Innovative Thinking In Baseball

This week, Terry Collins said that Eric Young Junior is the top candidate to be the Mets’ lead-off hitter in 2014. This sparked quite a debate among the fan base. Some said that the idea that a player needs to be “fast” to lead off is an archaic concept, espoused by people who have rotary telephones and Radio Shack Tandy computers. The innovative thinking is to use on-base percentage to determine who should bat atop the order, because the idea is to get on base, and the lead-off hitter actually leads off once per game. Let’s take a look at this thinking.

Sep 17, 2013; New York, NY, USA; New York Mets left fielder Eric Young Jr. (22) advances to third base after stealing second base during the first inning during the game against the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

First, what is the role of the lead-off hitter? His job is to be on base for the hitters in the middle of the order. This applies throughout the game, not only in the first inning. Going a step further, the lead-off hitter would ideally be in scoring position for the guys in the middle of the order. Why is this important? It’s simple math. Baseball players hit more singles than other types of hits. David Wright had 132 hits last year, 85 of them were singles. Since the single is the most common hit, ideally the lead-off hitter would be able to score on a single. Here’s more math. David Wright reached base via a hit in about 31% of his official at-bats. So, a good hitter like Wright gets a lot of singles, and does so roughly 1/3 of the time. It makes sense to be able to capitalize on those singles when they occur, this is achieved by being in scoring position when Wright is at the plate.

The “innovative” ideas I heard this week suggested that, using advanced statistics, Lucas Duda should be the Mets’ lead off hitter. Duda had 71 hits last year, 40 of which were singles. Duda does get on base about 35% of the time, but more than half of his hits are singles. So, with Duda’s lack of speed, it will take 2, or more likely 3, singles to score him. Again, hitters deliver more singles than extra-base hits, and they get on base via a hit roughly 28-30% of the time (on average). With Duda on first, you’re then hoping for 3 hits, statistically likely to be singles (that occur less than a third of the time), from multiple players to score him.

So why has the game gone on for 150 years with this silly notion that speed matters in the lead-off spot? Here’s why. A fast runner can steal second base, then score on one hit (likely to be a single), as opposed to 3 hits. It makes mathematical sense to rely on one hit, rather than three, when hits come in the frequency and “type” percentages they do. This concept applies throughout the game, not just in the first inning.

Another reason why speed matters is more subtle. Pitchers, such as Bob Ojeda, often talk about the impact of a fast runner on first base. According to many pitchers, the hurler changes his pitching style when there’s the threat of a stolen base. Hitters receive more fastballs, pitchers pitch out, putting them behind in the count, and pitchers are less likely to throw splitters (or curves) that may be tough for the catcher to handle. All of these factors impact subsequent at-bats in the favor of the hitter. Would these factors be present if, say, Lucas Duda were on first base?

This article isn’t meant to deride the newer advanced statistics. The point is that they have to be considered in the context of the game. It’s not as simple as looking at a sheet of OBPs when filling out a lineup. The game is bigger than that. There is plenty of room for innovative thinking in baseball, and the newer statistics are very helpful in that endeavor. However, establish your lead-off hitter purely on the basis of OBP? Call me old school, but I’ll pass on that one.

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Topics: David Wright, Eric Young Jr

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  • http://www.vitamincm.com VitaminCM

    You make a good point. Especially about the game being bigger than any single statistic. All of these new advanced statistics are great, but there is no single one that says player A is better than player B.
    The whole point to “advanced” statistics is that they are not simple. A combination of them and traditional ones (plus the eye test) help shape a philosophy for building teams.
    Still, teams built around pitching and defense can still get value out of a slugging butcher. Plus, there will always be guys whose value goes beyond their stats sheet. Ever hear of good and bad clubhouse guys?
    These stats are all tools for the box, not to replace your whole workshop.

    • Rich S

      Well said.

  • cheney2jail

    While I have some sympathy for your point of view, saying that it ‘more likely’ takes three hits to score a slow leadoff hitter from first neglects the likelihood that he’ll be advanced at least once by a productive out.

    • Rich S

      I’m not sure about that. Ground ball to deep short, Duda is out at second on the force, with EY, there’s no play at second. Point is, it’s MUCH harder to advance a slow runner on an out (even a sacrifice). Another reason speed is important.

    • cheney2jail

      There’s no doubt that it’s better to be fast than slow. But even if Duda is out at second, a better baserunner is on base who could likely score from second on a single (most major league players can). He isn’t going to give you the Rickey Henderson type capability of scoring after a walk on one base hit, but thinking you’ll need three hits is over the top. It would be interesting to do a sabremetric analysis of how many OBP points you’d need to make somebody like Duda better than a much faster option. As you point out above, thirtenn points is unlikely to do it. Thirty might.

    • Oscar Nieves Martir

      So what you’re saying is that we use Lucas Duda and an Out to get someone faster on first base? That makes perfect sense.

    • Rich S

      I have to agree with Oscar. You’re making my point. If you assume your scenario, you don’t have a productive out. You have given up an out for no gain. Now you have a man on first with two outs instead of one. Why not have the faster runner on in the first place? Then you could have a runner on second with ONE out (after a steal) and have two chances for that run-scoring single.

