This article was written by Peter Uelkes
This article was published in the 2006 Baseball Research Journal
In Baseball Research Journal 33 Fred Worth presented an intriguing article titled “Interesting Statistical Combinations,” analyzing combinations like high batting average and low walks or lots of losses but a low ERA. He concluded the article, “Obviously there are many more comparisons that could be considered.” I took this as a challenge and investigated a number of other statistical combinations I consider interesting. All data is taken from Sean Lahman’s database (www.baseball1.com) and includes results from the 2004 season.
The Walking Men
Inspired by Barry Bonds’ historic 2004 season, we’ll look at the individual seasons for which a player had more walks than hits (minimum 100 at-bats). The top of the list ordered by maximum difference of (walks minus hits) looks like this:
As expected, the list is headed by Barry Bonds, circa 2004. He had almost 100 more walks than hits, by far the highest margin in history. Next up is also Bonds with his impressive 2002 season, which at that point broke the MLB record for walks in a season. Of course, we’re looking here at results only, not discussing whether they were achieved in a natural way or not. The above list shows all seasons with a (walks/hits) differential of 20 or more. There are four pre-1900 seasons in there as well as three third-millenium entries, all by Bonds.
Note the absence of any entries for almost the entire first half of the 20th century. Roy Cullenbine’s 1947 season is the first in the 20th century. Also quite as expected is that most players on the list are veterans, the majority being in their thirties while gaining entry. The obvious exception is Willie McGill in 1891 at just 18 years old, his second year in the league. He is the only pitcher on the list.
Looking at totals, the following number of seasons is listed in which a player accumulated a positive differential (BBH), showing all players who achieved the feat at least twice: first season indicates the first season of more walks than hits for the player, not his debut season in the majors. We see two players with an impressive six seasons of more walks than hits, followed by five players with four seasons each, including modern sluggers Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Jack Clark.
Of course, Barry Bonds may climb up the ladder before his career is finished. Noteworthy is the relative absence of pre-1900 players on this list with only three entries, although this includes Yank Robinson with four seasons. Half of the players (14 out of 28) had their first(BB>H) season after 1960.
|Player||# Seasons||First Season|
After looking at players with exceptionally high walk totals, let’s now look at another kind of feat involving walks: having been hit by pitches more than having walked in a season. What follows is a table of player seasons (100 at-bats minimum) achieving this with a differential of at least three: The list is dominated by players of the 1800s and the early years of the 20th century, led by Hughie Jennings in 1896 with a mind-blowing differential of 32 more HBP than walks. Of course, most seasons are ones with very low walk totals for the player in question. An exception is Hughie Jennings’ 1897 season with 42 walks but even more hit-by-pitches. Jennings makes the list three times. These guys sure had a painful way of making up for their meager walk totals!
Hit Spectrum Inversions
Typically, the number of the different types of hits a player has in a season goes in the sequence singles-doubles-home runs-triples in descending order of frequency. Let’s call this the “hit spectrum.” Of course, as is often the case for one-dimensional sluggers, the order of doubles and home runs may be inversed. Here, we’ll look at player seasons for which the order mentioned above doesn’t hold. We start with players having more home runs than singles in a season (50 at-bats minimum):
Once again, we have Barry Bonds heading the list. In 2001, on his way to breaking the single-season home run record, almost 47% of his hits were home runs while only 31% were singles. The differential (HR1B) of 24 is by far the biggest in history. Next up is Mark McGwire with four (!) seasons of his own with a differential of between four and nine. Obviously, all seasons are post-1950 with a predominance of the 1990s/2000s era. This indicates an increasing trend of all or nothing swings at the plate, at least for sluggers like McGwire.
But even then, hitting more home runs than singles is very hard to achieve over a full season. Bonds and McGwire are the only ones who did it in what amounts to the equivalent of at least half a season. Some list entries with low at-bat totals are pitcher seasons like Don Drysdale’s 1958 and Milt Pappas’ 1962 campaigns.
Another example of an anomalous hit spectrum is players who hit more triples than doubles. This happened about 750 times in MLB history (100 at-bats minimum). Following is a table of all player seasons with a differential (triples/doubles) of at least seven:
The list is dominated by seasons from the early stages of professional ball up to and including the Deadball Era. Deion Sanders’ 1992 season is the only one in the last half-century. Noticeable is the rather high number of at-bats, i.e., these players achieved the feat of tripling more often than doubling typically in a full season’s worth of plate appearances.
I suspect a number of reasons being responsible for the predominance of the Deadball Era on this list, including bigger parks, worse field conditions than today, smaller fielder’s gloves, and various others. Possibly one would expect players with more triples than doubles to be very fast and therefore to also steal a lot of bases, too.
