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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Moneyball and the Science of Hitting

In an earlier post, I listed my top 10 baseball books, one of which was Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, a behind-the-scenes look at how Oakland A's General Manager, Billy Beane, used (and continues to use) statistical analysis pioneered by folks such as Bill James (e.g., Bill James Baseball Abstract, 1977-1988) to find undervalued baseball talent in an extremely competitive market. The book's chapters focus on a number of different subjects that help tease out Beane's unique approach to evaluating baseball players.

Some have pointed at the A's recent struggles that Beane's approach is flawed, that it doesn't work, that he just got lucky for a few years. That's certainly one possible explanation. A more likely one is that other general managers have followed his lead and many now use the same approach he does (especially since Moneyball was published). This, of course, cuts into Beane's competitive advantage, making it harder for him to find talented ballplayers that others have yet to notice (and thus affordable for the A's). As any economist will tell you, in a free market successful ideas are imitated and adapted rather quickly, and there's no reason to suspect that the baseball market is any different in this regard than are other markets.

A chapter that all baseball coaches (i.e., professional, college, high school, youth) should read is Chapter 8 ("Giambi's Hole"), which explores why some hitters are extremely effective at producing runs and others are not. It draws, in part, on the approach to hitting that former Boston Red Sox and Hall of Famer Ted Williams's followed and outlined in his book, "The Science of Hitting." In it Williams argues that in order to be a great hitter, one has to be patient. One has to resist swinging at just any strike and instead focus on those pitches where there's a high probability they'll hit the ball well. That's because every hitter has their hot zones (i.e., where they can hit the ball well almost every time) and their holes (i.e., where even if they make contact, they probably won't hit the ball well), and Williams was no exception. But what separates great hitters from good ones is learning how to lay off pitches in their holes and only swing at pitches in their hot zones, at least until they have two strikes on them. This, of course, requires patience and the willingness to hit with two strikes. It also means that sometimes you will strike out. But it is also what one needs to do to be a great hitter.

To illustrate what he meant Williams mapped out his strike zone into 77 different "zones" (see above and to the right and to the left). His hot zone was over the middle of the plate and somewhat up in the strike zone. He believed he could hit pitches in that area in the high .300's and low .400's, so when a pitcher threw a pitch there, he would typically swing at it. By contrast, he had a hard time hitting low and outside pitches. In fact, he estimated that the best he could do was hit .230 or .240 if he swung at such pitches, so he didn't until he got two strikes on him. He reasoned there was no point because even if he did make contact, the odds of him getting a hit were quite low.

Williams's approach is the one I took when I played (my Dad picked up the book when I was in high school) and probably one of the reasons why I went further (i.e., playing college and minor league baseball) than did a lot of guys who had more raw talent than I did. It is also what I attempted to teach the players on the Little League teams I coached. Every year, I trotted out Williams's book and talked to them about learning how to wait for their pitch instead of just wailing away in the batter's box. It didn't always take, but sometimes it did.

In Chapter 8 Lewis discusses how in Jason Giambi's prime, he took a similar approach to hitting that Williams did. He knew where the hole in his swing was. So until he got two strikes on him, he didn't swing at pitches that were thrown there. He would lay off them and wait for pitches in his hot zone where his odds of getting a hit were good. Similarly, Lewis notes that Hall of Famer Wade Boggs was a Williams-like hitter. With less than two strikes, he refused to swing at pitches in the strike zone that he couldn't hit well. Amazingly, some Red Sox managers and coaches used to get on Boggs for not being more aggressive even though Boggs was one of the greatest hitters of all time.

The focus of the chapter, though, isn't on Williams, Giambi, or Boggs but on Scott Hatteberg, who didn't overwhelm people with his athleticism but was extremely effective at generating runs. His patience at the plate produced several walks and a number of timely hits, such as his late-inning home run that helped the A's set a record for most consecutive games won (this home run was featured in the Moneyball movie staring Brad Pitt). More importantly, his patience helped the A's score a lot of runs, which in the grand scheme of things, is what matters when you're trying to win games.

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