Foundations of Batting Analysis – Part 3: Run Creation

I’ve decided to break this final section in half and address the early development of run estimation statistics first, and then examine new ways to make these estimations next week. In Part 1, we examined the early development of batting statistics. In Part 2, we broke down the weaknesses of these statistics and introduced new averages based on “real and indisputable facts.” In Part 3, we will examine methods used to estimate the value of batting events in terms of their fundamental purpose: run creation.

The two main objectives of batters are to not cause an out and to advance as many bases as possible. These objectives exist as a way for batters to accomplish the most fundamental purpose of all players on offense: to create runs. The basic effective averages presented in Part 2 provide a simple way to observe the rate at which batters succeed at their main objectives, but they do not inform us on how those successes lead to the creation of runs. To gather this information, we’ll apply a method of estimating the run values of events that can trace its roots back nearly a century.

The earliest attempt to estimate the run value of batting events came in the March 1916 issue of Baseball Magazine. F.C. Lane, editor of the magazine, discussed the weakness of batting average as a measure of batting effectiveness in an article titled “Why the System of Batting Averages Should be Changed”:

“The system of keeping batting averages…gives the comparative number of times a player makes a hit without paying any attention to the importance of that hit. Home runs and scratch singles are all bulged together on the same footing, when everybody knows that one is vastly more important than the other.”

To address this issue, Lane considered the fundamental purpose of making hits.

“Hits are not made as mere spectacular displays of batting ability; they are made for a purpose, namely, to assist in the all-important labor of scoring runs. Their entire value lies in their value as run producers.”

In order to measure the “comparative ability” of batters, Lane suggests a general rule for evaluating hits:

“It would be grossly inaccurate to claim that a hit should be rated in value solely upon its direct and immediate effect in producing runs. The only rule to be applied is the average value of a hit in terms of runs produced under average conditions throughout a season.”

He then proposed a method to estimate the value of each type of hit based on the number of bases that the batter and all baserunners advanced on average during each type of hit. Lane’s premise was that each base was worth one-fourth of a run, as it takes the advancement through four bases for a player to secure a run. By accounting for all of the bases advanced by a batter and the baserunners due to a hit, he could determine the number of runs that the hit created. However, as the data necessary to actually implement this method did not exist in March 1916, the work done in this article was little more than a back-of-the-envelope calculation built on assumptions concerning how often baserunners were on base during hits and how far they tended to advance because of those hits.

As he wanted to conduct a rigorous analysis with this method, Lane spent the summer of 1916 compiling data on 1,000 hits from “a little over sixty-two games”[i] to aid him in this work. During these games, he would note “how far the man making the hit advanced, whether or not he scored, and also how far he advanced other runners, if any, who were occupying the bases at the time.” Additionally, in any instance when a batter who had made a hit was removed from the base paths due to a subsequent fielder’s choice, he would note how far the replacement baserunner advanced.

Lane presented this data in the January 1917 issue of Baseball Magazine in an article titled similarly to his earlier work: “Why the System of Batting Averages Should be Reformed.” Using the collected data, Lane developed two methods for estimating the run value that each type of hit provided for a team on average. The first method, the one he initially presented in March 1916, which I’ll call the “advancement” method,[ii] counted the total number of bases that the batter and the baserunners advanced during a hit, and any bases that were advanced to by batters on a fielder’s choice following a hit (an addition not included in the first article). For example, of the 1,000 hits Lane observed, 789 were singles. Those singles resulted in the batter advancing 789 bases, runners on base at the time of the singles advancing 603 bases, and batters on fielder’s choice plays following the singles advancing to 154 bases – a total of 1,546 bases. With each base estimated as being worth one-fourth of a run, these 1,546 bases yielded 386.5 runs – an average value of .490 runs per single. Lane repeated this process for doubles (.772 runs), triples (1.150 runs), and home runs (1.258 runs).

