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April 29, 2013

Baseball Therapy

On the Evolution of the Patient Hitter

by Russell A. Carleton


Last week, in an article in Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci put forth an argument that the modern game of baseball has a problem. Hitters, he claimed, have become too passive in their approach at the plate as they attempt to drive up the pitch counts of the opposing pitcher. He mixes together a couple of case examples (Joey Votto, Jayson Werth) with some data that appear to show that hitters have become more passive in their approach over time, and are paying for it in declining run production. Maybe Joey and Jayson, and by proxy the rest of the baseball players out there, should swing the bat a little more.

Mr. Verducci's argument was in part aesthetic, and it's wise advice to remember de gustibus non est disputandum (matters of taste need not be argued). According to Verducci, “What we are left with is a sport in which games keep getting longer but with less and less action... The knottiest issue for baseball is not the stadium issues of Oakland and Tampa Bay or the Biogenesis scandal; it's the increased lack of action in your average baseball game." Of course, one man's snooze-fest is another man's thrilling chess match, so your mileage may vary.

But Mr. Verducci also made several claims about what he saw as the consequences of this development of a "passive" approach, and to his credit, presented data to back them up. His conclusions about the state of the game are interesting. Let's take a closer look at them, shall we?

Are hitters really getting more passive?
Mr. Verducci is correct that the average plate appearance has gotten longer over the years. Retrosheet (put them in the Hall of Fame) has data back to 1993 on pitches and outcomes, and as the graph below shows, there has been a general upward (and significant) trend in pitches per plate appearance. (Note: for all analyses, I'm excluding intentional walks and pitchers batting, as well as plate appearances for which pitch sequence data are not available.)

In 1993, the average plate appearance lasted 3.64 pitches. In 2012, it was 3.79. The difference may not seem like much, but over three trips through the lineup for a starter (27 hitters), it's a difference of four pitches, which represents four percent of the usual 100 pitch limit. If teams really are trying to drive up pitch counts, it's working.

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