CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

<< Previous Article
Premium Article Under The Knife: Septe... (09/05)
Next Article >>
Prospectus Notebook: C... (09/06)

September 5, 2005

Swinging for the Fences

Does Missing Matter?

by Will Carroll and Mike Carminati

the archives are now free.

All Baseball Prospectus Premium and Fantasy articles more than a year old are now free as a thank you to the entire Internet for making our work possible.

Not a subscriber? Get exclusive content like this delivered hot to your inbox every weekday. Click here for more information on Baseball Prospectus subscriptions or use the buttons to the right to subscribe and get instant access to the best baseball content on the web.

Subscribe for $4.95 per month
Recurring subscription - cancel anytime.


a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Purchase a $39.95 gift subscription
a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Already a subscriber? Click here and use the blue login bar to log in.

In 1999, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire battled for the National League home run title, just one year after their record-setting chase that ended with both breaking Roger Maris' single season home run record. On September 18, 1999, Sosa drilled a Jason Bere offering over the ivy at Wrigley for his sixtieth home run of the season, becoming the first man to hit sixty roundtrippers in two separate seasons. McGwire became the second man to accomplish this feat eight days later and again beat Sosa out for the home run crown, 65 to 63. Though both again bested Maris' old record, their 1999 campaign is now a footnote to the history of the home run chase that re-energized baseball in the late 90's.

Just as an out-of-the-blue bolt of plate discipline presaged Sosa's assent, his decline might have been predicted by his tendency to swing and miss that haunted him even in his stellar 1999 season. Sosa swung at and missed 475 pitches in his record-setting 1999 campaign. This is the highest total for any major-league batter over the last five seasons and isn't the "swing and a miss!" call of the announcer the cruelest fate in baseball? But what does it mean in the greater scheme?

Does having a tendency to swing and miss more than most impair a batter's productivity as we have been told since Little League? Do batters with better batting eyes tend to be more productive than the average batter? Is it better to be patient at the plate or go for the first pitch you can hit? Does this data tell us anything new and could that be used to help build a better team or find successful players?

First, let's take at the Sosa-inspired SAM (Swing And Miss) batter. As you can see from this list of the leaders in swinging strikes over the past five seasons, the concept is aptly named:


                         Swinging
Player          Year      Strikes   Home Runs  Strikeouts
---------------------------------------------------------
Sammy Sosa      1999        475        63        171
Sammy Sosa      2001        431        64        153
Sammy Sosa      2000        422        50        168
Alfonso Soriano 2002        406        39        157
Mo Vaughn       2000        405        36        181
Jim Thome       2003        403        47        182
Preston Wilson  2000        394        31        187
Richie Sexson   2001        389        45        178
Jim Thome       2000        387        37        171
Sammy Sosa      2002        385        49        144
Dean Palmer     1999        383        38        153
Jacque Jones    2002        374        27        129
Richie Sexson   2000        372        30        159
Craig Wilson    2004        371        29        169
Jose Hernandez  2002        365        24        188

If this is any indication, then a large number of swinging strikes does not appear to be a detriment to one's ability to produce. All of the batters listed had some degree of offensive success--the lowest home run total is 24. However, they struck out a ton. Does power hitting require this type of all or nothing approach?

Perhaps a glimpse at the other end of the spectrum will shed some light. Here are the batters who collected the lowest number of swinging strikes while batting enough to qualify for a batting title:


                         Swinging
Player            Year    Strikes  Home Runs  Strikeouts
--------------------------------------------------------
Brian Roberts     2003        54        5        58
Placido Polanco   2003        57       14        38
Juan Pierre       2003        58        1        35
David Eckstein    2003        59        3        45
Juan Pierre       2001        63        2        29
Juan Pierre       2004        63        3        35
Placido Polanco   2004        63       17        39
Eric Young        1999        64        2        26
Luis Castillo     2001        67        2        90
Mark Grace        2001        68       15        36
Jason Kendall     2002        68        3        29
Luis Castillo     2003        70        6        60
Fernando Vina     2002        71        1        36
Scott Hatteberg   2003        71       12        53
Scott Hatteberg   2004        72       15        48
Mark Grace        2000        73       11        28
Brian Giles       2002        74       38        74

There is not a lot of power there. You should note the exception is Brian Giles and his 38 dingers in 2002. Clearly, there seems to be some relationship between high swinging strike totals and high home run totals, but it is far from absolute.