However, as the number of stolen bases is also displayed in the table, this seems not to be the case. SB totals are moderate for most player seasons, Dick Johnston’s 1887 campaign with 52 SB being the exception. The two entries with zero stolen bases (Kuehne and Kerins) are due to the fact that no stolen base records were kept for the league at that time.
Looking at total seasons with more triples than doubles for each player (not shown as a table), we have Sam Crawford and Tommy Leach with five seasons each and Bill Kuehne, George Van Haltren, Silver King, John Hummel, and Adonis Terry with four each as well as 16 players with three each. Therefore, hitting more triples than doubles in a season is not a total fluke but, at least to some extent, a persistent skill of a few dozen players, mainly from the 19th century.
So far, we’ve looked at a reverse differential of hit types two positions apart in the hit spectrum 1B–2B–HR–3B, i.e., more home runs than singles (positions 3 and 1) and more triples than doubles (positions 4 and 2). Of course, reverse differentials for adjacent positions, e.g., more home runs than doubles, are typically more common than for greater positional differences.
So what has yet to be considered is the only possible reverse differential of three positions, i.e., hitting more triples than singles. This never happened in 100+ at-bats, but it happened once in MLB history in 50+ at-bats. In 1991, pitcher Charlie Leibrandt posted this line:
Of course, this is just a fluctuation because of the extremely small numbers involved (no singles, one triple). So basically hitting more triples than singles in any meaningful number of at-bats has never happened so far. If we lower our minimum requirement for at-bats even more (to 25 AB minimum), we have two players who hit at least two more triples than singles in a season. Obviously, these small numbers of at-bats render the accomplishments statistically completely meaningless; there’s no persistent capability involved.
Before leaving the topic of hit spectrums, we will look at totals for relationships between the different types of hits. In the analyzed data set, there are 32,661 player seasons with at least 100 at-bats. The following table shows for the six possible combinations of hit types (single vs. double, single vs. triple, double vs. home run) and the three possible relationships (hit type 1 greater than hit type 2, . . . smaller than . . . , . . . equal to) the counts and percentages of the total 32,661 seasons (see Table X1).
Table 1. Counts and Percentages
|Hit 1||Hit 2||>||=||<|
|1B||2B||32653 99.98%||4 0.01%||4 0.01%|
|1B||3B||32661 100.00%||0 0.00%||0 0.00%|
|1B||HR||32652 99.97%||1 0.00%||8 0.02%|
|2B||3B||31251 95.68%||659 2.02%||751 2.30%|
|2B||HR||28722 87.94%||926 2.84%||3013 9.23%|
|3B||HR||12033 36.84%||3569 10.93%||17058 52.23%|
Table [X1] tells us, in addition to the eight seasons of more home runs than doubles and the fact that a season with more triples than singles never happened, several interesting facts. First of all, a reverse differential between positions 1 and 2 in the hit spectrum (singles vs. doubles) is very rare; it happened only four times in history. Another four times the totals for the two types of hits matched exactly:
Besides four seasons from the last ten years we have another four seasons from the first half of the 20th century. All seasons have relatively low at-bats totals, just making the cut of 100 at-bats. The results shown above regarding the counts/fractions of the hit spectrum relationships also indicate that the sequence triples/home runs is quite often reversed: more than one in three seasons is finished with more triples than home runs. However, this number drops to 22% if we consider only seasons after 1920, i.e., in the Lively ball era.
And now to something completely different.
Masters of the Three True Outcomes
The Three True Outcomes (TTO) are usually defined as the three results from a batter’s plate appearance which are (almost) solely in the responsibility of the pitcher: the walk, strikeout, and home run. Sometimes players whose plate appearances often result in one of the TTO are referred to as Three True Outcome Players, e.g., second baseman Mark Bellhorn in Boston’s 2004 championship season.
These types of players are considered valuable in a performance analysis, sabermetrics point of view, e.g., the Moneyball approach. Traditional scouting and evaluation often rate these players rather lower because of typically high strikeout totals. Table 3 shows the top TTO percentages in history (100 at-bats mini- mum). Column TTO is the sum of columns BB, SO, and HR. TTO percentage is TTO divided by the sum of at-bats plus walks (ignoring HBP, sac flies, and sac hits).
The list is headed by a few players with over 60% of their plate appearances resulting in one of the three true outcomes. Up front is a pitcher, Vida Blue, without a home run. He’s solely on the list because of his impressive strikeout total (63 in 102 at-bats). The players on this list with a number of plate appearances equivalent to at least half a season are Mark McGwire in 1998, 2000 and 2001, Jack Clark in 1987, and Dave Nicholson in 1964.
Table 3. All-time Top TTO Percentages (min. 100 AB)
Again, almost all seasons in the table are from the second half of the last century. When these guys are at bat, there’s not much to do for the fielders most of the time! Of course, we’re not so much interested in players who are on the list solely because of their high strikeout totals, like Vida Blue in 1971 or Dave McNally in 1970, but in players who also achieve significant totals in the other legs of TTO, walks and especially home runs. Table 4 gives the top TTO percentages for player seasons with at least 20 home runs.
