Earlier this week, Colin Wyers and I wrote about some of the qualities that make Ichiro so unusual, enabling him to flummox projection systems and opposing defenses alike. Chief among them was his proclivity for infield hitting. As we mentioned, Ichiro has led the majors in infield hit percentage, as defined by FanGraphs (IFH/GB), for five straight seasons. It’s clear that infield hitting is a skill; Matt Swartz noted that a similar statistic of his own creation, “Infield Reach Percentage” (essentially, times on base/IFGB, excluding fielder’s choices) has a .55 year-to-year correlation, indicating that the players who rack up infield hits one year tend to rack them up the next (and vice versa). That’s not only true, but intuitive: it stands to reason that speedy players with quick first steps (especially those who have the added advantage of batting from the left side) would show some ability to amass high infield-hit rates, whether or not they can actually control the trajectory of the balls they put in play.
As Colin and I indicated, PECOTA is about to get a lot smarter by incorporating that knowledge, rather than looking at raw hit totals in a non-granular fashion. Still, that doesn’t mean that players can’t fluke their way to more infield hits than expected (there’s a reason why our projections draw upon more than one year of historical data). The power of random variation becomes very clear after a cursory glance at this year’s IFH% leaderboard.
As usual, Ichiro leads the way, having managed to turn 15.9% of his many groundballs into hits, and most of the rest of the top 10 qualify as obvious IFH candidates: Brett Gardner, Drew Stubbs, Rajai Davis, Austin Jackson, Rickie Weeks, Carl Crawford. But the name associated with the majors’ second-highest—and the NL’s highest—infield-hit percentage this season—over 2% higher than the rate mustered by Brett Gardner, MLB’s third-most successful infield hitter—seems like something straight out of a Sesame Street-style “One of These Things” segment.
Through 560 plate appearances, Jonny Gomes (of all batters) has been credited with 17 infield hits and 114 groundballs, which computes to an IFH% of 14.9%. In his previous 1784 PA—over three times as many as he’s made this season—he barely exceeded his infield-hit total from 2010 alone, managing only 22. In other words, Gomes doesn’t have a history of high-performance infield hitting:
Nor would we expect him to: the right-handed Gomes is something of a plodder, to put it charitably. In the absence of clocked running times, we can see his subpar foot speed reflected in his dismal defensive performance (career -33 DRS and -37 UZR), negative career EqBRR, slightly below-average career speed score, and 66% stolen-base success rate. Not that we necessarily need numbers to tell us that Jonny Gomes is slow—eyes agree.
So how did this happen? Has Gomes done something special in order to accumulate such an unexpectedly high infield-hit total, or he has merely been the beneficiary of some good fortune? I managed to track down video for 12 of Gomes’ 17 infield hits this season, and while I lack the .gif skills of Jeff Sullivan and can’t think of a convenient way to link directly, I’ll provide a few concise summaries of the events:
May 14th: Bouncer to the 3B side of the mound. Jaime Garcia tracks it down, but can’t complete the throw in time.
May 14th: Hard grounder in the shortstop hole. Brendan Ryan gloves it, jumps, and throws in mid-air, but lacks the inner Jeter necessary to get enough on it.
May 27: Gomes squibs one to the right side, where it appears bound for either right field or Neil Walker’s glove. Instead, the ball hits runner Scott Rolen on his way to second. Score one infield hit, and one infielder hit, for Gomes.
June 16: Classic swinging bunt toward 3B. No throw.
July 9: Slow roller to second. Juan Castro barehands and unloads in the same motion, but his flip is too soft to get Gomes.
August 29: Hard grounder to 3B. Aramis Ramirez dives, fails to field it cleanly, and in doing so, knocks the ball out of Starlin Castro’s reach. No throw.
September 24: Chopper to 3B. Chase Headley charges, but slow transfer and short-hopped throw conspire to keep Gomes safe.
September 26: Hard shot up the middle grabbed by Miguel Tejada, who spins and throws, but can’t nab Gomes.
In short (okay, maybe it’s a little late for that), Gomes’ league-leading infield-hit performance rests on luck at least as much as skill. One of those “infield hits” was bound for the outfield on the fly before Greg Dobbs intervened; Scott Rolen sacrificed his body for another. Two more depended on fortuitous deflections. Gomes isn’t capable of beating out fairly routine grounders, as the likes of Suzuki and Gardner threaten to do at nearly every opportunity, so his grounders need to be perfectly (and softly) placed in order to become hits. Since Gomes hasn’t shown any particular tendency to hit balls of this type before, and since his batted-ball distribution hasn’t changed significantly season, it’s difficult to attribute his increased incidence of infield hits to anything but chance.
Gomes’ ISO and HR/FB% suggest that he’s hitting the ball more softly this season; perhaps that weaker contact has contributed to a groundball distribution more favorable to infield hitting. If so, that increased infield-hit rate might be the baseball gods’ way of easing the pain caused by his drastically reduced home-run rate. Gomes would probably prefer a few more long balls, but his already unimpressive line would look even worse if stripped of some of those successful slow rollers.