Celebrating ... batting average?

We spend a lot of time at our little site here talking about the drawbacks and flaws of batting average. You know the problems ... though I’ll go over them again for old time’s sake.

Batting average discounts walks as non-events.

Batting average counts some fly balls as outs and ignores others entirely.

If you hit a ground ball out to third that moves a runner from first to second, that's an out in your ledger. If you BUNT a ground ball out to third that moves a runner from first to second, that's not an out in your ledger.

Sometimes, if you hit a ball and reach base safely that is still an out in your batting average.

If batting average was a person, it would be like a particularly eccentric king who generally makes sound decisions but every now and again will outlaw something like singing or making left turns or will decide that every citizen must, from this day forward, play Gene Pitney’s “Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” every morning. Thing is, you can get so caught up in the various quirks of batting average and forget something basic: Batting average is brilliant. Alone, it does not do much of a job telling you a hitter’s value. But it's a singular and altogether wonderful statistic that has done what no other statistic in sports has done: It represents it’s own language. Everyone talks about batting average. People use it when referring to politics, to law, to sales, to medicine, to dating. “What’s your batting average,” is a wonderful question that stretches into every person’s life.

What, after all, is any of our batting averages?

There’s a point I want to make about batting averages in today’s game … but before that we should go back to the beginning. As it turns out, we probably know the exact date when batting average became a baseball statistic: March 11, 1871. This was before the National League was founded, before the walk existed in any real way, even before Bartolo Colon made his first start. There is reason to believe that batting averages were calculated in cricket for as much as a century before baseball, but batting averages in baseball do not seem to come from cricket. Instead, it first came to prominence in a letter that a man named H.A. Dobson wrote to Nicholas Young, who would in time become president of the National League.

Mr. Dobson was not the most concise of men, as you can see for yourself in the letter, but he did eventually get to his point: The best way to determine a baseball player’s worth, he determined, was by dividing the number of “times first base on clean hits” by his chances.

“Every time he goes to the bat,” Dobson wrote, “he either has an out, a run, or is left on base*. If he does not go out, he makes his base, either by his own merit or by an error of some fielder. Now his merit column is found in 'times first base on clean hits’ and his average is found by dividing his total ‘times first base on clean hits’ by his total number of times he went to the bat."

*Several brilliant readers have clarified my thoughts on what Dobson meant by “left on base.” I thought he was referring to be left at home plate -- the at-bat still ongoing -- but their point is that he is saying that ever batter either makes an out, scores a run or is stranded. That does make more sense.

“According to a man’s chances, so should his record be,” Dobson wrote (you could imagine him smiling a little bit as he enjoyed his grandiose phrase).

This letter was a huge breakthrough in baseball … and would alter the way the game was viewed and played (for better and worse) for more than a century. See, until Dobson’s letter, baseball statistics tended to revolve around runs. Runs per game. Runs per out. And so on. That too makes sense -- runs are what matter in baseball.

But Dobson points out: scoring runs is largely a team effort. Dobson’s spark of cleverness here — and this really cannot be underestimated — is focusing on the hit as a way to judge a player’s ability. In doing this, he found a way to isolate a player in a team game. They’ve been playing football for more than a hundred years and we still have not found a meaningful way to calculate the value of an offensive lineman or, in many ways, a defensive lineman. Even closer to home, we still have not found defensive baseball statistics that satisfy the majority of baseball fans. Many fans still cling to the absurdity of errors because, for all their problems, at least you can count errors.

The counting hits and dividing them by times up … this was an almost magic concept. This uncovered stories within the story. I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that that concept of batting average, as much as any single thing, lifted baseball into that national pastime realm because it made baseball an INDIVIDUAL sport as well as a TEAM sport. That, in my view, is what made baseball different and so popular in an rapidly growing American that was also looking for balance between individual and team.

Well, of course, the simple elegance of Dobson’s formula — so right in 1871 — soon was complicated. For some years, it took nine balls to walk a batter (and pitchers were throwing the ball underhand) ... in 1880 the walk was changed to eight balls ... in 1884 it became six ... in 1887 it was five ... in 1889 it was finally down to four. That same year, it was ruled that a batter would be awarded first base when hit by a pitch.

Four years later, the pitching mound was moved back from home plate, from 50 feet to 60 feet 6 inches. And with that, the walk was suddenly an integral part of the game. Getting hit-by-pitch was now another way to get on base. What to do with batting average? Nobody seemed entirely sure. In 1887, the American Association and National League decided to experiment by counting walks as hits ... this led to a ballplayer named Tip O’Neill “batting” .492 and almost eEveryone hit .300. So nobody liked that. Walks had to go.

And what to do with sacrifices? Batting averages had become so important (for a while there were batters were conspiring with official scorers to get extra hits) that nobody seemed satisfied with a sacrifice bunt being recorded merely as an out. A sacrifice bunt should be rewarded! And so the tinkering began, and people have tinkered with batting average ever since. It was decided that walks would not count as at-bats; which made walks the single most under-appreciated weapon in sports. Sacrifices would not count as at-bats, which made batters much happier to make that sacrifice. Reaching on errors would count as outs because, hey, they SHOULD have been outs. This is how batting average became not just a statistic but a moral code. It not only counted what had happened, it made allowances for what might have happened and what should have happened. It was the judge and jury of baseball hitters.

And, hey, give credit where credit is due ... that’s EXACTLY what batting average became. If there was a sports statistic Hall of Fame, batting average would go in unanimously first ballot.*

*Uh oh ... the sports statistic Hall of Fame. Like I needed ANOTHER project.

