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May 2, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Secret to Getting a Hit

by Sam Miller

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Pitchers are terrible hitters, but their terribleness is at least consistent. Since 2000, as offense overall has declined, pitchers have never slugged lower than .175 (nor slugged higher than .195). They've never batted lower than .130 (or batted better than .150). Pitchers can't do what you want them to do, which is get a hit, but at least they fail at a rate you can rely on. There's something okay about this arrangement.  

This year's pitchers, though, are just so bad at hitting. They're hitting .110, and they're slugging .123. Both of these totals would be the lowest in the post-WWII era, and probably the lowest ever. We can't even blame it on some sort of seasonal disadvantage that hitting pitchers face in the spring. Switching to TAv, we find that April has traditionally been a strong month for pitchers at the plate, with April representing pitchers' best months of the 2009 and 2010 seasons:

April 2009: .155 TAv
Cumulative 2009: .145

April 2010: .168
Cumulative 2010: .145

April 2011: .142
Cumulative 2011: .147

And in 2012: .120. The lowest single month of at least the past four seasons.

There are, as you would expect, a lot of impressively bad performances. Cubs pitchers have only two total bases. Brewers pitchers are hitting .046. Marlins pitchers have managed just one sacrifice bunt. Cardinals pitchers have struck out 23 times in 49 at bats. Three teams’ pitchers don’t have a walk yet, despite 45 to 60 plate appearances per team. All of these teams are better than the Padres. Padres starter Edinson Volquez singled in his first at-bat on Opening Day. The Padres' pitchers entered play Monday 1-for-43 on the season. So they entered Monday hitless in 42 at-bats, with 23 strikeouts. Luckily, one anonymous Padres pitcher kept a log. 

Day 1



Whhhhheeeeeeeeeeewwww guys we are going to be so AWESOME this year. Did you see that? A hit off Clayton Kershaw. We’re on pace to have 486 hits this year. And Kershaw won the CY YOUNG last year. Well guess what, one of us is going to win the SILVER SLUGGER this year. Hey skip, no need to bring any designated hitters with us to interleage play, harhar. I’m going to go do a bunch of push-ups.

Day 5
Things have slowed down, and we had a secret meeting last night to figure out a way to get our next hit. It’s pretty clear that we are actually bad at this, and we are not going to get 486 hits this year. Cory Luebke literally tried the butcher-boy play five times in a row the other day. That is not a joke; he actually tried the butcher-boy play five times in a row. He struck out. We all strike out, all the time. But we’re going to succeed. There have to be places on the field where fielders can’t catch the ball and throw us out. We just have to find those places on the field. I asked our center fielder, Cameron, how to get hits, but he just ignored me and kept lifting weights. Those weights looked heavy. 

Day 6
They’re not even showing our at-bats on TV anymore. When Volquez was hitting today, they showed the same graphic of Trevor Cahill in high school for about a minute, and then cut back to show Volquez walking away.



It wasn't even a good graphic. They didn't even bother putting in a background. They didn't even ask the guy in the office with Photoshop to do it. They probably used Microsoft Paint, or construction paper. But now the rest of the guys and me have a plan. If nobody is watching us, then we're just going to walk over in between innings and stand on a base.  Who’s to say we didn’t get a double? Pretty sure this could work.

Day 9
We heard him before we saw him. "PETCOOOOOOO!" Clayton Richard was shouting as he ran through the tunnel. "I was listening to a bunch of the hitters working out, and I overheard them saying you can just blame it on Petco." We all got real excited, except for Volquez, who was wandering the infield with a Geiger counter. Clayton struck out twice that day, on seven pitches. 

Day 11
Volquez almost got a hit today. He hit a groundball and made Dee Gordon trip like a silly idiot.

We gave Volquez a bunch of attaboys and asked how he got that guy to trip over nothing, but Volquez was pretty upset because Dee still got him out. “I think I'm hitting it too hard,” he told us when he came back to the dugout. He's been studying the infield before the game, and he says If there’s a hole in the defense, it’s going to be someplace real obvious, like four feet in front of the shortstop, or two feet behind the pitcher. Somewhere nobody would ever think to try to hit it. Hiding in plain sight.

Day 14
Bass is heartbroken. He thought he got a hit, because the umpire let him stand on first base for a while. But then he found out after the game that it was ruled an “error,” which means Bass didn’t do anything right, the other guy did something wrong. We told him to cheer up, because it still proves that he is better at hitting than Troy Tulowitzki is at fielding. And Troy Tulowitzki has a Gold Glove, so he must be pretty special. Bass smiled like everything was okay, but later I saw him eating like 14, 15 pieces of gum at once. Bass always chews gum when he’s hurting.