This was the method Lane first developed in his March 1916 article, but at some point during his research he decided that a second method, which I’ll call the “instrumentality” method, was more preferable.[iii] In this method, Lane considered the number of runs that were scored because of each hit (RBI), the runs scored by the batters that made each hit, and the runs scored by baserunners that reached on a fielder’s choice following a hit. For instance, of the 789 singles that Lane observed, there were 163 runs batted in, 182 runs scored by the batters that hit the singles, and 16 runs scored by runners that reached on a fielder’s choice following a single. The 361 runs “created” by the 789 singles yielded an average value of .457 runs per single. This method was repeated for doubles (.786 runs), triples (1.150), and home runs (1.551 runs).

In March 1917, Lane went one step further. In an article titled “The Base on Balls,” Lane decried the treatment of walks by the official statisticians and aimed to estimate their value. In 1887, the National League had counted walks as hits in an effort to reward batters for safely reaching base, but the sudden rise in batting averages was so off-putting that the method was quickly abandoned following the season. As Lane put it:

“…the same potent intellects who had been responsible for this wild orgy of batting reversed their august decision and declared that a base on balls was of no account, generally worthless and henceforth even forever should not redound to the credit of the batter who was responsible for such free transportation to first base.

The magnates of that far distant date evidently had never heard of such a thing as a happy medium…‘Whole hog or none’ was the noble slogan of the magnates of ’87. Having tried the ‘whole’ they decreed the ‘none’ and ‘none’ it has been ever since…

‘The easiest way’ might be adopted as a motto in baseball. It was simpler to say a base on balls was valueless than to find out what its value was.”

Lane attempted to correct this disservice by applying his instrumentality method to walks. Over the same sample of 63 games in which he collected information on the 1,000 hits, he observed 283 walks. Those walks yielded six runs batted in, 64 runs scored by the batter, and two runs scored by runners that replaced the initial batter due to a fielder’s choice. Through this method, Lane calculated the average value of a walk as .254 runs.[iv]

Each method Lane used was certainly affected by his limited sample of data. The proportions of each type of hit that he observed were similar to the annual rates in 1916, but the examination of only 1,000 hits made it easy for randomness to affect the calculation, particularly for the low-frequency events. Had five fewer runners been on first base at the time of the 29 home runs observed by Lane, the average value of a home run would have dropped from 1.258 runs to 1.129 runs using the advancement method and from 1.551 runs to 1.379 runs using the instrumentality method. It’s hard to trust values that are that so easily affected by a slight change in circumstances.

Lane was well aware of these limitations, but treated the work more as an exercise to prove the merit of his rationale, rather than an official calculation of the run values. In an article in the February 1917 issue of Baseball Magazine titled, “A Brand New System of Batting Averages,” he notes:

“Our sample home runs, which numbered but 29, were of course less accurate. But we did not even suggest that the values which were derived from the 1,000 hits should be incorporated as they stand in the batting averages. Our labors were undertaken merely to show what might be done by keeping a sufficiently comprehensive record of the various hits…our data on home runs, though less complete than we could wish, probably wouldn’t vary a great deal from the general averages.”

In the same article, Lane applied the values calculated with the instrumentality method to the batting statistics of players from the 1916 season, creating a statistic he called Batting Effectiveness, which measured the number of runs per at-bat that a player created through hits. The leaderboard he included is the first example of batters being ranked with a run average since runs per game in the 1870s.

Lane didn’t have a wide audience ready to appreciate a run estimation of this kind, and it gained little notoriety going forward. In his March 1916 article, Lane referenced an exchange he had with the Secretary of the National League, John Heydler, concerning how batting average treats all hits equally. Heydler responded:

“…the system of giving as much credit to singles as to home runs is inaccurate…But it has never seemed practicable to use any other system. How, for instance, are you going to give the comparative values of home runs and singles?”

Seven years later, by which point Heydler had become President of the National League, the method to address this issue was chosen. In 1923, the National League adopted the slugging average—total bases on hits per at-bat—as its second official average.

While Lane’s work on run estimation faded away, another method to estimate the run value of individual batting events was introduced nearly five decades later in the July/August 1963 issue of Operations Research. A Canadian military strategist, with a passion for baseball, named George R. Lindsey wrote an article for the journal titled, “An Investigation of Strategies in Baseball.” In this article, Lindsey proposed a novel approach to measure the value of any event in baseball, including batting events.

