Ted Williams and perception

A first ballot Hall of Fame player, Ted Williams was a generational hitter. Should you have the pleasure of looking at his player page on Fangraphs, you will notice an extensive list of absurd numbers. Consider his 1941 season, which is often noted for being the last time a player hit .400 in a full season. He amassed a .406/.553/.735 slash line, good for a .565 wOBA and a 221 wRC+. He walked 147 times, and struck out just 27 times. Combining his incredible offensive contributions with defense and position, he totaled 11.9 WAR in that season alone.

And that wasn’t even his best year.

According to wRC+, his 1957 season was better, and according to WAR, his 1942 and 1946 seasons were better. Had he not fought in World War II, he may have increased his career WAR total by as much 33(!) wins, assuming an 11-win true talent level (probably generous). He finished with only 139.8 WAR, and if we add in his estimated missed value that figure increases to 172.8, which would be second all time. He was a pure hitter in every sense of the word, and was both a student and teacher of the game. An expert on hitting if there ever was, he wrote a book on the subject, The Science of Hitting.

In his book he has an interesting graphic of his estimated batting average in each area of the strike zone, which you can see below:

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*From page 39 of The Science of Hitting.

Ted Williams, maker of the first heat map. As much of an expert as he was, this is not a realistic graphic, as you will see later. It’s also pretty hard to see the numbers so I have recreated the graphic, which you can see below. I have also made the following graphic from the catcher’s perspective, as that is the perspective that is used today in PITCHf/x analysis. Black indicates areas where Williams hits the best, white indicates areas where he hit the worst.

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As you can see, he was very confident about his abilities on pitches in the middle of the zone and on pitches up in the zone, and was very bearish on his ability to hit pitches low and away. The differential is extreme. In his best zones he hits .400, and in his worst zone he hits just .230, for a difference of .170. Here is the graphic for the average lefty in 2011:

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Note that this is for batting average, not batting average on balls in play. The numbers are high because strikeouts are not included.

Just as in Williams’ graphic, batters do perform best on pitches that are in the middle of the plate. However, the differential between the best area (.340) and the worst area (.250) is .090, much less than Williams’ estimation for his own strike zone. Of course it’s possible that Williams’ graphic is 100 percent accurate; there are no data to refute his claims. However, given how lefties perform today, it seems that his perception of his performance is not accurate. He is likely overestimating his ability in the middle of the zone and underestimating his ability at the edges of the zone, especially down and away.

To demonstrate this point, here is a graphic that shows the difference between Williams’ estimated batting average and the average 2011 lefty’s batting average.

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Blue indicates locations where Williams performed better than average, red indicates areas where he performed worse, and white indicates areas where performed the same as the average 2011 lefty.

I have made no adjustments to account for differing run environments. But that’s kind of the point. No matter what run environment, Ted Williams should be above average in all areas of the strike zone. The fact that this is not the case is a failure of our perception of baseball performance. Announcers love to harp on about how pitchers “can’t leave the ball up” or “can’t throw that down the middle of the plate.” While there is some truth to these statements, in reality performance is much closer to the sobering doctrine of DIPS. The effect of pitch location on batting average, and especially batting average on balls in play, is really quite small.

It may be hard to grasp the randomness in baseball, but it is present in all areas of the sport and typically in quantities that we underestimate; Williams’ graphic just serves to underscore this point. Despite this ever apparent truth we often strive to find trends, something easy to hold onto and to explain away the mystery that randomness brings. I know that I am guilty of this trend-searching when there is often is none to be found.

References & Resources
*The Science of Hitting
*PITCHf/x data from MLBAM via Darrel Zimmerman’s pbp2 database and scripts by Joseph Adler/Mike Fast/Darrel Zimmerman.
*Fangraphs


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tangotiger
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tangotiger

Good stuff.

The reason that Williams is showing a wider difference than the “average” is that the average well… averages out the differences.  If you have one guy who prefers high, and another guy who prefers low, then the average would cancel those out!

What you should do is look at individual hitters, and see what their ranges are.  And report those.

Josh Weinstock
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Josh Weinstock
Well that assumes that batters do actually have high-ball or low-ball preferences. I’m not saying they don’t have preferences, but right now I’m not entirely sure that they do. And if they do have preferences, that’s already implicitly included because the batter has to put the ball in play for the numbers to be in the graph. For them to put the ball in play they obviously have to swing, and you would think that they would only be swinging at pitches that they want to hit. Of course they don’t always have a choice (or they may choose wrongly),… Read more »
Josh Weinstock
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Josh Weinstock

Err…I guess batter height would make a difference as well. Even so Ted Williams should still be better everywhere, assuming of course that DIPS has always existed in a similar capacity to how it does now.

aweb
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aweb
This is a situation where league averages are not helpful – individual players almost certainly show a wider variance than the league averages. Does Williams’ self-assessed heat chart fall outside of the deviations from normal (best-worst areas) seen on a player-by-player basis? That is the question you need to go after here. Individuals always look noisier than the average. A bit of a stats fail here – it’s a good start, but you need to compare Williams to the individuals, not the averages. For Instance, I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to think that on waist high pitches in… Read more »
Josh Weinstock
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Josh Weinstock

Yes, looking at individual player variance is definitely something I need to look into more.