    • cheney2jail

      This goes to show that you don’t really think logically either, Rich. Of course it’s better to have a faster runner than a slower runner, but by neglecting the many ways that a slow runner (or his teammate) scores on less than three hits you screw up the evaluation. Your contention that it’s most likely going to take a relatively slow leadoff hitter three hits to score from first is just wrong. There are a lot more people incapable of quantitative and probabilistic analysis than there are people like me, You guys tend to make the same mistakes and agree with each other, like the guys who thought it was smart to add rbi and runs and subtract home runs. The question here is how much of an OBP deficit can speed overcome.

    • Oscar Nieves Martir

      Sorry bro but you have gone off and changed your whole piece about this. Based on your first comment you said that it doesn’t matter if Duda is out at first because someone else faster will be at first. So with that thinking you are stating that it’s ok to use Duda as a “sacraficial lamb” to get someone faster on first. So how many hits will it take to get that guy home? If the hits are singles, which is what this article is mainly talking about then it takes 2. So that is faster, but we already used one on Duda, a force out on the 2nd guy to get one first and 2 more to get the 2nd guy home. So basically it using 4 AB’s just like it would take 4 AB’s to get Duda home. So the “expectation value” is that it will take the same amount of AB’s to get Duda home as it would to get the 2nd guy home, only that with getting Duda home we don’t have to use an out and to get the 2nd guy we do. What kind of logic is there in that?

    • cheney2jail

      No, Oscar, that isn’t what I said at all. The point is that in order to calculate the probability of scoring a run (the goal, after all) you need to include all the ways a runner, fast or slow, can score from first, and also include ways to score that have him forced out and replaced by another runner. There are more ways that a fast runner can score than a slow runner, but if you only include paths that require three hits to score a runner from first you grossly underestimate the probability of scoring. The idea is to estimate how low an OBP you can have and still gain from having a fast runner lead off. The defects in your thinking illustrate why Bill James and Billy Beane can get baseball jobs and you can’t. And you are wrong about counting Duda as one of the hits; Rich said it would likely take three hits to score him after he was on first,

    • Oscar Nieves Martir

      This article is not about all the ways to score from first, it explaining why a fast leadoff hitter is better than a slow one. We aren’t calculating all the probabilities of how to score from first. My comment to you was in reference to the fact that you stated that it’s ok for a slow guy with a good OPS to lead off because even if he is out there will be someone one first who is faster. That makes no sense. You don’t sacrafice a player one first to get someone else one first. You sacrafice the guy at bat to get the guy from first to second. I was simply pointing out the foolishness behind your reasoning. You can continue to talk around it all you want, but you should just state that you made a mistake in your original comment and stop making yourself look silly.

    • cheney2jail

      Oscar, you are only making yourself look like what you are: not the sharpest tack in the box, or the shiniest pebble on the beach. You apparently don’t have the mental equipment to understand how to do this, so I’m going to give up on explaining it to you. For others reading this. one more time: to evaluate the effectiveness of an offensive player, you need to consider all the ways they can contribute to having a run score. You add the probabilities to get the overall likelihood. The unfortunate truth here for you,Oscar, is that I really know about this, and you don’t know diddly. As far as the article ‘not being about all the ways to score from first’, it certainly attempts to compare several ways to do so by incorrectly stating that it would likely take three hits to score a run with Duda on first. A likelihood, Oscar, is a probability. And to calculate the probability of an event, you need to include all the ways it can occur.

    • Oscar Nieves Martir

      Dude with every comment you write you continue to go away from your orginal statement. You original statement is the only reason I even began commenting. It was just plain stupid and you are proving my point by not even acknowledging. You can criticize me and my knowledge on baseball all you want. I have not at any moment tried to make it look like I’m a stat guy or know any of the probabilities or anything like that. I simply stated that you idea was stupid and since you are clearly hurt about that fact that I’m right, you want to try and make it seem like I’m the idiot. But all you are doing is proving that you made a dumb statement in your first comment. Just admit that you did and this can be over.

    • cheney2jail

      It’s over already, Oscar. I’ve given up trying to teach you anything, because it’s abundantly clear to me that you are incapable of understanding what I’m talking about. You did simply state that (you thought) what I said was stupid. In fact, you reveal yourself as having little understanding. Now keep talking and say what you like. I wasted enough time on you already. Don’t try to get a job in the knowledge sector, Oscar.

    • Oscar Nieves Martir

      You are an embarrestment to the human race. You wrong and still can’t admit that you were wrong. That’s just sorry.

    • cheney2jail

      No, Oscar, that’s not what I said at all, What I said was that the typical number of base hits needed to score a runner like Duda from first is less that three. Try using logic instead of flying off half cocked. To calculate odds you need to add the probabilities of all ways to score a run. In the biz we sometimes call this an expectation value.

  • cheney2jail

    PS: leadoff hitters also generally bat once more time per game than #9 hitters. The main idea of the OBP guys is to avoid outs, and you kill yourself by leading off a low OBP guy. But I agree that baserunning ability is worth something.

    • Rich S

      I’m not suggesting a low OBP guy should lead off (not someone with a .259 OBP for sure). But if you have a guy with a .333 OBP and a guy with a .350 OBP, and the .333 guys steals bases ans runs well, I’ll go with him.

  • Chance2

    There’s also the important intangible of the exciting base runner.  IMO, generating inspiration (a kind of gentle, internal excitement) is one of the most important aspects of winning baseball, as players can’t rely on the more easily-obtained “pumping up” useful in the more frenetic sports.

    Terry on EY as lead-off, 1/30 SNY interview:  ”I cannot – it’s very hard for me to forget what happened when Eric Young got on base last year: we won baseball games.  And he created a lot of excitement with his ability to steal bases and run the bases.”