Random thoughts about "putting the ball in play".


Is a pitcher's "hits per inning" statistic independent of "strikeouts per inning"?


Did you know that batters accumulate about the same batting averages against all pitchers?

If you were really paying attention to what I just wrote, you know that is not true. Batters hit for some ridiculously low average against Randy Johnson. Lefty batters are almost into negative numbers against the Unit.

But what if you were to exclude strikeouts?

Here is the best modern offensive year compared to Randy's best year.

  At bats Hits Average   Strikeouts   Other at bats Average
National League, 2000 88700 23594 .266   17344   71356 .331
vs Randy Johnson, 2002 947 197 .208   334   613 .321

Batters, when not striking out, hit .331 against the entire league in 2000, but also hit .321 against Randy in his best year!! That is because the opposition batting average on balls in play has more to do with the fielders than with the pitcher. The pitcher is the soloist only on Ks and HRs. The rest of the time, it is the choir which makes the music.

To do a cocktail napkin calculation of how many hits a pitcher will allow, do the following.

Here it is step-by-step, so you can see how it is derived.

  1. Take his innings pitched.
  2. Multiply times three to get the number of outs he induced.
  3. Subtract 5% to account for outs made by outfield assists, caught stealing, and double plays
  4. Subtract his strike-outs to get the number of other pitching outs.
  5. Divide by .667 to get the number of at bats against him. (If hits are 33.33% of at bats, outs are 66.67%.)
  6. Multiply times .333 to get the number of hits against him.


It doesn't really matter whether the pitcher gets a lot of strikeouts and a low earned average, or few strikeouts with a high earned average. The short-cut formula is still fairly dependable.

Examples from 2003.

  ERA K/9 Innings Formula predicted hits Actual hits
Curt Schilling 2.95 10.4 168 142 144
Rick Reed 5.07 4.7 135 157 155

It works because batters probably  hit about .330 against Reed when they don't strike out, and they also hit .330 against Schilling when they don't strike out, but Schilling simply doesn't give them as many "non strikeout" chances.

I have to warn you that this is just a short-cut to be used when no computer is handy. It ignores home runs, and it ignores the differences in fielding proficiency from team to team. You can make the system much more precise, but in order to do so you need to establish the non-strikeout batting average for each team. (The team is important, since the fielders behind the pitcher are critical to the batting average achieved against him on balls in play.)

There is a significant difference between individual teams. Examples from 2003.

  HITS HR AB K AB-K-HR H-HR BA, ex K BA, ex HR and K
Oakland As pitchers 1336 140 5431 1018 4273 1196 .303 .280
Texas Rangers pitchers 1625 208 5642 1009 4425 1417 .351 .320

When not striking out, batters hit better than .350 against the Rangers, but only about .300 against the As.

When you have completed that process, you adjust steps five and six above to use the specific numbers for the team, replacing .333 with the actual batting average, and .667 with a decimal equal to one minus the batting average. If you want to refine it still further, and have your spreadsheet handy, exclude HRs from the calculation, then add them back in, since the fielders have no impact on that statistic, and it is pitcher-specific.

The Oakland team  listed above allowed opponents to hit .280 when not homering or striking out. These numbers can be applied to the staff as follows.

  HR AB K AB-K-HR Expected BA Expected hits (ex HR) Expected hits (with HR) Actual Inn
Hudson 15 883 162 706 .280 198 213 197 240
Mulder 15 695 128 552 .280 155 170 180 186.2
Zito 19 849 146 684 .280 192 211 186 231.2
Lilly 24 702 147 531 .280 149 173 179 178.1



Were you surprised to see that batters hit .331 when not striking out? That number is much higher than it was a century ago, but  batting averages haven't changed much in that century because today's batters strike out more. In the two seasons below, almost a century apart, we see that "batting averages when not striking out"  are 51 points higher in the modern season, mostly as a result of the long ball, but that strikeouts have taken back 34 of those 51 points.

(These seasons are extreme examples, by the way.)

  Batting Average When Not Striking Out % of opportunities Batting Average Impact of K's on batting average
American League, 1906 .280 88.7% .249 -31
National League, 2000 .331 80.6% .266 -65
difference +51   +17 -34


Today's offenses are still far more efficient, despite the K's. If you examine a typical 100 at bats in those two years, and match them side-by-side, you'll find that 87 of the 100 match up perfectly:

The difference in the game, of course, lies in the OTHER 13 at bats.

In 1906, those 13 opportunities consisted entirely of balls being put into play for a single. (At the 24% success rate, that amounts to three singles, with the other ten being ground and fly outs.

In 2000, the 13 opportunities consisted of four extra base hits (mostly homers) and nine strike outs.

The trade off, then, is three singles for four extra base hits. Even granting that nine strike outs are worse than ten ground or fly outs, the modern offense is inherently more efficient, and the number of runs per game is much higher now than in 1906.

The changes in the game did not happen in a linear fashion. Baseball's run production has moved in cycles. The number of runs scored per game was very high in the 1890s, then very low from 1900-1910. There was a surge in 1911, and another surge in 1920. The run production in the twenties and thirties was pretty much the same as today's levels, but those numbers fell off dramatically in the forties, made only a partial comeback in the fifties and early sixties, and then fell back just about to deadball levels in the late sixties and seventies. (1968's scoring numbers look a lot like 1906's. Yaz was the American League's only .300 hitter that year, and he barely made it). The high-scoring modern epoch really dawned in 1987, and the 1987-2004 period can be compared to the 1920-1941 era as having been the two periods with the liveliest offenses since 1900.

Can anyone hit .400?

The effect of "putting the ball in play" on the likelihood of another .400 hitter.


