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July 14, 2005
Baseball players are creatures of habit and superstition. Any quick viewing of Bull Durham ("If you believe you're playing well because you're wearing women's underwear, then you are") or a handshake with Moises Alou will tell you that. But it's something that can also be easily disregarded when making personnel decisions.
The Red Sox, for example, have stated that they'd like Curt Schilling to move to the bullpen, but many of the Sox, most vocally Johnny Damon, have stated that they don't believe Schilling will be able to make the transition based on his warm up requirements. Schilling, he believes, can't be ready to pitch on a moment's notice, but instead needs a fair amount of time to prepare.
Minute changes like this in a player's routine usually can't be tracked. For instance, we don't know if Miguel Tejada took extra batting practice before hitting his home run off of John Smoltz in the All-Star Game; we don't track teams' travel plans, knowing what time they got in, if their hotel was comfortable, if they got enough sleep, etc. Like opponents' parks or the quality of the opposing pitcher or hitter, it's easy to think that those kinds of bumps even out over the course of a season. Then again, BP does provide quality of opposing batters and pitchers reports to try to divine if some players' bumps didn't even out.
Along these same lines is one thing we can track--a player's position. This change is another that players and announcers mention as an excuse for players struggling at the plate. Players who have recently moved to a new position are focused too much on learning their new defensive requirements. Players who are DHing have a hard time keeping their heads in the game. Pinch-hitting requires a special kind of player who can warm up quickly, go from sitting on the bench cold to swinging a bat on a moment's notice.
Specifically, looking at designated hitters provides a unique insight into this question, since the difference between switching from one defensive position to another seems different than spending an hour on the bench between at-bats. We didn't have a DH in Little League, so I can't say from personal experience, but it's used as an explanation often enough that it's a theory that could use a good test.
For our purposes, a player's primary position will be the position at which he has amassed the most PAs. Looking at all primary DHs this year who have at least 200 PAs at the position, we see the following:
------Primary------ -------Other------- Year Batter PA AVG OBP SLG PA AVG OBP SLG ---- -------------- --- --- --- --- -- --- --- --- 2005 David Ortiz 340 .307 .394 .569 41 .368 .415 .711 2005 Travis Hafner 322 .320 .422 .592 10 .286 .500 .714 2005 Raul Ibanez 300 .297 .370 .461 62 .300 .323 .533 2005 David Dellucci 230 .267 .400 .497 61 .255 .426 .681 2005 Dmitri Young 207 .251 .304 .503 121 .239 .314 .422 2005 Carl Everett 204 .253 .309 .451 64 .339 .344 .581
Taking David Ortiz as an example, Ortiz hit .307/.394/.569 as a DH in 340 PAs and .368/.415/.711 when he played other positions. Initially for Ortiz, it appears he hits better when he's not forced to sit on the bench and wait for the rest of the Red Sox to work the count until the cows come home. Travis Hafner, David Dellucci, and Carl Everett perform similarly, but Raul Ibanez and Dmitri Young certainly seem more inclined to perform better when they get to take a nice long break and knock back a few sausages in between at bats.
In 2004, however, Ortiz hit .309/.393/.618 in 522 PA, but only .273/.333/.553 in 147 PA at other positions (all but 4 at 1B). Likewise, Everett was more productive at DH (.267/.320/.416) than elsewhere (.250/.318/.383). Both Hafner and Young were also more productive at DH, but Dellucci and Ibanez--both of whom were primarily left fielders in 2004--barely notched any playing time at DH.
Expanding it to all DHs in 2005, the group notched .272/.355/.477 while sitting on the bench between appearances, but .269/.348/.470 when playing the field, a drop of .013 points in OPS. In 2004, looking at all DHs who amassed at least 300 PAs total, when DHing, they hit .286/.369/.504; when not, .279/.338/.469, a drop of 66 points of OPS. Interestingly, in 2004 at least, regular DHs fared significantly worse when having to play the field.
However, before we can declare that sitting on the pine, ducking into the clubhouse for some food and video whenever you like, or extra time picking the hitting coach's brain turns all players in better hitters, let's look at things from a slightly different angle. So far all we've shown is that DHs playing their regular position perform better. How do other players who normally play the field do when they're DHing? Players who notched at least one PA at DH this year have hit .274/.340/.446 when not DHing; when DHing, they hit .253/.328/.391, a significant drop of 67 points of OPS. In 2004, the lines were .277/.350/.458 in the field and .254/.334/.417 off it, a drop of 57 points. All those nice relaxing breaks on the bench don't seem to be the main association with better hitting; rather, players hit best where they field the most often.
Of course, this is not to say that playing the usual defensive position makes players better hitters, it could be that managers play players not only where they field best or where they're needed, but also where they'll hit best. But the data for the past two seasons seems to indicate that players do their best at the plate when they're playing their usual defensive positions. Here's the data for all positions (minimum 300 PA total) for 2004:
---Primary--- ----Other---- -----Diff.----- Year Pos AVG OBP SLG AVG OBP SLG AVG OBP SLG ---- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- 2004 2 .274 .339 .425 .227 .317 .370 .047 .022 .055 2004 3 .282 .367 .488 .278 .364 .480 .004 .003 .008 2004 4 .279 .342 .426 .270 .331 .418 .009 .011 .008 2004 5 .278 .347 .466 .257 .330 .394 .021 .017 .072 2004 6 .276 .330 .416 .274 .325 .381 .002 .005 .035 2004 7 .284 .368 .492 .283 .354 .449 .001 .014 .043 2004 8 .277 .341 .450 .277 .357 .454 .000 -.016 -.004 2004 9 .281 .360 .469 .271 .356 .439 .010 .004 .030 2004 10 .286 .369 .504 .279 .338 .469 .007 .031 .035
For every position except center field, players hit better when playing their most frequent position. The numbers in 2003 are almost exactly the same, with the only difference being that DHs found slightly more success in the field than at their normal position. On average, players playing their normal positions performed better at the plate by .011/.010/.031 in 2004 and .014/.016/.029 in 2003.
Again, this difference certainly does not mean that playing at their regular positions causes players to hit better, but for teams constantly shuffling their lineups, it's something to consider. As mentioned, it's possible that managers play players at positions where they hit the best or that they alter their normal defensive positioning in more difficult hitting environments. Regardless of the reason, players may be greater creatures of habit than we give them credit for. It's a trend that doesn't seem limited to DHing versus playing the field, but rather the normal routine versus playing somewhere else on the field.