The 2010 Yogi Berra Award

As we did last year, we are here to honor a player who showed, during the past season, a trait which is historically attributed to the great Yogi Berra. For those among you who are now expecting a list of exhilarating quotes, I’m sorry but you have to look elsewhere, because in this article we are celebrating another characteristic of the Yankee catcher.

Yogi as a hitter was feared by opposing pitchers because they didn’t know what to throw to him.

Yogi (Berra) had the fastest bat I ever saw. He could hit a ball late, that was already past him, and take it out of the park. The pitchers were afraid of him because he’d hit anything, so they didn’t know what to throw. Yogi had them psyched out and he wasn’t even trying to psych them out. – Hector Lopez

It’s quite easy to swing at anything. Being productive while doing so is a different matter. While Berra was said to swing at bouncing balls as well as at pitches over his head, hard data tell us that Yogi struck out just 414 times in 8,364 plate appearances in his career (19 seasons), and never more than 38 times in a season (thanks to reader Paul Gottlieb for pointing to this while commenting on last year article). Thus, at the end of this piece we’ll award the prize to a player who swung at a lot of really bad pitches while not suffering too much in his production.

Reading the article from last year might be helpful, but it’s not necessary, as the ground rules will be briefly discussed in this one.

A bad ball is defined as a pitch that is called a strike by the umpires less than 10 percent of the time (if the batter doesn’t swing). Only hitters who have been fed at least 300 bad balls will be considered for the award and will appear in any of the following tables.

Let’s start with the players with the highest percentage of swings on bad balls.

               player    pct  pitches
         Miguel Olivo     37  	584
    Vladimir Guerrero     36  	876
       Ivan Rodriguez     35  	559
      A.J. Pierzynski     35  	538
      Alfonso Soriano     34  	871
       Jeff Francoeur     34  	691
       Pablo Sandoval     34  	884
        Alex Gonzalez     32  	785
       Brennan Boesch     32  	693
        Ichiro Suzuki     31   1020

(pct: percentage of swings on bad balls.  pitches: bad balls seen)

Some usual suspects are on the list: As we said last year, swinging at bad pitches is a repeatable “skill.” The correlations between the percentage in 2009 and the percentage in 2010 is 0.85 (95 percent confidence interval: 0.81 – 0.88); last year we had found a value of 0.84 between 2008 and 2009.

Now let’s see who is most likely to make contact with the baseball on bad pitches. In the following table the number of whiffs on balls way out of the zone has been divided by the number of swings on bad pitches.

              player   whiff%   swings
       Marco Scutaro       11       88
         Juan Pierre       16      179
       Bengie Molina       19      117
       Nick Markakis       19      166
          Nick Punto       23       66
       Ichiro Suzuki       23      313
       Jamey Carroll       23       92
      Pablo Sandoval       23      298
         James Loney       24      195
    Alberto Callaspo       24      119

(whiff: percentage of misses on swings on bad balls. swings: swings on bad balls)

The above list is a mix of the most disciplined hitters and the free swingers. (If one doesn’t know the hitting tendencies of Scutaro and Ichiro, he has to look no further than the last column of the table.)

Here are the batters who produced the highest run value when swinging at bad balls.

              player    RV100  pitches
    Cliff Pennington    -0.04  761
     Troy Tulowitzki    -0.11  685
       Josh Hamilton    -0.16  831
        Ryan Theriot    -0.24  760
       Nick Markakis    -0.24  950
       Jamey Carroll    -0.25  587
     Carlos Gonzalez    -0.34  831
       Ichiro Suzuki    -0.37 1020
      Pablo Sandoval    -0.43  884
         Mike Aviles    -0.47  521

(RV100: Run Value per 100 bad balls seen. pitches: bad balls seen)

However, as was the case in 2009, no player produced a higher run value (on those pitches) than he would have totaled had he refrained to swing.

              player    RVnet  pitches
    Cliff Pennington    -0.70  761
       Jose Bautista    -0.86 1025
       Jamey Carroll    -0.88  587
         Ian Kinsler    -0.93  581
       Rafael Furcal    -0.95  555
      Dustin Pedroia    -0.95  436
     Josh Willingham    -1.00  639
        Daric Barton    -1.03  929
      Jeff Keppinger    -1.05  675
       Nick Markakis    -1.07  950

(RVnet: Net Run Value on bad balls. pitches: bad balls seen)

A copy/paste of last year’s explanation on the net run value reported in the above table won’t hurt here.

For each bad ball
{exp:list_maker}if the batter didn’t swing, assign the run value of the pitch (likely the run value of a ball; but if the ump called it a strike, then the run value of a strike);
if the batter swung, assign the run value of the outcome minus the expected run value of the pitch had the batter not swung (that is something like 90-percent-plus-something times the run value of a ball, plus 10-percent-minus-something times the run value of a strike).

Finally, the difference in run production between swings on bad balls and swings on sure strikes (pitches who would have been called for strikes at least 90 percent of the time had the batter held his wood on his shoulder).

              player delta
        Brendan Ryan  3.15
       Chone Figgins  2.77
    Cliff Pennington  2.41
    Michael Brantley  2.30
       Ronny Paulino  2.10
      Scott Hairston  2.00
      Pablo Sandoval  1.52
          Mark Ellis  1.44
         Juan Pierre  1.33
          Nick Punto  1.28

(delta: Run Value from swings on bad balls minus Run Value from swings on pitches down the middle)

It’s quite surprising to find batters who perform better on pitches out of sight than on offerings right down Broadway. Some adjustment is probably needed here as ball-strike count is not in the equation and neither is pitch type; thus it might be that the players on top of the list are seeing pitches down the middle in different counts (for example on 3-0 counts and thus taking them for strikes most of the time), or they are served only with breaking balls on the fat part of the plate.

Using Recurrent Neural Networks to Predict Player Performance
Technology is rapidly advancing possibilities in decision-making.

Well, it’s time to crown our 2010 Yogi Berra Award winner.
It’s a two-man race between Ichiro Suzuki and Pablo Sandoval, both among the top 15 in the following categories: percentage of swings on bad balls, run value per 100 pitches on bad ball swings, lowest whiff rate on swings of bad balls, difference in production between bad balls and sure strikes.
A honorable mention is due for Cliff Pennington, who has great numbers across the board except for the percentage of swings, which is sort of the point for the award. If he starts biting, he is a good candidate for next year.

Meanwhile, the Award goes to…

drum roll…

Pablo Sandoval!

The Panda wins the prize for the second year in a row.

References & Resources
Bad balls have been defined according to pitch locations provided by PITCHf/x.

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Daniel Wong
Daniel Wong
Hi Max, I read your 2009 Yogi Berra Awards article and was very excited to see the 2010 version. I feel that the most important category in determining the best bad-ball hitter in the game is the last category that highlights the difference in run production between swings on bad-balls against those on sure strikes so I am glad to see you included it in this year’s analysis. David Pinto just wrote an interesting piece on the end of Garret Anderson’s career in which he highlights Anderson’s recent inabilities to hit strikes that seems to serve as an example of… Read more »
Max Marchi
Max Marchi
Daniel, thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. I’m going to read the suggested articles before trying to cover every point you brought up. Here, I’ll try to give my point of view regarding your last question: “In your opinion, is the ability to hit a bad pitch an innate baseball skill, or something learned or incorporated into a playing style at a young age?” As in everything else in life, I believe bad-ball hitting is part nature, part nurture. But I also think bad-ball hitting is a by-product of another trait. A kid is… Read more »