The Hitless Player and the Value of Plate Discipline
With the 2021 MLB season well underway, trends have emerged, surprise teams have revealed themselves, and the strangeness that inherently exists in baseball has returned. While we all love to see Mike Trout do things that remind us we’re watching one of the all-time greats, or witness Jacob deGrom continue to get better each and every year, one of the joys in watching baseball is the knowledge that something rare or unique is just around the corner.
In past seasons, maybe that’s been Phillip Humber throwing a perfect game, Hunter Pence hitting a baseball three times with one swing of the bat, or Paul O’Neil kicking a ball into the infield to prevent a runner from scoring. In 2021 however, there’s already a strong candidate for “strangest thing of the year”; Yasmani Grandal’s slash line from May 1st to May 9th.
Yes, you read that right. Over the course of 22 plate appearances, Grandal failed to collect a hit, but still managed an on-base-percentage of .636. As Devan Fink noted over at FanGraphs, Grandal became just the second player in the history of the American League to amass 13 walks over a four-game stretch, and also posted the highest OBP ever in a five-game span without recording a hit. He wasn’t just a productive “hitter” during these five games, he was one of MLB’s best.
While Grandal eventually managed to snap his hitless streak with a homerun against Kenta Maeda, this five-game stretch raised an interesting question, and ultimately a thought experiment. What would a player’s OBP have to be over the course of a 162-game season to justify their spot in the lineup if they were fundamentally incapable of getting a hit?
Jon Bois once considered a sillier, albeit wildly entertaining version of this idea, where Barry Bonds played the 2004 season without a bat. Or more practically speaking, just decided not to swing at anything. In Bois’ simulation, (posted below), Bonds was still laughably great, and produced the best single-season OBP of all time.
To ground our thought experiment, let’s assume that this hypothetical player knows how to handle a bat, and can even make contact with pitches, but only to foul them off in hopes of working a walk. To this player, batted balls in play represent the worst outcome possible. The only road to success is to reach base via a hard-earned base on balls. This is important for our thought experiment because if a pitcher knows that someone can’t hit, it becomes an easy proposition to just throw three fastballs down the middle to net a strikeout.
Before fully diving in, let’s go back to Grandal for a moment as he’s our real-world example to keep us tethered. During that five game stretch, he walked 63.6% of the time, offsetting his inability to collect a base-hit by such a staggering degree that not only was he a valuable “hitter” at the plate, but by wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average), Grandal was elite, with a value of .440. For some quick context, Trout’s career high wOBA over the course of a full season is .447 (although he’s threatening to break that this year).
So for this strange period, Grandal was able to create an offensive profile that was as valuable as Trout has ever been over the course of a full season, and all without ever getting a hit. wOBA is also helpful due to its relationship with a metric called wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus). Simply put, if you have a good wOBA, your wRC+ will be similarly good. There’s an incredibly strong and positive correlation between the two. During the period when Grandal posted a wOBA of .440, his wRC+ was 190, meaning he was 90% better than the league average player. Not bad for someone who quite literally couldn’t get a hit.
Now, with some rules laid out for our thought experiment, and Grandal as our tether to reality, let’s try to answer our initial question. What kind of slash line would be acceptable, and justify a starting spot in the lineup if a player was fundamentally incapable of getting a hit? To do this, we need to do two things. First let’s define what makes this player worthy of being in the lineup. For our purposes, we’ll use league average wOBA and wRC+. The second thing we need to do is to take a look at the general formula for wOBA, and then work our way back to an OBP value.
While this formula looks overwhelming, it actually makes life simple for our thought experiment, as all we need to do is substitute different values in for uBB (unintentional walks), and everything else in the numerator will be zero. For the denominator, we’re also in luck here. Since our player is never being intentionally walked, collecting sacrifice flies, or being hit by pitches, we’re just left with AB+BB, which is plate appearances. For this value we’re going to use 502; the minimum number required to qualify for the batting title.
To get a baseline for our overall understanding, let’s go back to our tether; Grandal. With 14 walks over the course of 22 PA, we can project a final season total. A walk rate of 63.6% with 502 PA would amount to a record shattering 319 free passes. Currently, Bonds holds the high mark at 232. Now, let’s look at a full scale of possibilities to get an understanding of different wOBA values based solely on unintentional walks.
