As Wee Willie Keeler once said, “Hit ’em where they ain’t”. Sadly for baseball in 2018, the “where they ain’t” part means beyond the outfield fence. Which wouldn’t be bad by itself. However, modern baseball seems so focused on “where they ain’t” that it’s increasingly rare that anyone even hits ’em at all.
In April, there were more strikeouts than hits. Which is awful for the game, no matter how you present it. People already think baseball is slow. It’s even slower when nothing is happening. If you want to watch people playing catch, invite some neighborhood kids over and give ’em 2 gloves and a ball. It’ll save you a ton on subscription services, tickets, parking and concessions!
I’ve got nothing against analytics. I agree that it makes sense, as a pitcher, to strike out as many batters a possible, because fewer balls in play mean fewer chances to score, which means fewer runs are scored, which means a better chance to win.
I agree that it makes sense as a defender to line up where a specific hitter hits the ball most often. If your job as a defender is to help your pitcher, you’re not helping him very much if you don’t line up where you expect the ball to be hit.
I even agree that as a hitter, home runs are the ideal outcome. Maximum damage in minimum chances. No matter how good you are, how fast you are, how fast your teammates are, a Grand Slam is still the only way to score 4 runs with 1 swing. Every other way of scoring runs requires more than that. So as a hitter it’s logical to think that if you’re job is to score runs, then the best way of doing that is to hit home runs. Because then 1 swing = 1 run. Can’t be more efficient than that.
It’s sound in theory. It’s anything but sound in practice.
The problem is this (statistics through June 5):
This year there have been 68,723 batters faced by major league pitching. 2,045 of them have hit home runs. That’s roughly 3%. Granted there are a lot of at bats by pitchers in there, there are some deliberate sacrifice bunts, there are some at-bats by the ghost of Jose Reyes, etc. So let’s be generous. Let’s assume you aren’t a pitcher, a bunter, or an overmatched rookie/utility guy/aging vet. While they don’t represent half the at-bats taken, for the purpose of this exercise, they do. So we get rid of them, and give those same at-bats to actual, competent major league hitters.
Home runs would then be the result roughly 6% of the time. Let’s also assume, as many hitters are, that more balls in the air means more chances at home runs. So we change our approach to maximize our abilities to hit home runs. Launch angle baby! We’ve now polished and honed our craft, tuned it as finely as we are able.
But here’s the thing. No one hits .400. Not one single soul is going to bat .400. Less than 10% of players will bat .300. And even among those, no one not named Barry Bonds is going to get on base at a 50% clip (so unless he comes back after all these years, it ain’t happening).
Which leaves us with this: a craft, honed and tuned to do one thing, incapable of doing that one thing at anything even approaching the ratio of a coin flip.
Home runs are not a 50/50 proposition. It’s not home run/not a home run. It’s a spectrum of home run/triple/double/single/walk/sacrifice fly or bunt or rbi groundout/error/ball in play/strikeout/double play.
As you adjust to try and make one specific outcome more likely, it also makes other outcomes less likely. That can be both good and bad. If you’re adjusting to strike out less, or hit into fewer double plays, your adjustments are attempting to maximize all positive outcomes and minimize all negative outcomes.
The modern approach chases the best at the expense of also maximizing the one of the worst. As the chances of a home run increase, so do the chances of a strikeout from the longer, more powerful swing. This, in turn, minimizes the chances of a groundball, of an average line drive, of . . . hitting a single.
It’s not that adjusting to hit more home runs is bad. It’s that most guys don’t have enough power to truly take advantage of such an approach, resulting in an approach where GOOD outcomes are villified for not being the BEST outcome, yet BAD outcomes are forgiven because they were well-intentioned.
Pretty sure somebody once said “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Just saying, it wouldn’t kill anyone for modern hitters to imitate Wee Willie every now and again. Who knows, they might even find they like it. It’d break up the monotony of 30 second jogs and walks back to the dugout quite nicely.
Viva the singles revolution!