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How Would You Produce if You Sometimes Swung the Bat?

Jeff Sullivan, esteemed overlord of the Community blog, wrote a fun article this past week looking at how the average schlub like you or me would produce if given an opportunity to bat and chose to literally never swing. Pitchers, as it turns out, are surprisingly fallible when it comes to striking out realistic simulacrums of hitters, and the expected production would be nonzero by a hair. What a couple people claimed in the comments was that they could be better than Jeff’s predicted .000/.073/.000, that they could swing blindly a couple times and occasionally get on base, somehow. Maybe that was you! I call shenanigans. Swinging obviously leads to negative outcomes as well, and I think the decreased chance of a walk would outweigh the nonzero chance of a hit. I took Jeff’s frequently given advice (if you want to know more, do the research yourself) and decided to see what would happen if you did decide to swing sometimes.

Throughout this, I’m going to follow a fairly similar methodology to Jeff and use a lot of his numbers whenever possible, so we’ll assume pitchers have the same abilities to throw strikes he gave. It’s true that it might change a bit if they knew what you were planning, but Jeff assumed the pitchers thought you were at least thinking about swinging, so it’s not too big a stretch. To extend the conclusions, we have to decide a few things — when you swing, how likely you are to make contact, and what happens when you do.

In making these assumptions, I’m trying to channel what you or I, a reader of FanGraphs, would do in the batter’s box. If I decided to swing ever, it would be just that, a conscious decision, one I would probably have to make before the ball ever left the pitcher’s hand. There is no way I have the ability to determine if a pitch is a ball or a strike or at all hittable while it’s approaching me rapidly. Therefore, in our scenario, you have a predetermined chance of swinging at any pitch, ball or strike. We’ll call that swing rate, and it depends entirely on how aggressive you’re feeling.

Now we need contact percentages, and for the next few sections, I’m again going to follow Jeff’s lead by looking for some of the historically worst contact percentages ever, and adjust those down somewhat. Looking over the last six years for players with at least 20 plate appearances, there are some pretty terrible numbers for both in-zone and out-of-zone contact rates. Sean West of the Marlins and Alex Wood of the Braves both have O-Contact rates of 0.00%. The lowest non-zero rate belongs to Sean Gallagher, at 14.3%. The lowest from a position player is that of Reid Gorecki, outfielder for the Braves, at 18.8%. It seems fairly reasonable to set your O-Contact% at 10%. Z-Contact% is better, but we see some of the same names. The lowest is Rick VandenHurk, 36.8%. Sean Gallagher ranks third-worst here as well, at 55.6%. Mike Costanzo is the worst position player at 59.3%, though good ol’ Reid Gorecki isn’t far behind, the fifth-worst position player at 68.6%. 50% seems like a good round number to choose for Z-Contact%.

So now we know when you swing, and whether or not you make contact. What happens then? There are 10 players with at least 20 PAs who have a BABIP of .000, so it’s presumably possible (maybe even likely) to ground out every time we even manage to make contact. Brandon McCarthy is the lowest-nonzero rate, at .037, or one hit in the 27 times he’s put the ball in play. The lowest position player is Oswaldo Navarro, shortstop, at .063. We’ll be generous, and assume some of these awful numbers are bad luck and need to be duly regressed, and put your true-talent BABIP at .050.

The floor for your hypothetical power abilities is even lower. Lots of position players have .000 ISO, with all of Luis Durango’s 19 career hits in 74 PAs (the largest sample size among players at .000) being singles. That’s boring, however. We want at least some chance for extra bases. ISO, however, measures extra bases per at-bat, when really what we want is extra bases conditional on the ball being a hit. We can safely set that pretty low as well. Johnny Cueto has a surprising number of PAs, at 340, and the lowest nonzero ISO at .004. Of his 26 hits, 25 were singles, with one double. There are lots of similarly bad numbers, so we’ll put your chance at extra bases at .02, or once per every fifty hits. Sounds about right. They’ll all be doubles — no way you’re hitting the ball hard enough for a triple or dinger, inside-the-park or otherwise.

Now it’s time to plug and chug. (Before continuing, an aside: we’re obviously assuming unrealistic things here, like that our BABIP will be the same on pitches in the zone and on those not, and that the probabilities will be the same regardless of the count, but we’re also assuming that you’re in a major-league game, so let’s not quibble over realism.) Continuing to shamelessly appropriate Jeff’s numbers and methodology, when we step up to the plate, there’s about a .24% chance we’ll be hit in the at-bat and automatically reach base. Nice! Jeff set an expected strike-rate of 70%, and we’ll use that as well. If we didn’t swing, we walked or were hit enough for an OBP of .073. How does swinging sometimes change your production?

Oof. Not well, is the answer. You can see that while BA and SLG increase when you swing more, it’s not nearly enough to cover the increased strikes and in-play outs, and reasonable swing rates in the 25-60 percent range cause lead to some even worse wOBAs in the .020s and .030s. Interestingly, the minimum wOBA comes right around a swing rate of 45%, after which it is better to swing more no matter what your rate is, until you’re deciding to swing before literally every single pitch. They should probably learn your strategy fairly quickly, but until they do, your OBP is about .040 (you get on base once every 25 at-bats!) and your wOBA is about .036. For comparison, Jon Lester (my go-to terribly-hitting pitcher) has a lifetime OBP of .030 and a wOBA of .021.

How good would you have to be for swinging sometimes to be better than doing nothing? It doesn’t take a lot. If you can make slightly more solid contact, and we up your BABIP to .150 and the chance of a double given a hit to 15%, swinging more is a very good thing, with your wOBA topping out at .110 (!!!) when you swing 100% of the time. To be fair, though, while this is a small increase in magnitude, it’s better contact than a lot of pitchers make, so I think the original assumptions are probably closer to the truth.

So now you know. If you’re ever dropped into a baseball game somehow, remember Eddie Gaedel, and keep the bat firmly fixed on your shoulder. Because while you would be terrible, really really terrible, it would be even worse if you for some second you forgot how terrible you were and tried swinging.

PS — I put together a whole spreadsheet where you can mess with all these numbers and see how it changes the results, and if that’s something people would be interested in I could provide a link so you can make assumptions of your own.