And Williams being a .400 hitter in the middle of the zone is probably reasonable, but I doubt him hitting .230 anywhere is reasonable.

Craig Burley
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Craig Burley

“Well that assumes that batters do actually have high-ball or low-ball preferences. I’m not saying they don’t have preferences, but right now I’m not entirely sure that they do.”

You don’t think there are high-ball and low-ball hitters?

I am… flabbergasted.

Josh Weinstock
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Josh Weinstock

High-ball/low-ball preferences is something that’s going to be reflected in where they swing more than batting average/babip performance. As to whether or not certain batters do have concentrated babip strengths that significantly differ from the average: I’m sure that’s possible (perhaps likely), but right now that’s just an assumption (correct me if I’m wrong about that). I haven’t seen any research about that.

Charley Walter
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Charley Walter

I’m pretty sure that Williams compiled that graphic fairly late in his career (post 1950), and that it reflected the result of breaking his elbow in the 1950 All Star game.

Jim
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Jim

I’m kind of shocked that you didn’t mention the fact that Williams fought in TWO wars—WWII and Korea. You give him 33 WAR for the time he lost to WWII, but he probably lost another 13 WAR or so in 1952 and 1953 for time spent fighting in Korea.

Josh Weinstock
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Josh Weinstock

Thanks for pointing that out. Silly omission on my part.

Sean Smith
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Sean Smith

Josh, Could you run the same chart looking at slugging percentage?

Josh Weinstock
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Josh Weinstock

Yea, I can do slugging percentage on balls in play. Would you like me to email this to you? I don’t think I can post images in the comments directly.

matt roti
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matt roti

Yeah Ted (from my readings) was one crazy SOB, and probably the greatest hitter of all time. Given his many walks, he naver had 200 hits, and given his war duty he only amassed 2700+ career hits. Shows how some stats can be deceiving. Shame about how he was exploited by his son toward the end. Great book “The Teammates” about Ted and 3 friends on the Sox.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
Williams actually only “fought” in the Korean War where he flew bombing missions over North Korea (and barely got back after one mission).  IN WW II, he was a flight instructor, but was preparing to ship out when the war ended. Obviously, this doesn’t detract from his service or obviate the fact that he lost years of time in or close to his prime. One of the points that I suspect Williams was making with the charts was the importance he placed on only swinging at good pitches.  His argument, I think, is if you swing at pitches out of… Read more »
Robert H. Bonter
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Robert H. Bonter
The proliferation of walks, so many intentional, garnered by the great hitters – over 2000 career walks issued to The Babe and The Ted, makes me wish baseball, a century ago, had eliminated the walk from the game, by insisting that all batters either strike out, or put the ball in play. You didn’t, back then, take your family to the ballpark to see The Babe or The Ted intentionally walked. You paid your money to see them swing the bat and make a difference in the game’s outcome. On a HBP, I would have the batter who is plunked… Read more »
Robert H. Bonter
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Robert H. Bonter

Footnote:  So it can be said that wartime service is not primarily what prevented Ted from amassing 3,000+ lifetime hits, because if he had never walked, he would have stroked 600+ more career hits, and of course, been designated A.L. batting champion in 1954, which he missed out on because he was walked as a defensive strategy, and took so many walks on his own to help his team.  Something is definitely wrong with this picture.

Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino

Rob,

That’s pretty absurd, to be honest. If Pujols couldn’t walk, the incentive to throw him a strike would be?…