The construction of Lindsey’s method began by observing all or parts of 373 games from 1959 through 1960 by radio, television, or personal attendance, compiling 6,399 half-innings of play-by-play data. With this information, he calculated P(r|T,B), “the probability that, between the time that a batter comes to the plate with T men out and the bases in state B,[v] and the end of the half-inning, the team will score exactly r runs.” For example, P(0|0,0), that is, the probability of exactly zero runs being scored from the time a batter comes to the plate with zero outs and the bases empty through the end of the half-inning, was found to be 74.7 percent; P(1|0,0) was 13.6 percent, P(2|0,0) was 6.8 percent, etc.

Lindsey used these probabilities to calculate the average number of runs a team could expect to score following the start of a plate appearance in each of the 24 out/base states: E(T,B).[vi] The table that Lindsey produced including these expected run averages reflects the earliest example of what we now call a run expectancy matrix.

With this tool in hand, Lindsey began tackling assorted questions in his paper, culminating with a section on “A Measure of Batting Effectiveness.” He suggested an approach to assessing batting effectiveness based on three assumptions:

“(a) that the ultimate purpose of the batter is to cause runs to be scored

(b) that the measure of the batting effectiveness of an individual should not depend on the situations that faced him when he came to the plate (since they were not brought about by his own actions), and

(c) that the probability of the batter making different kinds of hits is independent of the situation on the bases.”

Lindsey focused his measurement of batting effectiveness on hits. To estimate the run values of each type of hit, Lindsey observed that “a hit which converts situation {T,B} into {T,B} increases the expected number of runs by E(T,B) – E(T,B).” For example, a single hit in out/base state {0,0} will yield out/base state {0,1}. If you consult the table that I linked above, you’ll note that this creates a change in run expectancy, as calculated by Lindsey, of .352 runs (.813 – .461). By repeating this process for each of the 24 out/base states, and weighting the values based on the relative frequency in which each out/base state occurred, the average value of a single was found to be 0.41 runs.[vii] This was repeated for doubles (0.82 runs), triples (1.06 runs), and home runs (1.42 runs). By applying these weights to a player’s seasonal statistics, Lindsey created a measurement of batting effectiveness in terms of “equivalent runs” per time at bat.

Like with Lane’s methods, the work done by Lindsey was not widely appreciated at first. However, 21 years after his article was published in Operations Research, his system was repurposed and presented in The Hidden Game of Baseball by John Thorn and Pete Palmer—the man who helped make on base average an official statistic just a few years earlier. Using play-by-play accounts of 34 World Series games from 1956 through 1960,[viii] and simulations of games based on data from 1901 through 1977, Palmer rebuilt the run expectancy matrix that Lindsey introduced two decades earlier.

In addition to measuring the average value of singles (.46 runs), doubles (.80 runs), triples (1.02 runs), and home runs (1.40 runs) as Lindsey had done, Palmer also measured the value of walks and times hit by the pitcher (0.33 runs), as well as at-bats that ended with a batting “failure,” i.e. outs and reaches on an error (-0.25 runs). While I’ve already addressed issues with counting times reached on an error as a failure in Part 2, the principle of acknowledging the value produced when the batter failed was an important step forward from Lindsey’s work, and Lane’s before him. When an out occurs in a batter’s plate appearance, the batting team’s expected run total for the remainder of the half-inning decreases. When the batter fails to reach base safely, he not only doesn’t produce runs for his team, he takes away potential run production that was expected to occur. In this way, we can say that the batter created negative value—a decrease in expected runs—for the batting team.

Palmer applied these weights to a player’s seasonal totals, as Lindsey had done, and formed a statistic called Batter Runs reflecting the number of runs above average that a player produced in a season. Palmer’s work came during a significant period for the advancement of baseball statistics. Bill James had gained a wide audience with his annual Baseball Abstract by the early-1980s and The Hidden Game of Baseball was published in the midst of this new appreciation for complex analysis of baseball systems. While Lindsey and Lane’s work had been cast aside, there was finally an audience ready to acknowledge the value of run estimation.