Let's take a look at a few examples to see if swinging strikes have plagued those batters' careers:

Sammy Sosa:


         Strikes     Total
Yr       Swinging    Pitches       HR     Strikeouts      BA        OPS
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
1999        475        2889        63        171        .288        1.002
2000        422        2956        50        168        .320        1.040
2001        431        2867        64        153        .328        1.174
2002        385        2746        49        144        .288         .993
2003        349        2363        40        143        .279         .911
2004        319        2158        35        133        .253         .849

Adam Dunn, who set the new single-season strikeout record last year:

         Strikes     Total
Yr       Swinging    Pitches       HR     Strikeouts      BA        OPS
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
2001        120        1185        19         74        .262        .948
2002        300        2945        26        170        .249        .854
2003        213        2032        27        126        .215        .819
2004        301        2895        46        195        .266        .956

Jose Hernandez, who came close to breaking the record a couple of times:

         Strikes     Total
Yr       Swinging    Pitches       HR     Strikeouts      BA        OPS
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
1999        261        2311        19        145        .266        .764
2000        240        2005        11        125        .244        .687
2001        348        2367        25        185        .249        .743
2002        365        2384        24        188        .288        .834
2003        343        2253        13        177        .225        .634
2004        117         930        13         61        .289        .910

Barry Bonds, who has had a remarkably low number of swinging strikes especially considering his home run totals:

         Strikes     Total
Yr       Swinging    Pitches       HR     Strikeouts      BA        OPS
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
1999        111        1700        34        62         .262        1.006
2000        141        2381        49        77         .306        1.127
2001        141        2678        73        93         .328        1.379
2002        104        2397        46        47         .370        1.381
2003        123        2185        45        58         .341        1.278
2004         85        2425        45        41         .362        1.422

Do you have to swing big to connect big? There seems to be a bias towards the "three true outcomes"--walk, strikeout, homerun--that typify the careers of Rob Deer and Dave Kingman. The insights from the MLB.com database are plentiful. At the heart of this, what we want to know is how often a batter sees a hittable pitch but misses. Total number of pitches does not capture that. Certain types of pitches such as called balls must be ignored--credit cannot be given for not swinging at those.

We must first define what is and is not a hittable pitch. We can say with confidence that every pitch that a batter swung at, successfully or unsuccessfully, was hittable. Watching too many games with Vladimir Guerrero or Alfonso Soriano can shake this assumption. SAM will then be the number of times a batter swung and missed (including bunts) divided by the hittable pitches that a batter saw: called strikes, swinging strikes, fouls, foul tips, and balls in play (including bunt attempts). Balls called, intentional balls, hit by a pitch, and all pitchout attempts are not considered hittable. The assumption is that a batter is never required to swing at a ball.

Now, here are the highest SAM totals for all batters who qualified for the batting title, 1999-2004:


