Swings at Ball Four: the Year in Brief Review

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

14 Responses to “Swings at Ball Four: the Year in Brief Review”

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  1. Detroit Michael says:

    Love the body language of the Angels catcher in that video clip. He’s preparing to block a ball in the dirt but instead it become a long home run.

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    • Dag Gummit says:

      I have to say that the title/ caption of that video is misleading. I expected to see Peguero break his bat on the HR swing; not on the pitch before. It’s something that would have been impressive enough. But with the context of it of also having been WAY outside the strike zone, would have just been completely ridiculous).

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  2. Plato says:

    Hark, thy Angels were fools signing Mr. Hamilton to such a ludicrous contract.

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    • rotowizard says:

      I never knew Plato to be such a master of the obvious. Then again, if he were, I wouldn’t know Plato at all.

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    • channelclemente says:

      I think it’s safe to say the Angels were fools before they signed Hamilton’s contract.

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  3. triple_r says:

    As an Orioles fan, I am unsurprised by Jones’ presence near the top. As an Orioles fan, I am also continually amazed by Jones’ tendency to somehow produce decent, decidedly un-Hamiltonian strikeout rates despite decidedly Hamiltonian pitch recognition ability. Is there some article or study into this?

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    • balticfox1917 says:

      Agreed. I too am an Orioles fan and amazed that Jones has been able to put up such good HR and RBI numbers despite apparently being allergic to the concept of drawing a walk.

      Jones, like Hamilton, will attempt to drive the first good pitch he sees. He usually doesn’t get to 3 ball 2 strike counts–I suspect he understands he has poor pitch recognition in those situations.

      While Jones is the most egregious example, it’s part of a disturbing pattern among most Orioles hitters. This year, only the White Sox drew fewer walks in the AL (barely).

      Is it a coincidence that Boston was the leader, and that teams like Oakland, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Cleveland were near the top in walks drawn? All were playoff teams.

      I hope that next year the Orioles mull these stats and consider the virtues of getting a free pass to first base.

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  4. japem says:

    Where do you get these graphs?

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  5. zeke4au says:

    Matt Adams had basically half a season of plate appearances and still finished top 5? Nice.

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  6. Eric M. Van says:

    This article brings back memories of what, for me, has to be a serious contender for the worst ball four swing in the history of the sport.

    2005, Red Sox trail the White Sox 2 games to 0 in the ALDS and are behind 4-3 in Game 3, with 1 out and the bases full, Orlando Hernandez pitching to Tony Graffanino. The count goes full, and the eighth pitch of the PA is so far outside that I literally was celebrating the game being tied with the pitch halfway to home plate. (I was watching from the top of the Fenway grandstand behind home plate, so I have no idea how bad it looked on TV). Graffanino swings late and fouls it off, then pops to SS two pitches later. Johnny Damon is just barely unable to check a 2-strike swing, the Sox leave the bases full, and lose 5-3.

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    • exxrox says:

      Was that when El Duque came in with the bases loaded, none out and got all 3 batters? I remember that during that playoff run. I remember that there were some questionable strike calls in that inning in the White Sox’s favour. I think that was against the Angels though, all by memory.

      I also remember the ALCS sweep in which all 4 CHI starters went the distance. My memory might also be completely wrong on both counts.

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  7. E. K. says:

    Josh Reddick has to be somewhere near the top.

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  8. Utah Dave says:

    Pedro Alvarez

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