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Seeing a Lot of Pitches

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Gregor Blanco and Jeff Francoeur are nearly polar opposites as baseball players. Blanco has no power, a noodle arm, and a terrific batting eye; Francoeur has some raw power, a terrific arm, and a terrible batting eye. One of the most frustrating things about watching Jeff Francoeur is his propensity to swing early in the count and ground out weakly -- indeed, he was second to last on the team in pitches per plate appearance. (Interestingly, Yunel Escobar was last.) Of course, Blanco led the team. 

You would certainly think that seeing more pitches, all other things being equal, is a good thing. Let's take a closer look.

The major league average P/PA in 2008 was 3.80. The Braves were 24th in baseball with a P/PA of 3.71. But we can't have been doing everything wrong, since we were 5th in walks and only 21st in strikeouts. Chipper Jones led the world in batting average, and his P/PA was right around team average, 3.72 -- the same as Brian McCann's. Blanco's was 4.02, 34th in baseball. Francoeur was at 3.49.

One of the interesting stats measured on Bill James's site is "Short & Long AB." This breaks down a player's at-bats into 1-pitch at-bats, short at-bats (1-3 pitches, including 1-pitch at-bats), long at-bats (4 or more pitches), and very long at-bats (7 or more pitches). Generally, as this guy demonstrates, the more pitches a batter sees, on average, the lower the batting average, but the higher the on-base percentage, as the likelihood of both a strikeout (minimum 3 pitches) or a walk (minimum 4 pitches) increases.

The 2007 league averages for these categories are as follows:
1 pitch: .344/.349/.543 .892 OPS 
1-3: .301/.317/.467 .784 OPS 
4+: .223/.352/.348 .700 OPS 
7+: .230/.406/.372 .778 OPS

Here are Gregor and Jeff's numbers in 2008: 

Jeff Francoeur

AB
H
HR
RBI
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS
1 pitch
17.4%
104
30
3
23
.288
.308
.429
.737
short (1-3)
53.8%
322
89
8
46
.276
.292
.409
.701
long (4+)
46.2%
277
54
3
25
.195
.301
.295
.596
very long (7+)
5.5%
33
7
0
2
.212
.350
.333
.683

Gregor Blanco

AB
H
HR
RBI
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS
1 pitch
14.7%
63
25
0
10
.397
.406
.406
.813
short (1-3)
48.4%
208
70
0
21
.337
.343
.384
.727
long (4+)
51.6%
222
38
1
17
.171
.387
.234
.621
very long (7+)
8.8%
38
6
0
4
.158
.407
.184
.584

As you can see from the breakdowns, both Francoeur and Blanco follow the general pattern: their numbers go down the longer an at-bat goes on, and their best work comes when they square the ball on the first pitch. As you'd expect, Francoeur had a higher percentage of 1-pitch at-bats, and a higher percentage of short at-bats. However, in the rare at-bats that lasted at least 7 pitches, he actually hit better than he did in 4-6 pitch at-bats, and arguably better than he did in short at-bats -- 58 points of OBP are more valuable than 76 points of slugging. 

The problem with Blanco is that he hardly has any power in the best of times, and as at-bats get extended -- as he fouls off pitch after pitch to avoid the strikeout -- his nearly nonexistent power vanishes. His OBP stays admirably high, as he truly has a gift for working a walk, but it's just about impossible to do anything offensively when you're slugging below the Mendoza line.

The key for Francoeur's season will be extending his at-bats. Becoming a smarter hitter means not swinging at the first pitch unless it's a fastball down the pipe, and getting better bat control so that he can foul pitches off if need be.

Gregor Blanco needs to take the opposite advice, because he's going to need to find gap power somewhere in his game, just to keep pitchers honest. He will want to look for more first-pitch fastballs he can drive. He already has the skills to extend an at-bat if need be. But because we now know that batters' numbers go down steadily the longer an at-bat goes, he should see if he can have a few short at-bats to go with his usual long ones.

Oh, and by comparison, in 2008:
Brian McCann
1 pitch: 0.345/0.345/0.586  0.931 OPS
1-3: 0.346/0.351/0.58  0.930 OPS
4+: 0.252/0.397/0.456  0.852 OPS
7+: 0.353/0.5/0.735  1.235 OPS

Chipper Jones
1 pitch: 0.478/0.485/0.609  1.094 OPS
1-3: 0.408/0.411/0.63  1.040 OPS
4+: 0.312/0.526/0.495  1.021 OPS
7+: 0.227/0.485/0.217  0.702 OPS

Yeah, they're good. I'd say they don't need to change a thing.

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