Name               Yr   SAM    HR    SO    BB    BA   OBP    SLUG    OPS
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
Sammy Sosa       1999  .283    63   171    78  .288  .367    .635   1.002
Sammy Sosa       2001  .272    64   153   116  .328  .437    .737   1.174
Jacque Jones     2002  .254    27   129    37  .300  .341    .511    .852
Dean Palmer      1999  .252    38   153    57  .263  .339    .518    .857
Richie Sexson    2000  .251    30   159    59  .272  .349    .499    .848
Jose Hernandez   2002  .249    24   188    52  .288  .356    .478    .834
Andres Galarraga 2000  .249    28   126    36  .302  .369    .526    .895
Sammy Sosa       2000  .249    50   168    91  .320  .406    .634   1.040
Jim Thome        2003  .248    47   182   111  .266  .385    .573    .958
Greg Vaughn      1999  .248    45   137    85  .245  .347    .535    .881
Sammy Sosa       2004  .248    35   133    56  .253  .332    .517    .849
Sammy Sosa       2002  .247    49   144   103  .288  .399    .594    .993
Sammy Sosa       2003  .247    40   143    62  .279  .358    .553    .911
Craig Wilson     2004  .247    29   169    50  .264  .354    .499    .853
Mo Vaughn        2000  .245    36   181    79  .272  .365    .498    .864
Jeromy Burnitz   2004  .244    37   124    58  .283  .356    .559    .916
Jose Hernandez   2003  .243    13   177    46  .225  .287    .347    .634
Richie Sexson    2001  .239    45   178    60  .271  .342    .547    .889
Jim Thome        2000  .239    37   171   118  .269  .398    .531    .929
Mo Vaughn        1999  .238    33   127    54  .281  .358    .508    .866
Geoff Jenkins    2003  .237    28   120    58  .296  .375    .538    .913
Greg Vaughn      2001  .235    24   130    71  .233  .333    .433    .766
Preston Wilson   2000  .234    31   187    55  .264  .331    .486    .817
Mark McGwire     1999  .233    65   141   133  .278  .424    .697   1.120
Jose Hernandez   2001  .232    25   185    39  .249  .300    .443    .743
Jacque Jones     2004  .232    24   117    40  .254  .315    .427    .742
Vinny Castilla   2001  .232    25   108    35  .260  .308    .467    .775

SAMmy, indeed! Sosa himself is the archetype for the free-swinging, powerful slugger (or he was before 2005...). Only Jose Hernandez really defies the typecasting, though Jacque Jones is no lumbering basher. The low of 13 stands out due to the 30, 40 and even 50 and 60 home run seasons represented. Perhaps it is more telling to note that the OPS is skewed more towards the exceptional.

Now here are the lowest:


Name               Yr   SAM    HR    SO    BB    BA    OBP   SLUG    OPS
Juan Pierre      2003  .035     1    35    55   .305  .361   .373    .734
Juan Pierre      2004  .036     3    35    45   .326  .374   .407    .781
Brian Roberts    2003  .043     5    58    46   .270  .337   .367    .704
Luis Castillo    2001  .044     2    90    67   .263  .344   .341    .685
Juan Pierre      2001  .044     2    29    41   .327  .378   .415    .793
Jason Kendall    2004  .044     3    41    60   .319  .399   .390    .789
David Eckstein   2003  .045     3    45    36   .252  .325   .325    .651
Luis Castillo    2003  .045     6    60    63   .314  .381   .397    .778
David Eckstein   2004  .048     2    49    42   .276  .339   .332    .671
Jason Kendall    2002  .048     3    29    49   .283  .350   .356    .706
Chuck Knoblauch  1999  .048    18    57    83   .292  .393   .454    .848
Omar Vizquel     1999  .048     5    50    65   .333  .397   .436    .833
Placido Polanco  2003  .049    14    38    42   .289  .352   .447    .799
Scott Hatteberg  2004  .049    15    48    72   .284  .367   .420    .787
Luis Castillo    2004  .049     2    68    75   .291  .373   .348    .720
David Eckstein   2002  .049     8    44    45   .293  .363   .388    .752
David Eckstein   2001  .049     4    60    43   .285  .355   .357    .712
Scott Hatteberg  2003  .049    12    53    66   .253  .342   .383    .725
Fernando Vina    2002  .050     1    36    44   .270  .333   .338    .670
Jason Kendall    2003  .050     6    40    49   .325  .399   .416    .815
Placido Polanco  2004  .050    17    39    27   .298  .345   .441    .786
Paul Lo Duca     2002  .051    10    31    34   .281  .330   .402    .731
Luis Castillo    2000  .052     2    86    78   .334  .418   .388    .806
Omar Vizquel     2002  .053    14    64    56   .275  .341   .418    .759
Eric Young       2000  .053     6    39    63   .297  .367   .399    .766
Mark Loretta     2004  .053    16    45    58   .335  .391   .495    .886
Luis Castillo    2002  .053     2    76    55   .305  .364   .361    .726

Maybe we should have called it the Juan! As a group, the high SAM batters are clearly more valuable. Again, the highest OPS on the low SAM groups barely make register when compared to the high SAM group.

