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An Attempt to Quantify Quality At-Bats

Several of my childhood baseball coaches believed in the idea of “quality at-bats.” It’s a somewhat subjective statistic that rewards a hitter for doing something beneficial regardless of how obvious it is. This would include actions such as getting on base, as well as less noticeably beneficial things like making an out but forcing the pitcher to throw a lot of pitches. There is some evidence that major league coaches use quality at-bats and, through my experience working for the Florida Gators, I noticed that some college coaches like using it too. However, how it is used varies from coach to coach and it is a stat that is rarely talked about in the online community. Since there doesn’t seem to be a consensus of what a quality at-bat is, I decided to define a quality at-bat as an at-bat that results in at least one of any of the following:

  1. Hit
  2. Walk
  3. Hit by pitch
  4. Reach on error
  5. Sac bunt
  6. Sac fly
  7. Pitcher throws at least six pitches
  8. Batter “barrels” the ball.

There is some room for debate on a few of these parameters (e.g. if six pitches is enough, whether or not sacrifices should be included, etc.). However, in my experience this is roughly in line with what most coaches use, and I think it does a good job of determining whether or not a hitter has a “quality” at-bat. In my analysis I was excited to be able to include the new Statcast statistic, barrels. I have seen coaches subjectively reward a hitter with a quality at-bat for hitting the ball hard, but barrels gives us an exact definition of a well-hit ball based on a combination of exit velocity and launch angle.

The first player I used to test this definition was Billy Hamilton. Hamilton is a player that has always interested me, partially because stealing bases is entertaining, but also because there has always been speculation about whether or not he will ever be able to develop into an average hitter. I also find him interesting because his career has consisted of one awful offensive season sandwiched between two less horrible but still sub-par offensive seasons. His wRC+ in 2014 was 79, in 2015 it was an unsightly 53, and in 2016 it was back up to 78. I thought that his quality at-bat percentages might be able to give us a clue as to whether or not he could become a better hitter. By pulling Baseball Savant data from Bill Petti’s amazing baseballr package, I counted all of Billy Hamilton’s quality at-bats in each of his three MLB seasons. I then divided those quality at-bat totals by his total plate appearances to get his quality at-bat percentages:

2014:  41.75%

2015:  42.28%

2016:  47.52%

It is never ideal to make sweeping conclusions about statistics — especially new ones that are not widely used or understood — without putting them in context. However, at the very least, I think it is a good sign that Billy Hamilton has experienced an upward trend in his quality at-bat percentages. Based on my definition, these results show that he is making more effective use of his at-bats and that he is continuing to develop as a hitter.

To put Hamilton’s scores in some context, I calculated the quality at-bat percentages for several other players and provided them below. I have not had a chance to run every player as of yet, but I think this chart can give you a feel of where Billy Hamilton stands compared to other players. It is also interesting to point out Jason Heyward’s large drop-off in quality at-bat percentage. This is yet another indicator of how poor his 2016 season was. Additionally, and not surprisingly, Joey Votto and Mike Trout have, relatively, very high quality at-bat percentages, while Adeiny Hechavarria (a player who had a wRC+ just north of 50 last season) had a quality at-bat percentage well below that of even Billy Hamilton.

 

                                                      Quality at-bat percentages
Year Billy Hamilton Mike Trout Jason Heyward Joey Votto Adeiny Hechavarria
2014 41.75% 56% 47% 56% 41%
2015 42.28% 55% 48% 56% 42%
2016 47.52% 58% 40% 59% 39%

 

There is more research that needs to be done here in order to make more intelligent conclusions. I would like to run more players through my statistic, including minor leaguers, to see just how well quality at-bats can be used in evaluating talent, development, and predicting future success. I believe that quality at-bats are something that could be relevant in many of the same ways as quality starts. Neither of these statistics inform you of the nuances that make a player great (or not so great), but they do give you an idea of a player’s reliability in having a passable performance. I believe that with further analysis into quality at-bat percentages using the definition I created, we may be able to learn more about how hitters make use of each and every at-bat.