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February 18, 2011

Painting the Black

Grinders

by R.J. Anderson

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Chris Getz can play. He's a guy who is more in the Minnesota Twins-type mold. You know how I like grinders, and he's a grinder-type guy. He might not have the gaudy numbers, but he's going to help win games.—White Sox GM Kenny Williams on infielder Chris Getz (Chicago Tribune)

Among the many labels an executive or coach can assign to a batter, “grinder” is one of the more honorable. To be a grinder is to make the pitcher work, and the concept exalts physical and tactical effort without statistical incentive, if Williams’ definition is to be trusted. Grinders make the pitcher show his hand in certain situations to the entire lineup, thereby raising the likelihood of a mistake pitch later in the game. Grinding is a job without benefits or prestige, but it is a job nonetheless.

In order to honor these thankless souls, first they must be identified. A few days ago, Rich Lederer of The Baseball Analysts looked at the league’s hitters by plotting their strikeout and walk rates. To achieve a preliminary idea of who grinds it out, one can take Lederer’s presentation idea and tweak the dataset by inserting pitches per plate appearance instead of strikeouts. The resulting graph looks like this, when hitters with 400-plus plate appearances are included:

The graph does a good job in displaying the various segments within the pool. The separating lines are the league average rates in the categories, so a player in the first quadrant has an above-average walk rate despite a below-average P/PA, while a player in the fourth quadrant has a below-average walk rate despite an above-average P/PA and so on.

Since P/PA is a number that does not imply value, Williams should find no fault in calling a player who excels at seeing pitches and little else a grinder. Walks add value through on-base percentage, meaning there is an inverse relationship at work. In this exercise, having a high P/PA and low walk rate is actually more beneficial than having both one way or the other because of the definition at work. As such, players with above-average walk rates are penalized when the analysis is taken one step further and the Z-Scores are broken out. After taking the respective Z-Scores of both statistics, they are then averaged in order to create these results:

The diversity in approaches and skill sets within the lists are intriguing. Casey Blake and Franklin Gutierrez—both former Indians—lead the way as patient hitters, bordering on passive. Their inclusion raises questions about why their walk rates are lower than seemingly everyone else with similar P/PA. Do they take too many pitches for their own good? Are their strike-zone recognition abilities overrated? After all, if a batter can successfully take one pitch before swinging (and missing) at three in between, then he too can boast a P/PA over 4.00.

The third-place finisher exemplifies some of those ideas. Ronny Cedeno lacks a tool usable in punishing pitchers for pummeling him with strikes. As a result, his talent at fouling pitches off is a survival technique and a necessity, in order to avoid embarrassingly short plate appearances. Meanwhile, Brett Gardner saw more pitches per plate appearance than any batter in baseball, yet he walked in 13.9 percent of his trips to the plate. Gardner’s ability to put the bat on the ball meant that he felt comfortable hitting with two strikes, allowing him to take more pitches than a player with questionable contact abilities.

Filling out the other list is a group of renowned sluggers. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are sufferers of intentional walks, as they are the more optimal walk variety—in terms of pitches and effort used—than simply pitching around the batter. In Cabrera’s case, his plate discipline in appearances which do end in a walk are questionable, as manifested in his P/PA. Fielder, though, appears to be genuinely patient at the plate.

Perhaps the most confusing entry amongst those who cannot be described as grinders is Yunel Escobar. Jokes about Escobar’s hustle leaving him on the outside looking in at grinder parties notwithstanding, he generates plenty of walks despite mundane P/PA totals. Escobar is a fan of first-pitch swinging as well, leaving his plate appearances appearing in a binary code—either long and worthwhile or short and vapid.

So, who are these perhaps mythical creatures known as grinders? If Williams’ quote is taken literally (and stretched just a bit) then grinders come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and skill sets. Some are super-disciplined batters with walk rates below their pitch totals while others are simply overmatched and serve little offensive purpose besides running up a pitch count. Whatever the measure, grinders will continue to be a part of the baseball fabric, even if they are occasionally difficult to locate.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

9 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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awayish

BMG BMG

Feb 18, 2011 05:30 AM
rating: 1
 
bravejason

I've always had a different definition of a grinder. A grinder to me is someone who has to bust his tail everyday to keep his job because he doesn't have a high level of natural ability.

Feb 18, 2011 06:43 AM
rating: 1
 
Cromulent

That's the obvious definition, the most commonly accepted version. This articles attempts to go beyond the cliche to find a statistically definable and usable definition. Is that really not apparent in the reading?

Feb 18, 2011 13:33 PM
rating: -1
 
rposborne

I can see bravejason's point a little bit. A lot of guys tagged grinder are like basketball's gym rats and "energy guys." But I think the real definition of grinder is the Potter Stewart obsenity rule, that's in the eye of the beholder.

It is interesting that the listed guys are players, if asked to rate them on grindiness, I'd end up saying yes on.

Feb 18, 2011 07:45 AM
rating: 0
 
fawcettb

Wow. This is the most interesting article I've seen on the site in three months. Bravo. This is why I subscribe. Go deeper on this, if you can, eh?

Feb 18, 2011 07:57 AM
rating: 0
 
onegameref

I thought you would at least provide the stats on the grinder in the lead from KW. What are the rates for Getz? I liked him when he was with the Sox because he stole bases with high efficiency and got on base a little bit. He didn't seem to show much power but he was only a rookie. I think I would rather have kept him and the cash spent on Teahen than have Teahen.

Feb 18, 2011 08:45 AM
rating: 0
 
Jamey
(208)

I'm not sure which is more embarrassing for the author and editor: that Chris Getz's numbers aren't in the article, or that I had to exit BP's website to find the numbers.

Feb 18, 2011 09:41 AM
rating: 2
 
Travis G.

I can't believe Joe Girardi is still going to bat Jeter leadoff and Gardner 9th. At least that's how it looks right now.

Feb 18, 2011 21:51 PM
rating: 0
 
Joe D.

Agghhh...the math tutor in me can't resist:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartesian_coordinate_system#Quadrants_and_octants

Sorry.

But fantastic article nonetheless!

Feb 19, 2011 00:39 AM
rating: 1
 
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