Using the data for all batters who met the batting title eligibility requirements, the data was checked for correlations between SAM and a number of conventional baseball stats. The only thing that seems to be affected by the free-swinging high SAM scores are strikeouts. This is not much of a news flash.

The surprising part is that it does not seem to lead to more conclusions. A high SAM does seem to lead to more home runs and slightly more power. However, one would expect that free swingers walk less frequently. That's the conventional wisdom, but the facts don't bear that out. Actually, walks per plate appearance ever so slightly tend to increase with a higher SAM. One would also expect that all the hacking would lead to fewer appearances on the basepaths. Again, it just isn't so. On-Base Percentages are barely affected.

When someone swings so freely, does it affect the kinds of pitches he sees? Does he get fewer hittable pitches? Hittable pitches in the strike zone? Does he end up doing the pitcher a favor by going down on strikes on fewer pitches? Are free swingers continually behind in the count, are at least more so than the average batter? Do young batters swing more freely than veterans?

Actually, the answer to all these questions is "no." None of the associated statistics has anything whatsoever to do with SAM.

In the end, high SAM scores do not really help us to define a hitter. Yes, they strike out a lot. Yes, the big swings do lead to slightly more power. But aside from those factors, free swingers are not a homogeneous group. Some run deep counts. Some don't. Some get on base often. Some draw walks more often. Some get pitched around more often. But in all these cases, some don't. Some are young. Some are old. Also, however you want to evaluate batters overall, there's no way to say that high SAMs lead to more or less effective batters.

Again, conventional wisdom dictates that batters who swing and miss more often are a drag on the batting order. However, nothing seems to indicate that. This begs a question. A favorite stathead of ours asks "If we know that a high SAM rate does not necessarily lead to a low walk rate, what does that mean about these players? Is it their superior batting eye that enables them to cut loose more often? Or does it suggest that if they took shorter, more controlled swings, they might miss less and maybe hit for a higher average, but at the expense of the slugging ability that is the key to their offensive value?" It's something we hope we can answer soon.

But perhaps we're being too hasty. SAM may not equate to certain characteristics in analysis of all players. However, for an individual player, could a change in SAM portend a change in other characteristics for that player? If he swings and misses more often, does his on-base average drop? If he cuts down on his SAM, do his homers go up?

We looked again to the data, comparing the statistics of all of the players who batted enough to qualify for a batting title over the last five years from one season to the next. For each of these two-year pairings, the average player's SAM went from .132 in year one to .130 in year two. As a whole, SAM had very little variance from year to year, supporting our fledgling stat SAM as a true measure of a consistent characteristic of a player.

Given that, what are the largest one-year swings and what has that meant for the given player's performance? Let's take a look:


                        Prev Yr
Yr     Name               SAM    SAM   SAM Diff  Prev Yr OPS   OPS   OPS Diff
2002   Alfonso Soriano   .156   .220     .064      .736       .880     .143
2004   Ron Belliard      .076   .138     .062      .760       .774     .014
2001   Andruw Jones      .144   .199     .055      .907       .772    -.135
2002   Jim Edmonds       .139   .194     .054      .974       .981     .007
2002   Jacque Jones      .199   .254     .054      .751       .852     .101
2002   Corey Koskie      .155   .203     .049      .850       .815    -.035
2004   Bret Boone        .141   .188     .047      .902       .740    -.162
2000   Vladimir Guerrero .163   .208     .044      .978      1.074     .096
2004   Jose Valentin     .154   .197     .043      .776       .760    -.016
2003   Jim Thome         .205   .248     .043     1.122       .958    -.164
2002   Aramis Ramirez    .147   .187     .040      .885       .666    -.219
2001   Manny Ramirez     .165   .202     .036     1.154      1.014    -.140
2004   Adam Kennedy      .111   .146     .035      .743       .757     .014
2004   Carlos Pena       .174   .206     .033      .772       .810     .038
2001   Jeromy Burnitz    .184   .216     .032      .811       .851     .039
2000   Richie Sexson     .219   .251     .032      .818      .848      .030

