An Experiment: Challenging Conventional Baseball Wisdom


This summer, Major League Baseball revealed its newest statistical plaything, hit f/x, which records the speed of batted balls. This technological toy may not exactly revolutionize the way the game is played, but it does add a critical variable to a hitter’s value – how hard he can hit. Now teams can determine which batters truly hit the stuffing out of the ball.

Strangely, this hit-tracker data seems to go against conventional baseball wisdom. Hit-tracker results have recently revealed that players with lower batting averages actually hit the ball harder than those with high batting averages. Does that mean that to achieve a high degree of success, a hitter needs to hit the ball softer that he otherwise would? Looking beyond the numbers, we discover that this conundrum is an issue of logic.

It is generally accepted in the literary world that plot and character vary inversely; rarely do we find a book with an in-depth plot and intricately developed characters. Similarly, in the world of baseball, speed varies inversely with power; there are exceptions, but it is unusual for a power-hitter to steal 20 bases in a season, or for a lanky speed-demon to hit 30 homers.

A substantial percentage of the batters with batting averages over .300 in the 2009 season had around 15-18 infield hits. There were outliers, of course, but the trend stuck for the most part.  Let’s take a look at how some of baseball’s top hitters (in terms of batting average) might have fared without that extra bit of speed.  Obviously this is not completely indicative of how they actually would have done, but it’s an interesting experiment.

A table:

# of Infield HitsBatting AverageBatting Average Minus Percentage of Infield Hits
Ichiro Suzuki50.352.273
Jacoby Ellsbury26.301.259
Pablo Sandoval16.330.302
Denard Span23.311.271
Jason Bartlett15.320.290
David Wright13.307.283
Scott Posednik27.304.254
Skip Schumaker 13.303.278
Hanley Ramirez17.342.312
Nyjer Morgan15.307.275
Derek Jeter22.334.299
Erick Aybar16.312.280

Notice that this trend only serves to prove the importance of speed in the batting averages of players who have an abundance of it.  David Wright and Pablo Sandoval still retain high batting averages despite when we subtract a portion of their speed.

Because power-hitters tend to be physically larger and thus slower than other hitters, they don’t beat out as many groundballs as quicker hitters, decreasing their batting average by approximately 17/550, or almost .031. For example, Wladimir Balentien, formerly of the Seattle Mariners, had the fastest average batted ball speed during April 2009 (according to Matthew Carruth of Lookout Landing, but a paltry average. Ichiro, on the other hand, had the lowest average batted ball speed but his usual high average during that stretch.

In reality, batters that hit the ball hard often aren’t quick enough to reach first base on a weakly hit ground ball, knocking a significant amount off their average.

Contact rates actually player a larger role in this issue than does speed.  Players, like the aforementioned Balentien, who swing for the fences all the time usually have low contact rates.  And you’re certainly not going to get a hit if the ball doesn’t leave the catcher’s mitt.  Here I generalize quite a bit – not all power hitters are free-swingers, but those that do see that batting averages drop quite a bit despite hitting for power and a high hit f/x value.

What does this mean?  Honestly, I don’t know.  Infield hits are flawed because in using them to make a point, one must assume that the official made the right call (error vs. hit).  Plenty of power hitters are disciplined.

Any thoughts?