Friday, June 12, 2009

Long At-Bats

There was a fantastic discussion between Bill James and Joe Posnanski over at Sports Illustrated the other day. In it, they talk about the value of a walk, and how so many people seem to misunderstand it. There are a couple of really interesting facts thrown into the discussion, as you might expect, but it was this passage that struck me the most:
"Bill James:... so Weaver intentionally walks Brett, bringing up Amos Otis with the bases loaded.

Stoddard's first two pitches miss, and it's 2-0. From that moment on, Amos Otis was GOING to walk. A walk wins the game; Stoddard has poor control, Amos is up 2-0. ... he's taking a walk. A long, long battle ensues, Otis fouling off pitch after pitch, the crowd roaring on every pitch. Must have been 9, 10 pitches. It's what makes baseball, baseball. Finally Stoddard misses outside, and the Royals win the game.

So I'm driving home, and, being a young wannabe sportswriter, I'm think how I would write up this classic confrontation ... should I start off by second-guessing Weaver's strategy in making the game rest on Stoddard-vs.-Otis, in a situation in which a walk will win the game, rather than McGregor vs. Brett in a situation in which it won't? Or should I talk about the heart-pounding drama of it?

So you know what the lead was in the morning paper? 'Amos Otis won a game for the Royals for the Royals Tuesday night by doing nothing more than the 34,913 fans who paid to watch the contest.' WHAT? WHAT?"
Now that's a great story. Not only does Bill tell it well, but it illustrates his point perfectly. For certain people, that batter-pitcher matchup and the challenge of getting on-base without putting the ball in play is what they live for, and you can see that in Bill's story.

I don't have much to say about the paper's reaction to the at-bat - that's just how things are, I'd say - but I did find the nature of the long at-bat intriguing, so I decided to take a little deeper look at it. Using the Retrosheet database, I pulled out all at-bats that had pitch sequence information (as detailed as the Retrosheet files are, we still cannot replicate pitch-by-pitch data for the majority of seasons) and then broke down the at-bats with 10 or more pitches. This is what I found:

In the Retrosheet era, there are over 12,700 at-bats of 10 pitches or more (though only 4,700 of them are 11 pitches or more). The majority of these at-bats are from 1988 and later, since that's when the pitch-sequence information becomes available. There are a handful of at-bats from earlier years, but it's nowhere near as complete.

In those 12,000+ at-bats, players have a batting line of .235/.425/.403, which makes perfect sense. By the time you get that far into the at-bat, the strikeout or walk becomes increasingly more likely, as does the possibility of a hard-hit fly ball of some sort. That would explain the low batting average, high on-base percentage, and relatively high slugging (or, more precisely, the high isolated-power). In raw numbers, these ten-plus pitch at-bats have ended in: strikeout - 2,784 times; walk - 3,138 times; home run - 339 times; and some other out 4,453 times.

If we cut that down to the ~4,700 at-bats with eleven or more pitches, the line increases to .247/.437/.430. The raw numbers for those at-bats are: strikeout - 1,026 times; walk - 1,165 times; home run - 131 times; and other outs - 1,596 times.

So which batters have the most long at-bats? From the data that Retrosheet can give us, the answer is easily Todd Helton. As of the end of 2008, Helton had 59 at-bats of 10 or more pitches (and 24 at-bats of 11 or more pitches). Scott Rolen is close behind him with 50 at-bats of 10 or more pitches (and 23 at-bats of 11 or more). Johnny Damon, Rafael Palmiero, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Roberto Alomar all have 46 or more at-bats with 10 or more pitches.

Finally, I thought it might be interesting to see who, in the Retrosheet-pitch-sequence-era, sees the most pitches per at-bat. Obviously, this list will change pretty wildly depending on the minimum number of plate-appearances. Using 2,000 mimimum plate-appearances (approx. 3 years' worth), the list looks like this:

Most Pitches/At-Bat (Min. 2,000 PAs)
Rickey Henderson.....7,960 PAs....4.29 P/PA
Kevin Youkilis.......2,334 PAs....4.25 P/PA
Mickey Tettleton.....4,908 PAs....4.24 P/PA
Brad Wilkerson.......3,850 PAs....4.23 P/PA
Bobby Abreu..........8,034 PAs....4.22 P/PA

If we lower the minimum some to include players with about 1 years worth of plate appearances (~600 plate appearances), the list expands to include:

Most Pitches/At-Bat (Min. 2,000 PAs)
Jayson Werth.........1,659 PAs....4.45 P/PA
Reggie Willits.......740 PAs......4.36 P/PA
Jack Cust............1,313 PAs....4.31 P/PA
Rickey Henderson.....7,960 PAs....4.29 P/PA

Kevin Youkilis.......2,334 PAs....4.25 P/PA

I have to say, I love how high Rickey shows up on this list, even with 8,000 plate appearances. It just goes to show you how perfect of a leadoff hitter he was. I might have to look at these numbers again sometime to see if I can pull anything else interesting out of them. I don't know what I expected to find when I started poking around with the numbers, which might show in the scattered nature of this blog post, but I thought it'd still be good to share what I found. You can't win them all, I guess, but it's always good to learn from your findings.

Still... Rickey. Quite the guy, eh?


tHeMARksMiTh said...

Awesome. I love stuff like this. I am a little surprised by Jack Cust, but he does walk and strike out a lot. But I didn't think he'd be up here.

I just don't think people appreciate Rickey enough. Man, was he awesome.

Anonymous said...

What a great post. The stories between Joe and Bill in the SI article are why I like baseball.

jorgesaysno said...

Bill James+Joe P= quality read