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Just The Sports: The Red Sox and Long At-Bats

Just The Sports

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Red Sox and Long At-Bats

David Ortiz fouls off pitch after pitch and finally on the ninth pitch of the at-bat, he launches a home run that lands in the upper decks. Was the outcome of this at-bat representative of what happens during long at-bats? In other words, do the longer at-bats give an immediate advantage to the hitter over the pitcher? Conventional baseball wisdom suggests that during longer at-bats a hitter will get to see a pitcher's entire repertoire and therefore will be able to have his way at the plate when the next pitch comes, but is that really so?

The team I chose to look at is the 2006 Boston Red Sox, who at 3.93 pitches per plate appearance are the most patient team in the major leagues. If any team would benefit from longer at-bats, I figured it would be the Red Sox. Keep in mind that this is only one team through only 95 games and the data should not be used to draw any broad conclusions about the rest of baseball history, but it does provide a glimpse into how long at-bats affect the match-up between a hitter and a pitcher.

To begin to answer the question, I broke the Red Sox at-bats into three categories: 1-4 pitches are regular at-bats, 5-7 pitches are long at-bats, and 8+ pitches are really long-at bats. I recorded 2,232 plate appearances that fell under the regular-at bat category. In these, the Red Sox batted .302 BA/.335 OBP/.480 SLG with a .271 GPA. GPA, or Gross Product Average, is a Hardball Times statistic, that is a more accurate version of OPS (OBP*1.8+SLG/4) and the beauty of it is that it can be read just like a batting average.

For the long at-bats, there were 1,570 plate appearances for which I had reliable pitch-by-pitch data and the Red Sox hit .200 BA/.341 OBP/.328 SLG and a .235 GPA. If you consider hits to be the only outcome of a successful at-bat (and you probably don't if you're reading this), then there is a very large drop-off in batting average between the long at-bats and the regular ones. In addition, their slugging percentage fell off precipitously.

You may be asking yourself how the Red Sox's on-base percentage can remain high with their batting average being so slow. The answer is fairly simple. Instead of getting on base as a product of hits as they did in regular at-bats, they have a much higher walks-to-at-bat ratio because walking a batter in 5-7 pitches is much more common than doing the same in 4 pitch plate appearances. Strikeout-to-plate appearance ratio also increased for the same reason. So in long at-bats, the Red Sox's ability to get on base remains largely unchanged, but their hitting ability does take a hit.

As for the really long at-bats, the conclusion we draw from them should be taken with a grain because of the small sample size of 127 plate appearances. The Red Sox hit .193 BA/.472 OBP/.398 SLG/.312 GPA. This is the only at-bat category where walks were the highest occurring outcome and that is reflected by the ridiculously high on-base percentage. Over the long run, I doubt this will keep up.

Overall, the evidence does not suggest hitters are any more advantaged during longer at-bats. A good team in regular at-bats will usually be a good team in long at-bats, although the chances of maintaining a high batting average across the board are slim because walks will replace hits as the higher means of getting on base.

Note: I used at-bats and plate appearances interchangeably during this post. This is incorrect. At-bats only take into account hits and outs. Plate appearances encompass hits, outs, walks, hits by pitch, and sacrifice hits.


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