Why hits and batting average are misleading

(Photo: Neil Leifer/SI)

In my last article I mentioned that despite the fact that pitcher wins are an awful stat, hits (and the closely related batting average stat) are even worse.  Here are a few reasons why.

  • The scoring rules for what is a hit and what isn’t are at best arbitrary. Consider just a few cases:
    • The official scorer needs to make a judgement as to whether a fielder reached on an error or not – this is sometimes more based on whether the fielder has a reputation of being good and/or whether the hitter has a batting streak going and/or whether the pitcher has a no-hitter going, rather than what actually happened on the field.  Exact same plays are scored differently.
    • A clean hit can be taken away if a runner on base ahead of him, misses the first base he is forced to advance to.  With the bases loaded, the batter can hit a triple, but if the runner on 2nd missed 3rd as he is rounding it and is called out on appeal, the batter gets credited with nothing more than a fielders’ choice.
    • Clean hits can also be taken away if any runners are forced out. I have seen batters hit line drives to left field, and the runner on 2nd get forced out at 3rd.  I once saw a bases loaded hit taken away when inexplicably the runner from third base was thrown out at the plate. (Ok, it was Miguel Olivo “running”, and JD Drew short hopped a line drive right to him. Still, Ryan Freel who hit the ball,  deserved a better fate than that).
    • If a batter is awarded first base due to a runner being called out for interfering with a fielder making a play, it’s not a hit.  If a batter is awarded first base due to a runner being hit with a batted ball, he does get credit for a hit.  Why are these situations different????
  • Not all singles are created equal.  With nobody on base, I’ll admit that there is no difference between a check swing that rolls just far enough for a batter to beat out for an infield hit, and a line drive to the outfield.  But with runners on base, there will be a big difference.   And of course, doubles, triples and home runs are more valuables than singles, but each get counted as just 1 hit.
  • And related to the above, how many times have you seen a slumping player go 0-fer when he  hits 3 line drives right at someone, and a 399 foot fly ball that is caught at the 400 foot marker?  While at the same time, the streaking player gets 3 hits with a Texas leaguer,  an infield single and a check swing bunt?  Who had the better at bats that day?  What do the numbers show?
  • There is very little correlation between number of hits a team gets and the number of runs they score
    • There is a higher correlation with the number of total bases they get (slugging) and much higher with number of times they get on base.  It’s a simple concept – to score runs you need to get on base.
  • There is little correlation year to year between an individual’s hits.  They are largely a by-product of “luck” (or as sabrmetricians like to call it,  BABIP-batting average for balls hit into play).
    • Conversely, their walk, strikeout, HR/fly ball rates and other stats tend to be similar.  That is a real skill which can be used for predictive purposes – a player’s batting average can fluctuate wildly, even though the player has neither improved nor regressed his skills

And it goes without saying, just looking at hits, without total number of at bats is extremely misleading.  A leadoff hitter who gets 200 hits in 700 at bats might not be as valuable as the #8 hitter who gets 165 hits in 550.  At the very least in comparing the players, hopefully someone will look at their batting average rather than just the hits.

In 2006, Ichiro led league in hits, but was arguably not one of the  top 3 batters on his own team!  A case could be made that Raul Ibanez, Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre all produced more with their bats.  In fact, Ichiros’s 106 OPS+ (the “+” means park adjusted, which gives him extra credit for playing in a pitcher friendly park), was barely above league average.

This brings up the next part of my rant.  A player’s batting average is also a very useless stat.  As mentioned above, getting on base any other way is just as important, and getting extra base hits is more valuable than singles.

I once heard someone argue that Juan Pierre should get consideration for the Hall of Fame, because he’s a lifetime .300 hitter.  I cringed.  His highest batting average came in 2001, when he batted .327.  That season he had an OPS+ of 89, and there were at least 6 hitters better than him in the starting lineup most days – 7 when Mike Hampton was pitching(!).  How could this be?  Well, he doesn’t walk too much and he doesn’t have any power.

So what else is wrong with batting average?  Well, it takes hits (which have all the problems outlined above) and divides then by official at-bats (AB).  Well, what defines an at-bat and what is wrong with this number?

Well, it’s anytime a batter comes to the plate, except when he is walked or hit by a pitch or hits a sacrifice fly.  Ok – these make sense, the batter did something productive, so we don’t want to penalize him for it.

It also doesn’t include sacrifice bunts.  Which is often based on what a scorer thinks the batter was trying to do.  I’ve seen many fast runners get the benefit of the doubt when they bunt with men on base.  If they’re thrown out, it’s ruled a sac, but if they’re safe they get credit for a base hit. What a great way to pad one’s stats. You can’t lose – it’s either a hit or doesn’t count as an attempt.   Also, with a runner on 2nd and nobody out, you’ll often hear baseball commentators say that the batter should hit the ball towards the right side of the infield to advance the runner.  When they do — and it’s basically the exact same strategy as a sacrifice bunt — it counts as an at bat and hurts their batting average.  Even though they did exactly what they were supposed to do.  And in my mind, it’s a better baseball play, because at least there’s a chance it will go through for a hit, whereas when bunting, you are usually conceding the out.

Of course, when a batter reaches on base due to an error, it is charged as an at bat but no hit.  Even if they hit the ball so hard, that they in effect forced the fielder to make a blunder, they get no credit.  Unless the official scorer is in a good mood.  Or it’s a Wednesday night game played on turf and there’s a full moon.  Or something like that – I’m still not quite clear on the concept of errors.  I do know that if  a ball is hit in Derek Jeter’s direction, and an out isn’t made, you can usually count on the batter getting a hit.  But if it’s a rookie shortstop, he’ll probably get charged with the error

So to recap:   Batting average is “hits” which is an arbitrary number, divided by at-bats, which is another arbitrary number.   And as you know, in math, you can cancel out things in common between the numerator and denominator,  so the “arbitrary numbers” cancel each other out and you have real number.  (No, not really – it just seems that way when you hear people recite player’s batting averages)

If you have two sophomore players, who both batted .285 their rookie season, and one hits .270 and the other .300 this year, you can bet the commentary will be all around how one player is slumping, falling prone to the sophomore jinx, pitchers have adjusted to him and so on, while the other one has proved his rookie season wasn’t a fluke and is improving.   Yet, if we base these numbers on 400 at bat seasons, the difference is the first player had 6 less hits, and the second one had 6 more hits in their 2nd season.  That means once a month one of these arbitrary measures went one way for the “slumping” batter, and the other way for “the real thing”.

Think about this next time you look at two player’s batting averages when comparing them.

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About Ruben Lipszyc

I write about baseball. I'm a member of the Boston Chapter of the Baseball Blogger's Alliance, and I write about my Red Sox and keep Albertans up to date on local baseball happenings at RubensBaseball.blogspot.com. I occasionally also write articles for the Canadian Baseball Network at www.CanadianBaseballNetwork.com.

Posted on September 29, 2012, in rant and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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