Foul Ball Rates and At-Bat Success: How the Worst Batters Can Improve by Hitting Fouls

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In my earlier article regarding the significant percentage and real number differences between the top 10 and bottom 10 batting averages from the 2014 MLB season, I discussed some of the probable reasons for the differences, and contradicted Eno Sarris’ and Sam Fuld’s conclusions that there is no skill to hitting foul balls. Here I will address the real numbers in more depth.

As a refresher, the averages are:

Best v Worst

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The numbers per batter are:

Best v Worst Chart_Page_1Best v Worst Chart_Page_2

The FAB rate (Fouls/At Bat) for the top 10 batting averages in 2014 is just over 4% higher the FAB rate for the bottom 10. Additionally, the top 10 had over 800 more at bats and got on base nearly 450 times more often than the bottom 10.

The nearly 450 times the top 10 were on base above the worst averages helps us understand why they had 800 more at bats. It’s easy to calculate: Given an average of three at bats per batter in a 9-inning perfect game (3 up/3 down), by swinging more often at close pitches and getting on base 1/5th of the time, rather than the 1/7th the lowest batting averages from last year averaged, the innings end up never being 3 up/3 down, but 4 up/3 down. This means the bottom of the order men will see more at bats by swinging at anything close.

As it stands now, the bottom of the order more times than the top, goes down 1-2-3. This makes it difficult to get more at bats and build the batting numbers, unless they develop the skill to identify close pitches, not necessarily pitches that will be strikes.

Granted, the top averages are also those who see the most at bats; they tend to be top of the order because of their averages and other hitting numbers, while those with the worst averages tend to be lower in the order. Though this is more or less accurate, some .300 hitters can be found in the bottom of the order on occasion, it doesn’t account for the FAB percentage difference. That’s the key stat at which to look.
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If the skill in hitting foul balls were to be developed by the players with the worst averages, what we’d ultimately see are games with more action (and more foul balls flying into the stands). The bottom of the order batters would see an increase in plate appearances too, all due to simply getting on base 4% more of the time.

In the case of Chris Davis’ 2014 plate performance, slapping away closer pitches would have translated into Davis getting on base via unintentional walk, single, double, triple or homer at least 25 more times, or the difference between 1/5th of the time and 1/7th of the time. 25 times. That’s the potential of circling the bases six times. That’s the potential of six (6) runs. All as a result of swinging at close pitches and fouling off a few close pitches at a rate similar to the top 10.

Thus, even if the bottom batters only improve 2%, they are seeing a potential increase of being on base at least ten (10) more times over the season, that’s twice around or as many as 10 potential runs. This doesn’t sound like much to the layperson considering the 162 game schedule, but anyone with a solid understanding of baseball knows that this could translate into ten more wins, easily the difference between going home in September or working into October. All you need is one run more than the other team.

To return to Sarris’ and Fuld’s conclusions that there’s no evidence that foul ball rates indicate a skill of the batter’s abilities to do so is not entirely accurate. There is evidence when the proper numbers are analyzed.

The best way for the bottom averages, and the bottom of the order hitters who tend to have poorer batting numbers all around, is to simply swing at anything they think MIGHT be a strike. Simply by slapping one pitch away every few at bats, they get to see more pitches and develop more skill to be even more accurate, and a better hitter. Such an action will quickly become second nature and train their eyes to see ball movement better.

Like all things, it just takes practice to develop a skill.

Continue the conversation on Twitter @FoulBallz

All raw data used comes from retrosheet.org