Robert H. Bonter
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Robert H. Bonter
Read it again.  You retire a batter by striking him out or via his making out on a ball in play.  This also speeds up the game because the pitchers would now have every incentive to go right after the hitters, not throw pitches out of the strike zone which serve no purpose. The game needs speeding up.  They used to routinely get their work done in about 1:45.  Now 3+, even 3 1/2 hour games are the norm.  Something has to be done to counter all the manager moves and all the commercial delays in these games. It has… Read more »
Mastro
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Mastro
“Read it again.  You retire a batter by striking him out or via his making out on a ball in play.  This also speeds up the game because the pitchers would now have every incentive to go right after the hitters, not throw pitches out of the strike zone which serve no purpose.” So the pitcher will continually try to hit the outside part of the plate and get the hitter to chase.  A good hitter (or even a terrible one with a half a brain)will wait for his perfect pitch.  Maybe a 100 pitches a batter if the hitter… Read more »
Robert H. Bonter
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Robert H. Bonter
Good points I did think of, but did not digress upon.  Stringent rules/fines would certainly be necessary to ensure pitchers do not go “head-hunting” vs. star hitters.  In so far as the pitchers “wasting pitches,” the byword would be “economy.”  All the incentive is to go right after the hitter, and, by the way, hitters not “working the count” for a walk would represent as big a time savings as any other factor mentioned. I still maintain the upside here to eliminating the walk is ENORMOUS:  All players always get to swing the bat – you did want to see… Read more »
Robert H. Bonter
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Robert H. Bonter
One critical point you missed, Mastro – the batter who is hit by a pitch, does not walk, he remains at the plate as the hitter, with someone off the bench taking first base, in that situation. So that, if A-Rod gets plunked with no one on base, Gardner, ro someone off the bench is inserted at first base, so that now A-Rod is batting with a runner on first base.  Got it? And if A-Rod cannot continue in the game, the pinch runner is given SECOND BASE.  Got it?  And if A-Rod misses a few games the pitcher who… Read more »
Robert H. Bonter
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Robert H. Bonter
Also, I should emphasize this point, called strikes are still part of the game. So no pitcher is going to deliberately throw voluminous “wasted” pitches.  You foul off two pitches, you then swing and miss, you are out. You have a two-strike count and then strike three is called, you are OUT.  I apologize if I glossed over this point because it is critical.  So that the count will always be either no strikes, one strike, two strikes, or three strikes, you are out. So that three things will happen on each at bat.  1. A strike out; 2. An… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Robert, Thanks for the kind words. Here’s the point that you are missing – if there was incentive to go “right after” the elite hitters in the game, the concept of the walk would never be instituted in the first place… I’m wildly speculating here, but put yourself in the mind of somebody inventing baseball. Like most games, baseball presumably evolved organically, the modern product being the result of many rules that were enacted through it’s evolution. Think about the infield fly rule – that probably was not in the mind of the game’s inventor. Then somebody dropped a infield… Read more »
Robert H. Bonter
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Robert H. Bonter
Derek – Re “going after the hitters,” the incentive for the pitcher is not to have to throw 10+ pitches to each batter. You almost HAVE to at least work the corners, and there would never be any purpose to “wasting a pitch.”  Anyway, no-walk rule baseball will never be instituted, so we are indulging in mental gymnastics, here. As regards no foul shot basketball…  Many years ago I sent a detailed proposal to Digger Phelps, of Penn and Notre Dame coaching fame. Predictably no response, but here is the gist of the idea… A team comes into possession of… Read more »
Chad Evely
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Chad Evely
Josh: Very interesting article.  I really enjoyed it. Per the argument/discussion in the comments: In a Joe Posnanski podcast I listened to awhile ago, Bill James proposed a pretty interesting solution to the problem of the best hitters walking too often.  His proposal is that a batter has the ability to decline a walk.  If the walk is declined, the count resets and the at bat begins anew, with one twist: if the batter walks again, he would get two bases.  Although James didn’t say so specifically, I assume this could continue on to a third and fourth base as… Read more »
Chad Evely
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Chad Evely

I don’t have the energy to continue following this thread; it’s pretty exhausting.  I just think the declined walk leading to two bases idea is an interesting one.

Robert H. Bonter
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Robert H. Bonter

I will make my final point as follows:  I would like to see the result of these games determined by the battle between the pitcher and the hitter, not by the competition between the pitcher and the HP umpire with the hitter merely and onlooker. Thank you.

Robert H. Bonter
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Robert H. Bonter
I like it, with modifications.  Walking a batter “twice” would give us too many four hour+ ball games. I would have the batter allowed to decline a walk BEFORE his at bat begins. That would actually simulate the “no walk” condition I propose.  Again you have the question as to what to do re a hit batter, in that situation.  I don’t care for two bases being awarded, in this case, at all, but if a batter can decline the walk before he steps into the batter’s box, it becomes a moot point. It would also be really interesting where… Read more »
Chad Evely
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Chad Evely
Robert: I’m not sure this idea would increase the length of games very much.  The whole idea of an intentional walk – be it an official IBB or just pitching around the batter – is that the pitching team considers that particular batter’s AB to be more valuable than a free base.  The only time the batting team would decline this would be late in games in key situations when they have the opposite view.  There have been many studies showing that, with the exception of some extreme situations, a walk is almost always more advantageous to the offense than… Read more »
Robert H. Bonter
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Robert H. Bonter
A walk AFTER THE FACT, is more important than an AB, before the fact, because, of course, an AB can disintegrate into an out, even a DP, even a fly ball out/double play at HP, etc. I have seen the regression value of a walk pegged as low as .38 run, by David Gassko of Hardball Times.  My own research pegged the value of a walk at .50 run, slightly less than a single, in that a single can move a runner from first base to third base.  I just don’t like the basic concept of a walk, which is… Read more »
Robert H. Bonter
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Robert H. Bonter

Chad you are right as regards better ways to reduce the extended time factor in these games.  Getting into that, if fact, is getting away from my bottom-line premise here as regards making a case for not taking the bat out of the hands of the greatest players in the game, throughout the game’s history, when the game is on the line. That is sheer artistic and “marketing” madness.  “Hey, bring your family out to the ballpark to see Ted Williams hit, unless of course he is walked three or four times.”  Right.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
I don’t see the big deal about walks.  It’s not as if Albert Pujols walks every time up.  As far as taking the bat out of the best hitters’ hands, so what?  It’s strategy.  The game isn’t just about what the best players do.  The games are too long but, as someone above mentioned, there are lots of ways to remedy that without making such a fundamental change to the game.  I’m not against change per se, but this game is 150 years old; taking walks out of it would make me feel like it’s a different game. And it… Read more »
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