These days, people who care to see the flaws of batting average see them pretty clearly. But there’s something about batting average that speaks to the way baseball is played in 2014 ... you probably know that batting averages have gone down the last few years. So far this year in baseball, hitters are batting .251 -- that’s the lowest batting average in more than 40 years. And while I strongly believe that batting average not sum up a batter’s value, I would suggest it does do something else. I think batting average speaks to how EXCITING the game is.

Think of the most exciting plays in baseball. Off the top of my head, I might rate them like so:

1. Great infield defensive play (dive and throw) 2. Triple 3. Close play at the plate after outfield throw home. 4. Outfielder leaping at wall and catching ball headed for home run. 5. Home run 6. Well-turned double play grounder. 7. Double. 8. Diving outfield catch. 9. Swing and miss strikeout. 10. Line drive single.

OK, if you asked me to do that exercise again, I might have all 10 of those in different spots or I might think of something else. So that’s not an official list. But my point is this: Nine of the 10 most exciting plays on my quickly drawn list involve a batter hitting a baseball with skill. This is at the core of what makes the game exciting: Hitting a ball with skill. Even if the excitement of the swing-and-miss strikeout depends on the rarity of it -- if EVERYONE is swinging and missing (and these days, everyone is) then it takes the joy and thrill out of that too.

You hear some nutty talk now and again about Troy Tulowitzki’s chances of hitting .400 ... which are nil, by the way. But I’m kind of interested to see if he can hit .350. Only one person this decade has hit .350 -- that was Josh Hamilton in 2010. He hit .359 but missed basically the whole month of September. When you look at .350 hitters decade by decade, you see a bit about how the game was played.

Number of .350 hitters:

1900s: 23 (Honus Wagner with 5) 1910s: 30 (Ty Cobb with 10) 1920s: 97 (Rogers Hornsby 8) 1930s: 52 (Lou Gehrig and Paul Waner 4) 1940s: 14 (Ted Williams and Stan Musial 3) 1950s: 9 (Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial 2) 1960s: 3 (Roberto Clemente 2) 1970s: 8 (Rod Carew 4) 1980s: 13 (Wade Boggs 5) 1990s: 18 (Tony Gwynn 4) 2000s: 18 (Ichiro 4) 2010s: 1 (Josh Hamilton)

Were back in the 1960s and 1970s, when lack of offense so threatened the game that the owners panicked and lowered mounds, lowered strike zones and added the designated hitter. I’m convinced that when lack of offense again began to threaten the sport -- not to mention the threat of the destructive 1994 strike -- baseball chose to look the other way as players bulked up by legal and illegal means and hit massive home runs in record numbers.

And ... now what? I’m not for radical changes to baseball because those always are so short-sighted. But let’s not kid anybody: The game is facing a bit of a problem. As batting averages plummet, I do believe that the game loses much of its spirit. The only things that are keeping 2014 from being 1968, best I can tell, are doubles and home runs. Players are still hitting more of those.*

*By “players” I mean “players who are not Kansas City Royals.”

I do not know for sure if the general shift away from batting average (assuming you even believe there has been a shift) has changed the way the game is being played, but I suspect it has. Valued statistics have a massive impact on play -- look at what the save has done for relief pitching. For most of baseball history, the single most coveted individual honor was not the MVP award but the batting title. Newspapers all across the country would write weekly stories about the batting race, who was leading, who was gaining, who was trending up or down. Teams would look first at a player’s batting average when making trades or salary negotiations. Newspapers, radio broadcasts, television broadcasts would refer to batting averages as the singular way to define a player. Some of this endures.

Because there was SO much emphasis on batting average, there was a lot of emphasis on putting the ball in play. Hitters choked up with two strikes (or, for some, with no strikes). In 1954, one player in all of baseball struck out 100 times (Mickey Mantle) and again in 1957 (Duke Snider). Well, you can follow the chart.

Batters who struck out 100-plus times: 1953: 4. 1958: 3 1963: 22 1968: 18 1973: 22 1978: 21 1983 27 1988: 38 1993: 42 1998 75 2003: 60 2008: 90 2013: 105

Right now, there are 119 players on pace to strike out more than 100 times.

We know all the reasons -- pitchers are throwing harder, there are more relief pitchers coming in with fresh arms, players are swinging for more power, defensive shifts are altering the game somewhat, hitters are trying to work the count more (though, quick aside, I found this interesting: Walks are actually DOWN not up. Pitchers are walking roughly 3.07 batters per game since the start of 2011, which is a lower walk rate that in the pitching rich 1960s or 1970s (or 1980s, 1990s and 2000s).

But I think the popular decline of batting average might be a factor too. Players respond to what is in demand. When batting average was the key to fame and riches, players learned how to avoid strikeouts and find holes in the defense. When the home run was the driving force of the game, balls got lighter, bats got harder, stadiums and strike zones got smaller and hitters got bigger.

And now the game is a little bit rudderless -- batting average has been picked apart, home runs bring as much suspicion as fame, pitchers are throwing their arms out to tilt the radar gun and two hour games are lasting three hours so that batters can step out of the box and pitchers can take sabbaticals between pitches.

With all that, baseball is still great -- best game there is in my view. But here I am, the guy who has written as many anti-batting average screeds as anyone, finding myself wishing that we would all start caring a bit more about batting average again. Not for the analysis. For the fun.