Unsurprisingly, a player would have to break that same single season walk record before we could consider them worthy of playing time. But somewhat surprisingly is that their OBP wouldn’t have to be some astronomical value that baseball has never seen before. By FanGraphs’ definition, a wOBA of .320 is average. With declining offensive production, this year it’s closer to .308, but we’ll go with .320 to make life easy.
To achieve that wOBA with only walks, our hypothetical player would need 233 free passes. Assuming 502 plate appearances, that means they’d need to maintain an OBP of just .464, which has happened 102 times (for qualified batters) over the course of MLB history. While that’s still unlikely, we’ve stumbled into what we’ll call Not Impossible Territory. So, we’ve arrived at the answer to our initial question. With a slash line of .000/.464/.000, a player would be able to make a realistic argument that they deserve a starting spot in the everyday lineup.
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With our first answer falling into Not Impossible Territory, a more realistic and interesting question emerges. What if a player was ok enough with the bat, and possessed incredible plate discipline skills? No matter how great a player’s ability to walk is, it’s highly unlikely that they’d be able to make it through little league, high school, and college with that kind of profile, so they’d need some offensive ability to at least get to an organization that understands and properly values pitch recognition and plate discipline. In the case of this question, we actually don’t even have to come up with a hypothetical player, we get to go back to our tether; Grandal.
While he would most certainly love to be collecting more hits than he is at the moment, Grandal is helping us answer this very question. In his first 100 PA of the season, he slashed .130/.384/.333. While that kind of offensive output isn’t necessarily one that would traditionally elicit any level of excitement from players or fans, if we look under the hood, it turns out that it makes Grandal shockingly, surprisingly, bewilderingly, (insert your own adjective here) valuable at the plate.
His wOBA sits at .338, above the MLB average of .308, and his wRC+ of 122 is 25% better than the current league average, all with a BA well below the Mendoza Line. Grandal will certainly end the 2021 season with something closer to his career average of .238/.349/.442, but in all honesty, he doesn’t need to in order to justify his spot in the lineup. He’s creating runs at an above average pace, and showing us a new way to be successful.
Now that we’ve answered our original question, and the more realistic version of it, the more philosophical and important question arises. When will we see a hitter attempt to play the game of baseball like this 100% of the time? With an ever increasing emphasis of “just get on-base” permeating the game, baseball is overdue for someone to come in and try to and approach their at-bats in a fundamentally different way. Not in the way of ignoring the rules or skirting the legality of what’s allowed, but to innovate, and show us just how valuable pitch recognition and plate discipline can be.
While players like Trout, Juan Soto, and Ronald Acuna Jr are truly extraordinary and incredibly fun to watch, they all play the game similarly; they just happen to be better at it than almost everyone else. Baseball may not yet have this player in their existing ecosystem, but if we look at basketball, the example is easy; Steph Curry.
In 2015, Benjamin Morris wrote “Stephen Curry Is The Revolution” at FiveThirtyEight. The entire piece is worth reading, but there’s a specific section that stands out as particularly relevant to this conversation.
“But Curry kills all that. Curry isn’t a product of the math; he’s so good that he has his own math. Indeed, the math is so far in Curry’s favor that the Warriors — and even basketball in general — may not fully understand what they have yet.”
Baseball is still waiting for our own Steph Curry. For a player to come along and realize that everyone who’s ever stepped up to the plate is just doing it wrong. While some may point to the emergence of Shohei Ohtani as that player, he’s not exactly doing anything differently, he’s just doing everything. He’s still trying to strike batters out and induce weak contact from the mound; and at the plate, he’s still trying to crush home runs and drive in runners. There’s nothing different about how he’s playing the game from a basic perspective, he’s just arguably the most talented player that’s ever stepped foot on the field.
Baseball has gone through many periods of revolution when it comes to how players are scouted, developed, and ultimately valued, but at the end of the day, we’ve yet to see someone walk up to the plate and challenge our expectations of what an at-bat should look like. Yes, chicks dig the long ball, balls in play are absolutely more fun than watching somebody walk, but for a sport that is about creating value, and doing anything necessary to increase the chances of scoring runs, we’re owed our Curry equivalent. It may take longer for this player to emerge, but maybe we can hope that Grandal’s stat-line is on purpose, and we’ll look back at the 2021 season as the year that he fundamentally changed the game, and made everyone dig plate discipline and pitch recognition.