody will think that current events worth discussing revolve around beer and pretzels, anyway.

You also might get invited to coffee and cake aus aktuellem Anlass. Coffee and cake is a very strange, very German concept, one they like to organize at any time of the day, but preferably just before eating real food. But being invited to such a ritual at your workplace makes it very clear that the inviting colleague is yet another year older and does not really feel like speaking about his or her newly increased age.

So, to resemble what it would look like in the country that has given us both Porsche and Sauerkraut, I invite you to:

PxP: ZOMG! NO DOUBLES DEFENSE SUCKS!!1! Aus aktuellem Anlass

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