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Tuesday 21st Feb 2017

Much has been made of 2011 being the year of the pitcher.  Last week, we took a quick look at some reasons why and it was determined that pitchers are striking out batters at a similar rate to last season but are walking fewer and allowing fewer hits and homers.  This week, I thought I would break down some hit data in an effort to further elucidate what is happening.  I am going to use data from www.baseball-reference.com.  It should be noted that any time you look at hit distribution in terms of fly balls and line drives, there is a bit of subjectivity involved.  There is some recent advancement in this area which will tighten up the collection and make it more objective, but for now, we need to rely on the opinion of those tracking the games.  In addition, the data being used does not differentiate infield flies from outfield flies.

The purpose of this exercise is not to draw any conclusions but to look for trends to keep out eye on.  It is one thing to say pitching is better.  It is another to have a grasp of why.  If we know why, we have a better chance of applying that to our fantasy baseball research.

The area of focus is going to be what is leading to the decrease in hit and homers, comparing this season to the previous five campaigns.

Let us start with home runs.  Baseball Reference tracks the number of homers hit via a fly ball and via a ground ball.  The chart below presents the percentage of fly balls, the percentage of line drives, and the percentage of balls hit in the air that have left the yard.


2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

HR/FB

9.97%

9.02%

8.94%

9.48%

9.06%

8.28%

HR/LD

2.14%

2.33%

2.46%

2.15%

1.66%

1.70%

HR/(FB+LD)

7.24%

6.66%

6.65%

6.92%

6.47%

6.04%

 

Again, it is far too early to pass judgment on the 2011 season, but at least for now, power is down due to a lower percentage of balls hit in the air leaving the yard.  I realize this is not going to put me in the running for Sabermetrician of the Year Award.  I mean, do you really need a chart to figure out there are fewer homers because a smaller percentage of balls in the air are clearing the fence?  But sometimes it helps to see tangible evidence.  I will say this though.  A recent site essay suggested fly ball pitchers are not a bad thing if they strike out a bunch of hitters and do not walk many.  This potential trend is another reason not to get scared off by fly ball pitchers as they should benefit from the paucity of power a bit more than their ground ball brethren.

To be fair, there are actually two reasons why homers could be in decline.  The first was just demonstrated.  The second is that it is possible that there are fewer balls being lofted.  Let’s take a look:


2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

Ground Balls

43.18%

43.09%

43.16%

42.80%

43.48%

44.08%

Fly Balls

35.83%

35.61%

35.59%

35.98%

35.47%

35.51%

Line Drives

18.65%

19.08%

18.99%

18.85%

18.74%

17.98%

Bunts

2.34%

2.22%

2.25%

2.36%

2.31%

2.43%

So much for that idea as the percentage of fly balls is quite consistent with the past five seasons.  But, there is one number that is worth monitoring and that is line drive percentage.  The key word is monitor because as suggested, it is far too early to suggest that improved pitching is resulting in fewer line drives, which in turn will lead to fewer hits.  At the very least, we see a concrete reason as to why batting averages are down as there are fewer line drives being struck, though this again is quite intuitive and not exactly ground-breaking research.

The area that intrigues me the most is BABIP data.  For those still not familiar with the concept, BABIP stands for batting average on ball in play.  I discuss its utility in this week’s KFFL mailbag.  Below is the BABIP per batted ball type.


2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

Ground Balls

0.240

0.245

0.236

0.236

0.234

0.228

Fly Balls

0.140

0.135

0.142

0.138

0.138

0.139

Line Drives

0.728

0.723

0.718

0.724

0.718

0.715

Overall

0.301

0.303

0.300

0.299

0.297

0.289

 

With the continued caveat that the sample is still small, it can be noted that the BABIP of line drives and ground balls is better than the previous five seasons, resulting in a lower overall BABIP.  So not only are fewer line drives being hit, but defenses are converting more balls in play into outs, further reducing the number of hits.  Of course, this balances out the above comment about fly ball pitchers, since there is a possibility that worm-burning pitchers may benefit from this data.

Keeping in mind this is complete speculation, since the 2011 data could easily regress to historical levels, I think there may be an interesting explanation for this batted ball data that goes beyond pitchers inducing weaker contact.  I mentioned this notion a few years ago at a panel at First Pitch Arizona and it appears it may be coming to fruition and that is I hypothesized that with the improvement in video scouting, BABIP could be impacted.  In the extreme, look at all the players that now must hit into the “Williams shift”, named after the Splendid Splinter himself, Ted Williams.  Believe it or not, Jason Giambi and David Ortiz were not the first batters to be defended with three infielders on the right side.  Alternatively, an increase in athleticism may also be resulting in better defense.

Again, there is nothing here to shake the foundation of baseball research, but there are a few trends to follow in an effort to better evaluate player performance.  It will be interesting to track the HR/FB percent as the season progresses as well as line drive percent and BABIP, especially for ground balls and line drives.

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