We all know the basics of baseball and how foul balls end up in foul territory. A pitcher throws the ball. A batter swings. Sometimes the ball is missed, other times it’s hit fair, and sometimes it soars into foul territory, into the seats.
Foul balls out number hits by about a 5:1 margin. In recent years, the average number of hits per MLB game has hovered around nine (9) balls. There are historically 47 foul balls hit per game. That’s about 5 times more fouls than hits.
Fried and others have performed informal studies regarding the location of foul balls using limited data to track the locations with the highest probability of receiving foul balls. But little has been noted about the physics of pitching and battering and how this will influence the stadium areas into which foul balls will travel.
This isn’t rocket science, but simple physics, as Dr. Robert K. Adair notes in his seminal work The Physics of Baseball.
All die-hard baseball fans know that certain pitcher-batter match ups elicit more or less offense, but these match-ups also create an increased probability in foul balls and where those fouls will travel.
The only four match-ups possible look like this:
RHP v. RHB
RHP v. LHB
LHP v. RHB
LHP v. LHB
We also know that a late swing will pull the ball and an early swing will end up in the opposite field. Hitting under the ball will send it into a pop-up or as a high fly, while hitting the top of the ball will result in a grounder. These are standard guarantees of the physics of hitting. However, as Adair and others point out, there are several other errors that can combine to create an unsuccessful at-bat.
The following chart breaks down the anatomy of an at-bat that will lead to a foul ball. These are all pitches of which the bat has made some contact with the ball. The tendencies of the average batter when at-bat against various typical pitches are as follows:
As we can see the match-ups against RHBs and LHBs, regardless of pitcher-handedness, end up in similar locations. Always.
But there is a slight caveat. Evidence from many sources shows that there is a distinct difference on average as to how well certain line-ups favor versus the handedness of the pitcher. Right-handed batters do worse against same handed pitchers; the same goes for lefties against other southpaws. Thus, an opposite-handed lineup is ideal.
The match-up between the handedness of the pitcher and the batter is critical for determining foul ball tendencies in general, but we must also look at the level of the pitcher and the batter (elite, average or sub-average/below the “Mendoza Line”).
Elite pitchers like Max Scherzer, Randy Johnson, Clayton Kershaw, R.A. Dickey, Tim Lincecum and Roger Clemens all have enough pitch variation to keep batters off balance and swinging at “bad” pitches. This ability lowers the amount of fouls or increases them depending on the types of pitches each Cy Young winner utilizes.
The elite-ness of the batter also plays a significant role in how the foul ball rate will be impacted. In the case of Miguel Cabrera and other elite batters, as seen in my foul ball skill article and the differences in foul ball rates between the best and worst hitters in Major League Baseball, show skill at fouling off close/bad pitches in order to see one more pitch.
In general, however, look at the line-ups and the handedness match-ups for the game, and you can get a pretty good idea of what sections in which you have the best chances of snagging a ball…or getting beaned by one.