Perhaps the most important effect of this new era of baseball analysis was the massive collection of data that began to occur in the background. Beginning in the 1980s, play-by-play accounts were being constructed to cover entire seasons of games. Lane had tracked 1,000 hits, Lindsey had observed 6,399 half-innings, and Palmer had used just 34 games (along with computer simulations) to estimate the run values of batting events. By the 2000s, play-by-play accounts of tens of thousands of games were publically available online.

Gone were the days of estimations weakened by small sample sizes. With complete play-by-play data available for every game over a given time period, the construction of a run expectancy matrix was effectively no longer an estimation. Rather, it could now reflect, over that period of games, the average number of runs that scored between a given out/base state and the end of the half-inning, with near absolute accuracy.[ix] Similarly, assumptions about how baserunners moved around the bases during batting events were no longer necessary. Information concerning the specific effects on the out/base state caused by every event in every baseball game over many seasons could be found with relative ease.

In 2007, Tom M. Tango,[x] Mitchel G. Lichtman, and Andrew E. Dolphin took advantage of this gluttony of information and reconstructed Lindsey’s “linear weights” method (as named by Palmer) in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. Tango et al. used data from every game from 1999 through 2002 to build an updated run expectancy matrix. Using it, along with the play-by-play data from the same period, they calculated the average value of a variety of events, most notably eight batting events: singles (.475 runs), doubles (.776 runs), triples (1.070 runs), home runs (1.397 runs), non-intentional walks (.323 runs), times hit by the pitcher (.352 runs), times reached on an error (.508 runs). and outs (-.299 runs). These events were isolated to form an estimate of a player’s general batting effectiveness called weighted On Base Average (wOBA).

Across 90 years, here were five different attempts to estimate the number of runs that batters created, with varying amounts of data, using varying methods of analysis, in varying run scoring environments, and yet the estimations all end up looking quite similar.

Method / Event

Advancement Instrumentality Equivalent Runs Batter Runs

wOBA

Single

.490

.457

.41 .46

.475

Double

.772 .786 .82 .80

.776

Triple

1.150 1.150 1.06 1.02

1.070

Home Run

1.258

1.551

1.42

1.40

1.397

Non-Intentional Walk

—–

.254

—–

.33

.323

Intentional Walk —–

.254

—– .33 .179
Hit by Pitch —– —– —– .33

.352

Reach on Error

—–

—–

—–

-.25

.508

Out

—– —– —– -.25

-.299

 

Beyond the general goal of measuring the run value of certain batting events, each of these methods had another thing in common: each method was designed to measure the effectiveness of batters. Lane and Lindsey focused exclusively on hits,  the traditional measures of batting effectiveness.[xi] Palmer added in the “on base” statistics of walks and times hit by the pitcher, while also accounting for the value of those times the batter showed ineffectiveness. Tango et al. threw away intentional walks as irrelevant events when it came to testing a batter’s skill, while crediting the positive value created by batters when reaching on an error.

The same inconsistencies present in the traditional averages for deciding when to reward batters for succeeding and when to punish them for failing are present in these run estimators. In the same way we created the basic effective averages in Part 2, we should establish a baseline for the total production in terms of runs caused by a batter’s plate appearances, independent of whether that production occurred due to batting effectiveness. We can later judge how much of that value we believe was caused by outside forces, but we should begin with this foundation. This will be the goal of the final part of this paper.


[i] In his article the next month, Lane says explicitly that he observed 63 games, but I prefer his unnecessarily roundabout description in the January 1917 article.

[ii] I’ve named these methods because Lane didn’t, and it can get confusing to keep going back and forth between the two methods without using distinguishing names.

[iii] Lane never explains why exactly he prefers this method, and just states that it “may be safely employed as the more exact value of the two.” He continues, “the better method of determining the value of a hit is…in the number of runs which score through its instrumentality than through the number of bases piled-up for the team which made it.” This may be true, but he never proves it explicitly. Nevertheless, the “instrumentality” method was the only one he used going forward.

[iv] This value has often been misrepresented as .164 runs in past research due to a separate table from Lane’s article. That table reflected the value of each hit, and walks, with respect to the value of a home run. Walks were worth 16.4 percent of the value a home run (.254 / 1.551), but this is obviously not the same as the run value of a base on balls.