Here we have the usual suspects: modern sluggers like Bonds, McGwire, and Jim Thome as well as strikeout kings like Rob Deer. Mark McGwire has six seasons of at least a 50% TTO percentage.
The other end of the Three True Outcome spectrum are players who rarely walk or strike out and have little power. For these, the opposite defenders are involved in most of their at- bats. As expected, this was most often the case in the 19th century. In the list of lowest TTO percentages in history over at least 100 at-bats, the first modern entry (post 1900) is at position 166, Doc Powers in 1905. Restricting ourselves to the post-1900 era, Table 5 contains the top of the list.
Please note the extremely low TTO percentages here. These are guys that had absolutely no power, very rarely walked, and almost never struck out. When they were at bat, a good defense behind him was surely the pitcher’s best friend (besides the double play). But even in the last few decades, there have been players with very low TTO percentages, as Table 6 shows, which has only seasons after 1970.
Table 4. Top TTO Percentages for Player Seasons with at least 20 Home Runs
Table 5. Lowest TTO Percentages, Post-1900
Table X6. Lowest TTO Percentages, Post-1970
Three True Outcome Pitchers
So far we’ve looked at the Three True Outcomes for batters. But of course, this is also an interesting statistic to analyze for pitchers. I include hit-by-pitch as one of the true outcomes for pitchers because it’s also solely in the control of the pitchers (never mind that now we should correctly call it four true outcomes). We define pitchers’ TTO as:
Outs is innings pitched times three. Table 7 is a list of highest TTO percentages for pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched in a season.
Table 7. Top TTO Percentages for Pitchers (min. 50 IP/Season)
This list, which shows all TTO percentages above .570, exclusively comprises modern relief pitchers, especially closers. There are only two entries more than 10 years old, Bryan Harvey in 1989 and Rob Dibble in 1992, and even those are not really from ancient baseball times. Note that for the top TTO guys, more than 60% of their batters faced result in one of the Three True Outcomes, including the hit-by-pitch.
If we elevate our minimum requirement for innings pitched to 150, eliminating modern relievers, we arrive at the list of top TTO percentages for starting pitchers. Now, this should be called the Randy Johnson memorial list; the Big Unit has eight of the top 13 TTO percentages in history among starting pitchers. Kerry Wood makes the list three times, including the top spot in 1998, his rookie year. Johnson also has the highest total on the list for one of the Three True Outcomes in 2001 with 372 strikeouts (one of the highest SO totals in history), 85 walks, 11 hit-by-pitches and 14 home runs for a sum of 480.
However, even these numbers pale in comparison to Nolan Ryan’s 1974 season with 367 SO, 202 BB, 9 HBP, and 18 HR for a total of 596. Ryan also has totals of 570 and 566 in 1973 and 1977, respectively. Pitchers with a high TTO percentage don’t depend heavily on the defenses behind them because the defense often isn’t involved in the result from a batter’s plate appearance. On the other end of the spectrum there are pitchers with very low TTO percentages who rely heavily on their defenses. In the post-1900 era, the table on the next page shows the lowest TTO percentages with at least 50 innings pitched:
All entries are from the first 35 years of the 20th century. We see several pitchers whose batters’ plate appearances result in one of the Three True Outcomes in less than 10% of the cases, i.e., the defense is involved in more than 90% of the plate appearances.This obviously puts a huge emphasis on the fielders’ capabilities.
In addition, following Voros McCracken’s insight that pitchers have little or no control over batting average on balls in play, one may conclude that any success these types of pitchers have is largely thanks to the fielders behind them. From the data presented above it seems that Three True Outcomes percentages have risen throughout MLB history. To analyze this in some detail, Table 8 shows the average TTO percentage for pitchers weighted with innings pitched and broken down per decade.
Table 8. Average TTO Percentage for Pitchers by Decade, Weighted with IP
This table tells us several interesting facts. First of all, average TTO percentages started out very low in the 1870s but quickly rose to a level of about 21.23% and stayed there for over 50 years. In the middle of the 20th century they started to rise again and established a new level of about 30% for the 1960s through 1980. From the 1990s on, we have another hike up to about 35%, which still holds on.
Reasons for this may probably be found in the increasing trend of almost all players swinging for the fences today, leading to higher strike out totals as well as an increased importance of walks as a tactical weapon for batters as taught by several teams today (as part of the often falsely abbreviated Moneyball approach). Please note that innings-pitched totals per decade reflect the expansions (starting in 1961) as well as the brief existence of the Federal League in the 1910s.
PETER UELKES got a Ph.D. in particle physics from the University of Technology at Aachen, Germany. He is currently working as a senior project manager for the Vodafone group. A SABR member since 2001, this is his second publication in the BRJ.