Somewhere during the playoffs, Dave was hosting and running a live game chat, and some hitter in some game took a hack at what appeared to be ball four. That prompted a reader to comment that he wished somewhere kept track of those, FanGraphs specifically, and while it isn’t always easy to fire off an email when you’re actively in charge of a live chat, Dave took a minute to pass the comment on to me as a suggestion. He said that it could be an offseason post, knowing that it’s the kind of thing that’s right up my alley, and would you look at that, it’s the offseason now. I know it’s the offseason because Twitter is already full of free-agency rumors. Baseball can’t stop, nor will it stop.
We’ve all seen hitters on our favorite teams chase fourth balls, and we’ve all sighed and rolled our eyes. We have a good idea of who’s over-aggressive and who isn’t, but swinging at that last ball is worse than swinging at an earlier one, because swinging at ball four denies a hitter a sure base. Every so often, it’ll work out, with the hitter singling or doubling or tripling or dingering. It doesn’t work out nearly often enough. No hitter on the planet is good enough to justify going after pitches out of the zone in three-ball counts.
What’s going to follow is a quick investigation, looking at ball-four swings in the season just ended. The first step is collecting pitch data. The second step is narrowing that data down to just swings at pretty clear fourth balls. This takes some guesswork, lest you wish to make things way too complicated, and guesswork can come off as arbitrary, but, so be it. I think I played it pretty safe, and we’ll make do with the end-result numbers.
One thing to note: this is going to be selective for guys who get into three-ball counts in the first place. A hitter who’s both famously over-aggressive and capable of making a lot of contact won’t swing at many fourth balls, because by then he would’ve put a ball in play. To get into three-ball counts, you need either some semblance of patience, or some problems making consistent contact, or both. That’s just something to keep in the back of your mind.
Now then, on to the numbers. I’ve selected 15 inches as something of a magic number. I gathered all swings in three-ball counts. For me, obvious balls were any pitches at least 15 inches from the center of the plate to either side. Additionally, the vertical center of the average strike zone is about 30 inches off the ground. For me, obvious balls were any pitches at least 15 inches higher or lower than that. We all know that umpires have a tendency to call strikes on pitches that aren’t within the rulebook strike zone. I’ve set some margins, then, that should carve out a lot of those potential would-be called strikes. There are more rigorous ways to do this, ways that would generate slightly more pleasing results, but I don’t think it’s worth that kind of investment. This is mostly a fun exercise, and now, here are the swings remaining:
All of those were swings attempted this past season in three-ball counts, nearly all of them in 3-and-2 counts. It’s a sample numbering 2,309, and of those, 1,071 led directly to strikeouts. There were 493 balls hit fair, with four of them leaving the yard. These swings yielded a .268 BABIP, and, even worse, they yielded a .087 batting average and a .110 slugging percentage. These were almost all unproductive swings, when a non-swing likely would’ve put the batter aboard.
Additionally, there were 730 fouls, continuing the plate appearances. Batters reached base in those plate appearances nearly 48% of the time. They hit .240, slugging .387. These batters still had a good amount of success, but they could’ve had a lot more success by taking the pitch out of the zone they fouled off. Take the walk. You always take the walk. No one should be so confident as to not take a walk.
As for individuals? By these criteria, Matt Adams and Giancarlo Stanton both swung at 15 would-be fourth balls. Adam Jones and Victor Martinez, meanwhile, were co-runners up, swinging at 16 would-be fourth balls. And our thoroughly unsurprising winner? Josh Hamilton, who swung at ball four 17 times, at least if you define ball four by the criteria above. And these criteria, keep in mind, are fairly conservative. So Hamilton passed up at least 17 walks, nevermind all the walks he could’ve drawn in other plate appearances that were never even allowed to reach ball three.
Hamilton’s results? One single, ten outs, and six fouls. Seven of the outs were strikeouts. Following the fouls, there were three walks and three outs. So Hamilton, at least, drew three of those walks anyway, but obviously here he was hurt by his own aggressiveness. We look at a relevant pitch-location chart:
It’s common to see umpires call strikes outside off the plate against lefties, but they very seldom go beyond 15 inches outside from the center of the plate. Usually we’re talking pitches outside by a matter of an inch or two or three off the edge. That’s one of the reasons why I say these criteria are conservative. All of Hamilton’s 17 swings above came in full counts, and it looks like he treated them more like 0-and-2 counts. When Hamilton was thrown a pitch out of the zone in a full count last season, he swung as often as he took. That’s a bad O-Swing% at a bad time, but I suppose with Hamilton this just comes with the talent. The Angels can’t pick and choose which bits of Josh Hamilton they get the privilege of playing and paying. They get all the bits, and some of the bits are frustrating and wasteful.
In closing, five players swung at just one fourth ball, and singled. One player swung at just one fourth ball, and doubled. Carlos Peguero swung at just one fourth ball, and homered. The pitch was low by several inches, and Peguero hit it 440 feet to straightaway center. Life is all about learning lessons. Sometimes you learn bad ones.
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