This is the first in the Baseball Revolution series. These articles are an attempt to throw out conventional baseball wisdom and explore one particular baseball strategy to decide whether or not it would help a team.
This summer I became enamored with the book Moneyball. In addition to its great storyline, it contained a great deal of baseball theory. I enjoy the game of baseball in and of itself, but what makes it particularly attractive to a mathematically-minded person like myself is that there are just gobs of statistics out there to analyze. Want to find out what pitcher allows the most stolen 3rd bases? Or what hitter hits the best in the bottom of the 6th inning with two outs in night games on Friday the 13th? All that information is out there, all you have to do is grab it.
Using these kind of statistical studies, Moneyball shows how on-base percentage has been an underrated statistic in baseball – that walks can be just as important as hits and baseball conventionalist have ignored this fact for years. Slugging percentage is also an important measure of a hitter’s value, but the book specifically points out that on-base percentage is three times as important as slugging.
On one particular geeky evening, I took some of this year’s statistical data to analyze Barry Bonds, baseball’s greatest statistical abnormality. I found that if you removed all the at-bats where he got a hit, Bonds would have the following line: 000 AVG / 500 OBP / 000 SLG. I stared at these numbers and wondered: would a hitter with this line be a valuable player? A walk every other plate appearance but no hits otherwise? What if we made a lineup completely out of these players?
Later I was practicing softball hitting in the batting cage for our team’s fall league and decided to head over to the fastest pitching baseball cage. Let’s just say I’m not yet ready for the major leagues. I was able to make contact on just about every pitch, but every one of those hit balls went flying far to the right of the imaginary first-base foul line. After about three dozen fouled balls I laughed to myself that the only way I could ever get on base against a good pitcher was to try to foul off every pitch and look to get a walk.
I realized that this method of fouling off every pitch, not even looking to get a hit, would be a possible way to accumulate this “Hitless Barry Bonds” line of 000/500/000.
So that’s Baseball Revolution Concept #1: The Fouler. A hitter that only looks to get a walk by fouling off strikes. On-base percentage to the extreme!
The idea of The Fouler was intriguing, but I wanted to see how it would play out on the baseball field. To see if a team of hitters made up entirely of .500 OBP Foulers would have any success, I decided to write a simple computer program that simulated nine innings of baseball. It was remarkably simple because there were only two possible results to an at-bat: an out or a walk. The simulation essentially flips a coin at each plate appearance and counts up the base runners and runs in each inning until there are 3 outs. I ran the simulation 16,200 times (100 seasons of 162 games sounded good) and found that this lineup scored an average of 8.4 runs per nine innings.
Just to put that in perspective, the highest scoring team in baseball in 2004 was the Boston Red Sox with an average of 5.9 runs per game (and with extra innings, there were certainly fewer than 5.9 runs per nine innings).
It’s evident that a team full of skilled Foulers would be a dominant offensive force — without even putting a ball in play. While the impact of a single Fouler on a team has yet to be explored, sabermetrician Bill James offers his insight in his Historical Abstract:
Sooner or later, we’re going to get some little guy with limited athletic ability who just draws walks and punches singles, somebody will put him in the lineup in front of Albert Belle or Ken Griffey or Nomar of Juan Gonzalez, and the big guy will drive in 175 runs, and everybody else will go scrambling around looking for little guys who can get on base.
Now remember that I enjoy the game of baseball in and of itself, and hitting is an integral part of the game. If the game consisted only consisted of foul balls and walks, it wouldn’t be very fun to watch and the stands would empty faster than Moises Alou can be picked off at first base. But it’s still interesting to consider that this can be an effective offensive strategy.
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Results of the simulation with different values of Fouler OBP:
If you’re interested in seeing the code behind the simulation, it’s written in Perl and the source can be found here.