Do you know what Ted Williams hit in 1941 when putting the ball in play for a single (defined as at-bats without strike outs or extra base hits)?

About .315.

That's a little lower than the other great hitters, but not much. Wagner hit .327 in his best year (1905), and Ichiro hit .325 in 2001. You'd expect Wagner and Ichiro to be better than Williams at this because of the speed factor, or the Williams shift, or something.

The difference between Teddy Ballgame and Ichiro is that Williams only put the ball into play for a single in 59% of his total plate appearances. In the rest of his plate appearances, the ones in which the fielders make little contribution,  (strike outs, EBH, walks, sacs, HBP), he hit .730  - with an on-base percentage around .900!

Ichiro, on the other hand, gave the fielders a chance 81% of the time, and only hit .485 in his other plate appearances. In other words, if Ichiro is the best candidate for .400, it isn't going to happen. This will help you understand why.


Here's a side by-side comparison of a typical 100 plate appearances, Williams 1941 versus Ichiro 2001.

  Williams Ichiro
Identical appearances:    
Ball in play, single 19 19
Ball in play, fly or ground out 40 40
Extra base hit 7 7
Strike out 5 5
Walk, sac, or HBP 5 5
Total identical: 76 76
Walk, sac or HBP 19  
Strike out   2
Ball in play, single   7
Ball in play, ground or fly out   15
Home run 5  
Total different: 24 24

You may be surprised to see that Ichiro actually generates more hits than The Splinter per 100 plate appearances, 33 to 31, but requires about 95 at bats to do it (imprecise because of rounding, of course), while Williams gets only 76 official at bats out of 100 plate appearances.

The key lies in the "different" at bats. In those 24 plate appearances, Williams has 19 walks and five homers. Ichiro makes 17 outs and hits 7 singles). In other words, there is a vast gulf between the run production of those two players. Ichiro is a strong player, but suffers in this comparison, as almost anyone would. Williams was one of the three best hitters since 1920 (Bonds and Ruth are the only ones at the same level or better.)

Back to the .400 question.

Start with the fact that it is next to impossible for a man to hit better than .350 when putting a ball into play (defined as no extra base hit or strike out). The great Cobb hit .351 in these situations in his best year, and he had tremendous speed for his time. You can assume that a fast player will max out around .325, and a slow player around .310.

What would Ichiro have to do to hit .400. Since he puts the ball into play 81 times out of 100 plate appearances, and is realistically maxed out at 26 hits from that activity (the maximum proficiency ever achieved in baseball history), and since he walks in five of the other plate appearances, he'd have to fill the remaining 14 at-bats with twelve extra base hits and two strikeouts instead of his current seven and seven ratio. That means he simply can't hit .400 unless he can convert 35 strike outs to extra base hits in a season of 700 plate appearances. Simply converting those 35 Ks to instances where he puts the ball into play won't do the job, because that's unlikely to produce more than 12 hits, and he needs all 35. In other words, he would have to hit all 35 where the fielders can't get 'em. He better head for the weight room, because cutting his strike outs from 52 to 17 while raising extra base hits from 50 to 85 doesn't seem possible. Since that great rookie year, his strikeout total has never been as low again, and his extra base hit total has never been as high!

What about Bonds?

Maybe. He is the right kind of hitter because he doesn't strike out much, and he doesn't give the fielders a chance either. He walks or hits homers. Here's 1941 Williams versus 2002 Bonds. Bonds is more like Williams than Ichiro is, so these two players have 86 identical plate appearances out of each 100.

  Williams Bonds
Identical appearances:    
Ball in play, single 11 11
Ball in play, fly or ground out 34 34
Extra base hit 12 12
Strike out 5 5
Walk, sac, or HBP 24 24
Total identical: 86 86
Walk, sac or HBP   10
Strike out   3
Ball in play, single 8  
Ball in play, ground or fly out 6  
Home run   1
Total different: 14 14

In the 14 non-identical at-bats, Williams has eight singles and six ground or fly outs. Bonds has ten walks, three strike outs and a homer.

Per 100 plate appearances, Williams goes 31 for 76. Bonds is 24 for 66.

So what would Bonds have to do to hit .400?

Go 27 for 66 instead. Three more hits per 66 at bats. It is possible.


Bonds hit only .253 when putting the ball in play for a single, compared to .315 for Williams and .325 for Ichiro. If Bonds had equaled them, if he could hit as well as other good hitters on those rare occasions when he puts the ball into play (only 45 of every 100 plate appearances), he would turn 14 of those 45 opportunities into hits instead of 11, and would have hit .400 in 2002!!

The Splinter's only real advantage over Bonds was hitting .315 when putting the ball in play for a single, compared to Bond's .253. If Bonds had matched or exceeded the Splinter's achievement (as Ichiro has already proven possible in the modern game), he would have hit .400 for the year.

I've thought about it, and I simply can't explain why Bonds hits for such a low average when he puts the ball into play. The .250 range is typical for his career. In the year that he crushed the home run record, he only hit .178 when he put the ball in play! I just can't figure that out. It isn't a speed thing. Williams hit .309 in those situations in 1957, when he was 39 years old, faced the Williams shift, and was far slower than Bonds is now.

Even so, .400 is not an impossible achievement for Barry. Bonds did everything else in 2002 about as well, almost as well, or even better than Williams did in 1941. If Mr. Bonds were 28 years old, I would say that you could bet on him to hit .400 at least once in the next 10-12 years. If he were 28 and just traded to the Rockies, I would tell you that the batting average records of Hugh Duffy, Rogers Hornsby, and Napoleon Lajoie were about to fall.

But he is not headed to Coors, he is not 28, and his time has probably run out.