[v] The base states, B, are the various arrangements of runners on the bases: bases empty (0), man-on-first (1), man-on-second (2), man-on-third (3), men-on-first-and-second (12), men-on-first-and-third (13), men-on-second-and-third (23), and the bases loaded (123).

[vi] The calculation of these expected run averages involved an infinite summation of each possible number of runs that could score (0, 1, 2, 3,…) with respect to the probability that that number of runs would score. For instance,  here are some of the terms for E(0,0):

E(0,0) = (0 runs * P(0|0,0)) + (1 run * P(1|0,0)) + (2 runs * P(2|0,0)) + … + (∞ runs * P(∞|0,0))

E(0,0) = (0 runs * .747) + (1 run * .136) + (2 runs* .068) + … + (∞ runs * .000)

E(0,0) = .461 runs

Lindsey could have just as easily found E(T,B) by finding the total number of runs that scored following the beginning of all plate appearances in a given out/base state through the end of the inning, R(T,B), and dividing that by the number of plate appearances to occur in that out/base state, N(T,B), as follows:

E(T,B) = Total Runs (T,B) / Plate Appearances (T,B) = R(T,B) / N(T,B)

This is the method generally used today to construct run expectancy matrices, but Lindsey’s approach works just as well.

[vii] To simplify his estimations, Lindsey made certain assumptions about how baserunners tend to move during hits, similar to the assumptions Lane made in his initial March 1916 article. Specifically, he assumed that “runners always score from second or third base on any safe hit, score from first on a triple, go from first to third on 50 per cent of doubles, and score from first on the other 50 per cent of doubles.” While he did not track the movement of players in the same detail which Lane eventually employed, the total error caused by these assumptions did not have a significant effect on his results.

[viii] In The Hidden Game of Baseball, Thorn wrote that Palmer used data from “over 100 World Series contests,” but in the foreword to The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, Palmer wrote that “the data I used which ended up in The Hidden Game of Baseball in the 1980s was obtained from the play-by-play accounts of thirty-five World Series games from 1956 to 1960 in the annual Sporting News Baseball Guides.” I’ll lean towards Palmer’s own words, though I’ve adjusted “thirty-five” down to 34 since there were only 34 World Series games over the period Palmer referenced.

[ix] The only limiting factor in the accuracy of a run expectancy matrix in the modern “big data” era is in the accuracy of those who record the play-by-play information and in the quality of the programs written to interpret the data. Additionally, the standard practice when building these matrices is to exclude all data from the home halves of the ninth inning or later, and any other partial innings. These innings do not follow the standard rules observed in every other half-inning, namely that they must end with three outs, and thus introduce bias into the data if included.

[x] The only nom de plume I’ve included in this history, as far as I’m aware.

[xi] Lane didn’t include walks in his Batting Effectiveness statistic, despite eventually calculating their value.




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5 Responses to “Foundations of Batting Analysis – Part 3: Run Creation”

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  1. tz says:

    Awesome series!

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  2. misterdirt says:

    For those who wish to read more articles by the remarkable F. C. Lane, 176 of them are available here: http://www.la84.org/. Search their digital library under his name.

    Thank you for a very nice historical review of the development of linear weights and run expectancy charts.

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  3. Elliot says:

    Great series.
    One problem with a weighted “put” calculation is that not all outs are created equal, but they aren’t. A sac bunt with men on first and second with no outs changes run expectancy by -.109 – not great, but much better than -.299.
    A sac fly with a man on third and one out is actually worth .123 runs.
    So I don’t get why outs would be lumped together as one category. Each out changes run expectancy – so use the change in run expectancy for the particular scenario instead of the average value of an out.

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    • Colin Dew-Becker says:

      Tango et al. did measure the average value of sacrifice bunts (-.096 runs) and strikeouts (-.301 runs), in addition to the average value of any batting event that ends with at least one out (-.299 runs). I assume that the benefit to limiting wOBA to seven batting events weighted against the average value of a generic “out” was to keep the estimation somewhat simple while introducing relatively minimal error, especially in comparison to previous run estimators.

      The decision whether to measure the average or specific value of events in terms of changing run expectancy is a whole other beast, and will be covered extensively in Part 4.

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