Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Batting With Runners on Base--A Historical Perspective

I wrote recently on batting with runners in scoring position (RISP), using OPS as my primary measure of how effective a hitter was with runners on base. I only looked at 2013 but decided to broaden the view and go back to 1945, the point at which accurate at-bat data exists at I will use a different metric, one I prefer, the percent of base runners who score when a batter is at the plate. These aren't necessarily RBI and the batter didn't automatically get a hit and it doesn't include if the batter himself scores, but places historical context on how well hitters perform with runners on base--and if that ability has changed over time.

To begin, a few caveats:
1. All data is from this section of Baseball-Reference. It can be found at:
Home>Leagues>MLB History>####MLB>PH/HR/Situ Hitting
2. Data is incomplete from 1945-1949, much more complete beginning around 1950 and essentially complete from 1973. The full detail of what is missing can be viewed here (scroll down to the Play-by-Play Accounts and Box Score accounts section). As such, certain players like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and others will have incomplete data and in many cases will be unfairly cut off as the data shown will be the END of the careers and may not show them at their career peaks.

Taking these limitations into account, these are the top hitters in terms of percent of base runners that score while the hitter is batting (minimum 3000 career plate appearances):

I mentioned Joe DiMaggio for a reason. The number of plate appearances is accurate, but the number of base runners is NOT necessarily accurate--box scores can tell how many hits DiMaggio had in a given game but won't  tell how many base runners were on base. For that, play-by-play data is necessary and that doesn't exist (at least to people like me) for games prior to 1945.

And yet, in his last 6 seasons, the END of his career, DiMaggio was the most successful hitter in history (that we can measure) in the percent of base runners that scored while he was hitting. Of course, it's not all on him--in this time period he mostly batted clean-up, typically with Phil Rizzuto as the leadoff hitter, and a runner has to be able to take advantage of a situation. Still, in what can be argued as the least productive part of his career AND after a three-year layoff due to World War II, he ends up being the only player in recorded baseball history that saw 20% of the base runners score while he was at bat. 

The rest of this list is intriguing and clearly not the entire picture of a player's career. Dante Bichette and Larry Walker were clear beneficiaries of playing a substantial portion of their career at Coors Field--how much?
Bichette                     Colorado 22.0%        Other 15.0%
Walker                       Colorado 20.1%        Other 17.4%
The Coors Field effect is well-known, but less discussed is the Ranger Ballpark in Arlington effect. Folks that know more about baseball than me (and that is a LOT of people) are well aware that the hitting advantages in Texas are only slightly less than in Colorado--it has the 7th-best batting park factor. This isn't to diminish anything that either Juan Gonzalez or Josh Hamilton accomplished there, but they were definitely aided by hitting in a hitter's park. Hamilton is discovering that this year as he plays half his games in a park significantly more difficult for hitters (94 batting park factor).

This list sets a high bar--the Major League average is 14.5% of base runners scoring in this time span, making the 18% threshold about 25% better than average. However, the players on this list are widely regarded as being very good hitters, some even great. The two oddballs are one who was a Kansas City Royal DH and his successor--Mike Sweeney and Billy Butler. I've known for some time that no matter how I slice the data (batting average, slugging percent, leverage index, whatever) Sweeney ranks very high in "clutch" performance. He should--he was a DESIGNATED HITTER, which implies he should be pretty good at it. Butler for the longest time was a true anomaly, a good DH on a terrible team but as the Royals gradually fill the spots around him he can be a very nice piece. I won't speak for others, but I know when discussing the best hitters of the past 50 or so years that these two names don't roll off my tongue--perhaps they should. 


This is the starting point, but not the only one--not every hitting situation is the same. It's much more difficult to have a runner score from 1st than from 3rd, and Baseball-Reference does breakouts of two situations:
1. Runner on 3rd with less than two outs and scoring
2. Runner on 2nd with 0 outs and advancing
An argument can be made that both of these are musts--any time there's a runner on 3rd with less than two outs, a sacrifice fly can drive him in, but it's far easier to type those words than to actually do it. How much easier--in this time span, runners on 3rd with less than two outs score about 50.6% of the time--clutch PITCHING is just as real a phenomenon as anything resembling clutch hitting. Advancing a runner from 2nd with 0 outs is slightly more successful, around 55% of the time.

This is the list of base runners scoring from 3rd with less than two outs:

I'll be the first to admit this is a strange list and I'm not sure any grand pronouncements can be made. In fact, I'll go one step further and state that this is one of those sets of facts that are just that--facts that don't necessarily translate into solid methods of evaluation. There are Hall of Famers (Tony Gwynn, Roberto Alomar), current and future members of the Hall of Very Good (Mark Grace, Don Mattingly) but other than that, there's a wide range of baseball talent. 

Of course, an obvious issue is the one never discussed, sample size. This is a very narrow slice--players with the most opportunities have no more than around 600 plate appearances in their careers, the equivalent of a season. Couple that with the fact they're being pitched differently than an at-bat with no one on base. They're being pitched inside, at their knees, and if they get anything decent to hit it's a mistake. It's not easy to get runners home in this situation, certainly not as easy as the typical fan (like me before I saw the numbers) believes.

This is the list of best hitters in advancing a runner on 2nd with 0 outs:

Now it's obvious we're entering the realm of chance, luck and capriciousness. Any list that has Ozzie Guillen, Juan Pierre, Scott Podsednik and Ryan Theriot on it with regard to hitting prowess has to be considered suspect by definition. There's even fewer plate appearances, around 300 or so in a career, making any pronouncement skewed by a small sample size.

As I track play-by-play data one of the measures I look at it slices this data down further. For example, I do want to know by base situation AND out how well players do, but making pronouncements based on a season is nothing more than a crap shoot. These are Miguel Cabrera's pertinent numbers, all of which can be found in his split data:

Over a CAREER these numbers can be illuminating, but the number of plate appearances with base runners is far too small in a given year to make judgments. Take it one step further and consider that if Cabrera has 14 PA with the bases loaded, that means the Tigers as a team probably have around 120-130 as a team--keep that in mind the next time a graphic is shown displaying success in a given base and out situation. It is very likely the number of plate appearances is very small.

I've expended quite a few words on a subject I appear to have debunked, but there's a large difference between how players perform and teams. I won't show the table, but checking how teams perform with their base runners is important. The top 6 teams in number of base runners are the Red Sox, Tigers, Reds, Dodgers and Cardinals--playoff-bound all. Granted, the next three are the D'backs, Giants and Angels, but every rule has its exceptions. Generally speaking, it isn't the percent of base runners that score, but the number of opportunities--no team is far off the Major League average of 14% scoring--the better ones give themselves more opportunities.

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