Saturday, December 31, 2011

Batted Ball Boondoggles

Where and how a player hits a baseball has become fascinating stuff to think about. And perhaps someday this author might understand what it all means. But there are a few concepts that are starting to make sense. For example, it is nigh on impossible (save a rare inside the park home run) to hit a homer on a ground ball. Just as obviously, the most productive batted ball is one that goes over the wall. But less obvious are the fact that the line drive (aside from the homer) is the most productive batted ball of them all. Well, let's restate that. It's obvious that a line drive is a good thing, but it's not obvious how much of a good thing it is. This posts takes a look at some batted ball boondoggles found thanks to the wonders of sites like and

What is a boondoggle? Well, it can either be this braided thing a boy scout wears around his neck or it can be a wasteful and impractical project or activity. We'll focus on the latter meaning (obviously). So in this post a batted ball boondoggle is at bats that were wasteful activities. In other words, these players proclivities to hit a lot or a little of certain batted ball types isn't a good thing. Since this is New Year's Eve, it's a nice time to reflect back not only on this past year, but on a two year period that began this current decade.

Let's start with line drives. Most of us know that if you hit a line drive, you've squared the ball up pretty good and hit it hard. Certainly, there might be a few of those soft humpback line drives mixed in. But generally, a line drive is hit hard. And that's a better thing than most people realize. has a nice feature that looks at batting for the entire league over the course of a season. From there, you can click the league splits and get a lot of information. From their data, we learn that in 2011, players who hit line drives had a .722 batting average, a .716 on-base percentage and a .971 slugging percentage. Wow, eh? Players who hit line drives become the best players that ever lived. They are better than Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds.

When it comes to line drives the past two years, nobody hits them more often than Joey Votto, whose batted ball data shows that of all the balls he puts in play, 24 percent of them are line drives. No wonder he's so good. But here is where the confusing part comes. The ability to hit a lot of line drives doesn't guarantee batting success overall. It does for Votto. But check out the number two, three and four guys for line drives over the past two seasons: Nyjer Morgan, James Loney and Andre Ethier. Whuh? Nobody would claim Morgan and Loney as valuable hitters. But they hit line drives a lot. Can we at least say that if they didn't, they would be even worse than they already are.

So who has been the worst in baseball at hitting line drives the past two seasons? They are:
  1. Mark Reynolds - 13.2 percent
  2. Alex Rodriguez - 14.0 percent
  3. Carlos Quentin - 14.1 percent
  4. Vernon Wells - 14.3 percent
  5. Carlos Pena - 15.0 percent
A-Rod is a surprise being on that list. But then again, so would Jose Bautista, who would be sixth on our list if that many places were used. Reynolds is so much lower than anyone else, he becomes somewhat unique. Between his swing and misses and his lack of line drives, it would be impossible for him to hit with any kind of regularity. And the lack of line drives from these five certainly seems to be correlated in their BABIP. Their BABIPs in order are: .261, .289, .251, .246 and .245. Here is where we'd love to have batted ball speeds. If we had those, this writer would suspect that A-Rod--who hits a lot of ground balls--often hits them harder than these others. Certainly, his BABIP is higher than the other low line drive guys. But that could be just luck.

Ground balls are good if you are a fast runner. Ichiro Suzuki and Brett Gardner certainly beat out a lot of them for singles. But if you are just a mediocre runner, it's hard to make a living hitting a lot of grounders. Again, according to B-R's splits data, all ground balls resulted in a slash line of: .237/.237/.257. Ugh. For those keeping score, that would be a .484 OPS. Grounders resulted in 1/3 the number of doubles than fly balls and 1/4 the number of doubles as line drives. Triples occurred ten times more on fly balls than on grounders and six times more on line drives. And only one homer resulted from just under 59,000 ground balls hit in 2011.

Ground balls are easily the most frequent event in batted balls occurring more than 11,000 more times than fly balls in 2011. That's good for pitchers. Some batters make the pitcher's job easy. They hit a lot of ground balls. What follows is the players with the highest ground ball rates the past two seasons:
  1. Derek Jeter - 64.2 percent
  2. Ichiro Suzuki - 58.6 percent
  3. Elvis Andrus - 58.4 percent
  4. Juan Pierre - 56 percent
  5. Casey Kotchman - 55.6 percent
All these players hit twice as many ground balls as fly balls and Derek Jeter, incredibly, is the only player in baseball the past two seasons (combined) that has hit three times as many grounders as fly balls. Jeter, Ichiro and Andrus all had BABIPs well over .300. Juan Pierre and Kotchman had BABIPs of .294 and .287 respectively, so not all ground balls are created equal.

Fly balls are not as productive as line drives. But then again, nothing beats the line drive. Fly balls have an even lower batting average than ground balls at .218 compared to .236 (in 2011). But fly balls can become doubles, triples and homers easier than ground balls as we have seen. Thus, according to B-R's splits for 2011, the fly ball led to a .575 slugging percentage. That's very good, right?  But if your fly balls don't go over the wall, it becomes a boondoggle because it will only result in a .218 average and on-base percentage. Players with the lowest fly ball to home run rates the last two seasons:
  1. Chone Figgins - 0.9 percent
  2. Juan Pierre - 1.1 percent
  3. Ryan Theriot - 1.2 percent
  4. Michael Bourn - 1.9 percent
Infield pop ups must be the biggest boondoggle of them all. It's almost an automatic out except for that old wind-aided thing that falls in or that occasional bloop double that falls just behind a corner infielder's head.  Among the best of baseball the last two years at avoiding infield pop ups are: Joey Votto, Howie Kendrick, Matt Kemp, Ryan Howard, Derrek Lee, Michael Young and Derek Jeter. Votto is amazing. Not only does he lead the world in line drive percentage the past two seasons, but only 0.3 percent of his batted balls result in pop ups. He is the only player in baseball under two percent the past two seasons. Incredible.

On the flip side of the pop up issue are the following players:
  1. Vernon Wells - 18.8 percent
  2. Kurt Suzuki - 17.3 percent
  3. Gordon Beckham - 17.1 percent
  4. Chris Young - 16.4 percent
  5. Alex Gonzalez - 16.2 percent
As you might have noticed, Vernon Wells has now landed on two boondoggle lists. Not only does he not hit line drives with regularity, but his pop up rate is obscene.

One last obscure boondoggle for you. Juan Pierre has 32 bunt attempts for base hits in the last two seasons. That's a lot. Derek Jeter has the best success rate at attempting for a bunt base hit at a 50 percent success rate. But we have a player who was terrible at bunting for base hits. In the last two seasons, Brandon Phillips has attempted fifteen times to bunt for a base hit. He was successful once. That's fourteen of fifteen attempts that resulted in a gift out. Perhaps he should stop doing that.

Happy New Year, folks

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