Day 16
Volquez came up with a runner on third. He told us he was going to hit the ball so soft that nobody would even be sure he hit it. I wanted to tell him that was stupid, but Volquez is leading the staff in batting. The pitch came, and Volquez didn’t even swing, he just lay his bat out to stop the ball’s momentum. The ball trickled slowly, and for a second we were all confused. But then Cole Hamels, the other pitcher, just walked over, picked up the ball, and tossed it to the catcher, and the runner from third was out. We all just stared at each other. Our hitting coach, Phil Plantier, saw our confusion. “That’s called a bunt, fellas. Have you for serious never watched people hit before?”

Day 17
“Holy artichokes,” Luebke said. “Look at that!” He pointed out toward second base. What?  we asked. “There’s nobody playing on second base. All this time I thought, first baseman, second baseman, third baseman. But the second baseman is actually playing way over there on the side. There’s nobody on second base! We could just hit it to second base and nobody would field it!”



Oh, so the shortstop runs over there. Well, now we know. Cross that idea off the list. One of the hitters, I think his name is Nick Hundley, came over. “Hey guys, did you see? I waved my arms safe, like he had beat the throw. I did my part!” But he wasn’t safe.

Day 22
Volquez keeps saying the answer must be right in front of our nose, and that if we just work on hitting it softer and softer and softer, we’ll get a hit eventually. “Think about it: they’re all way out there. Why would we hit it out there, when that’s where they all are? We need to hit it … here,” he said, pointing to his heart.

Day 23
Luebke’s not doing well. Every time he bats—seriously, every time—the announcers talk about what a good hitter he is, or what a good swing he has, but he's not hitting good and he's not swinging good. His eyes look bone dry, and when you say his name it takes so long for him to look at you. “Swing at everything,” he said before the game. “Swing swing swing swing swing swing swing.”

He made all these faces, and had his body do all these bendy things, in one at-bat:


Day 23
We got Luebke some fluids and he stabilized. “Sorry about earlier,” he told us. “I dreamed I was facing the greatest pitcher of all-time, like if Stephen Strasburg got to pitch from 25 feet away and my bat was a garden hose.” We nodded. We’d all been there. We didn’t have the heart to tell him it was Eric Hacker. Besides, it was his turn to bat again.

Day 23
“I just thought if I let it graze my arm,” he said when he got back to the dugout, "they would let me go to first base, and then I could ask their first baseman for some advice on hitting baseballs." It wasn’t a bad idea. He just missed,

by an absurd amount. We’re so embarrassing.

Day 24
"How does anybody score runs against us?" somebody asked. Nobody had to ask what he meant. To score runs, other people must get hits. But hits are almost impossible. I was the best hitter on my high school team. I practice hitting almost every day. I have the best instructors. I'm almost sociopathically self-confident. I understand the rules of the sport. I am in excellent shape. I am good enough to put the bat on the ball against major-league pitchers. We all are. And yet our collective BABIP is .043. Getting hits must not be possible. How do other people get hits? 

"Who is the best hitter in baseball?" Volquez asked us. We all agreed it's Jose Bautista. "I bet he's never hit a ball farther than 80 feet," Volquez said. "That's the trick." Dang it. We had forgotten we were all supposed to be ignoring Volquez. 

Day 25
Clayton Richard tried to lay down a bunt. It didn’t work. We’re only two for six on sacrifice attempts. It’s not fair that it’s only called a sacrifice if it’s successful. The emphasis in sacrifice is on giving oneself up. I don’t know why the result even matters. As far as I’m concerned, we have six sacrifices! Richard failed, though, like always. It was pretty humiliating when the third-base umpire started giving him tips on how to hold the bat.



Day 26
WE DID IT!!! We got another hit. It was just like Volquez said: gotta keep the ball from going too far. Looking back, I can count three flyballs that we hit into the outfield during this stretch, which is what these hitting coaches are always telling us to do, but there were always guys on the other team just standing there to catch it. The key is hitting it just soft enough to just the right spot. It took us almost a month, but we finally found the right spot.



We invited the rest of the team to an afterparty to celebrate the hit. “The what?” The hit, we said. The hit that snapped an 0-for-42 streak. “You had an 0-for-42 streak? We literally did not notice a single thing different. You are always really, really, really bad at hitting. All the time. You are awful. You should not do it.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bass reach deep into the gum bucket.

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

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