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.
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.
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:
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:
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.