Now here are the largest one-year declines in SAM:

                        Prev Yr
Yr     Name               SAM    SAM   SAM Diff  Prev Yr OPS   OPS   OPS Diff
2002   Manny Ramirez     .202   .117    -.085     1.014      1.097     .083
2000   Damion Easley     .180   .115    -.065      .779       .766    -.013
2002   Vinny Castilla    .232   .176    -.056      .775       .616    -.158
2003   Corey Koskie      .203   .150    -.053      .815       .845     .030
2004   Shea Hillenbrand  .118   .070    -.048      .782       .812     .030
2000   Dean Palmer       .252   .204    -.048      .857       .809    -.048
2004   Pat Burrell       .186   .139    -.047      .713       .821     .107
2000   Carlos Delgado    .192   .146    -.046      .948      1.134     .186
2000   Juan Encarnacion  .206   .161    -.046      .736       .764     .027
2001   Jason Kendall     .109   .063    -.045      .882       .693    -.189
2002   Scott Spiezio     .125   .081    -.044      .764       .807     .044
2001   Steve Finley      .132   .089    -.043      .904       .767    -.137
2002   Albert Pujols     .149   .108    -.041     1.013       .955    -.058
2003   Derrek Lee        .189   .149    -.040      .872       .888     .016
2000   Alex Rodriguez    .195   .155    -.040      .943      1.026     .083
2004   Brad Wilkerson    .173   .133    -.040      .844       .872     .028
2004   Mark Kotsay       .137   .098    -.040      .726       .829     .102

Then a change in a batter's SAM doesn't correspond to a change in his value as a batter, if OPS is any indication--that is, at least not for the extremes. What about the relationship overall for all players?

The verdict is that OPS has nothing whatsoever to do with changes in a player's SAM. Neither do OBP, Slugging percentage, isolated power, batting average, walks per plate appearance, home runs per plate appearance, pitches per plate appearance, hittable pitches per plate appearance, or balls per plate appearance. Strikeouts per plate appearance were just about the only stat that increased with an increase in SAM.

The next time that the announcer's voice drips with disgust at a swinging strike, remember that overall, the big whiffs are meaningless. It won't help when that last strike ends the game, leaving the bases loaded in the ninth, but it might end the bias against the free swingers that baseball's held for decades. A strikeout, it turns out, is just another out. Take your cuts, men.

Mike Carminati writes for Baseball Toaster and hopes the Phillies are paying attention.

0 comments have been left for this article.

<< Previous Article
Premium Article Under The Knife: Septe... (09/05)
Next Article >>
Prospectus Notebook: C... (09/06)

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
Premium Article Transaction Analysis: Live That Fantasy
Premium Article Pitching Backward: Brandon McCarthy and the ...
Premium Article Transaction Analysis: Bringing the Band Back...
Premium Article Raising Aces: Best and Worst Mechanics: NL W...
Premium Article Transaction Analysis: Catchin' Relief
Premium Article Transaction Analysis: Martin in Miami, Nate ...
Premium Article Transaction Analysis: Padres Wish Upton a St...

MORE FROM SEPTEMBER 5, 2005
Premium Article Under The Knife: September Changes
Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: Things to Do in Denver When Y...
Premium Article Prospectus Today: Don't Look Now...
The Week in Quotes: August 29-September 4

MORE BY WILL CARROLL
2005-09-09 - Premium Article Under The Knife: Quiet Out There
2005-09-07 - Premium Article Under The Knife: Moving On
2005-09-06 - Premium Article Under The Knife: The Intangibles of Maple Fl...
2005-09-05 - Premium Article Swinging for the Fences
2005-09-05 - Premium Article Under The Knife: September Changes
2005-09-02 - Premium Article Under The Knife: Get More
2005-08-31 - Premium Article Under The Knife: The National Distraction
More...


INCOMING ARTICLE LINKS
2005-09-07 - Prospectus Hit List: Week of September 4