The Value of an At Bat

by: Andy Zsiga @zigsa_andy

Are all hits created equal? Is a walk as good as a single? Is a strikeout worse than a groundout? At bats are so different from each other, and it can be hard to tell what kind of hitter is more valuable. 

Do you prefer to have a guy that bashes home runs with a low average or a guy who hits for a high average, but does not hit many home runs? Obviously, you want a guy who does both, but it makes sense that guys specialize one way or the other; not everybody has superb speed and atomic worthy power.  

Sabermetrics attempts to get us closer to finding what the true value of a player is, and Major League Baseball teams have adapted its work to be better (oddly enough, that has not seemed to happen in the minors at this time). 

Using data non-traditionally to try to win more games is, of course, not restricted to MLB, just take a quick look at the NBA where teams have nearly done away with the jumper in favor of more three-point attempts. Statistically, it has been proven teams can win by shooting more threes, and many players have responded by practicing and perfecting their outside game rather than working on the jumper or solely the low post. Baseball, likewise, has found many of its traditionally “smart” ways to play the game to not always be the best way to win.

For the purpose of this article, let’s look at the highest levels of baseball to try to determine what types of play and stats are more valuable than others. For instance, if you try to look at the value of a bunt, it changes due to the level of baseball you play, a little league team is less likely to field the ball than a high school team, and a high school team less likely than a college team so on and so forth right on up the ranks. It is also more likely a little league team has more players who will be less likely to be able to get on base than the higher levels of baseball, thus those of us who have not played professional baseball must be careful not to judge what a professional player does by our own experiences in what can truly be a vastly different game.

Are all outs equal?

The answer is that it depends on what happens in the out (unsatisfactory answer, huh?). If all the runners end in the same position as when the at-bat started the value of the at-bat would be the same. Advancing a runner adds value to your out, but it is important to note the amount value it adds varies on the situation, and it has been found there are far fewer situations it is more valuable to concede an out to move a baserunner. 

Much like the jumper in the NBA, the sacrifice bunt has been proven to be less valuable than once thought, while a hit is less likely to happen than a successful sacrifice. When you add in the fact a ground ball or long fly out can move the runner the same way and the fact that hit results in more possible runs, it tends to be more valuable for a batter to attempt to get on base rather than give up a sure out (trying to get on base does include bunting for a hit for some players).

Strikeouts are frustrating for players and fans, but in many cases, the result is the same as putting the ball into play with weak contact. This causes many players swinging for more contact. It is hard to say at where the line is of sacrificing your swing for harder contact, but it really is as simple as just trying to hit home runs because hitting the ball harder tends to result in more hits, or at least you would think it would.

Getting On Base

One interesting trend is the willingness to take a borderline full-count pitch. First of all, it is interesting how differently strike zones are called, but secondly, there seems to be more of a thought process that a fifty percent chance of a walk is worth allowing a close pitch go in a full count. Every base counts, and it is likely that a trained eye can spot that ball in those situations, so rather than trying to get a hit in a full count, it makes sense to let that pitch go if it is close.

Looking at the Numbers

Thus far in the By The Numbers posts, we have mostly used WAR to evaluate players, but there are many ways to evaluate players. WAR is just a quick way to take an overall look at a players value. Think of these Sabermetric values as a way to increase the precision of the measurement of an at-bat; a rough comparison is how precise you make a measurement when you are building. When you need a rough estimate, you might use the number of feet for your measurement, but as you get closer to building or making cuts, you use inches or even parts of an inch. While sabermetrics are not exactly the same thing, they do take items such as OPS and try to give a more precise measurement of the value.  

I am not going to delve too far into the many other ways to look at numbers in this article, but wOBA, wRC, and wRC+  are a few measures that try to measure the value of an at-bat in more depth than batting average or On Base Percentage. Remember with baseball statistics that many times the + symbol denotes that the value has been normed to either the league average player or to all types of stadiums have been taken into account.

Remember, there are many ways to take a look into statistics. It is impressive how closely the upper levels of sports delve into these statistics that are taking a more precise look at the players. I believe that many of the analytical approaches of the game that have been used the last few years may pass as fads, but there are definitely parts of the game that have been changed forever.

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