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THE NUMBERS GAME

The Myth of the Failing Hitter
By Daniel Gabriel

Baseball is a game of numbers, right? And one of the most quintessential of those numbers is batting average. At times misleading, often overrated, batting average is nonetheless a quick and effective three digit shorthand for a player's prowess at the plate. Yet somehow hordes of social commentators continue to misrepresent the meaning of batting average—and overlook what a hitter is really trying to accomplish with the stick—by repeatedly reciting the pernicious falsehood of batting failure.

You've heard the mantra: "Hitting a baseball is the single hardest activity in sports. Why, players who can do it successfully even three times out of ten are big league all-stars." Or, from an interview earlier this year in Saint Paul's Skyway News, ". . . that's one of the things that a lot of baseball fans overlook. If you're batting .300, 30 percent, that means that you fail at a rate of 70 percent." Just recently I read a "coach's perspective" piece in the newsletter of a local Little League and came across this astonishing statement: "[T]he key characteristic of baseball is its high failure rate (70 percent failure rate at the plate is Hall of Fame success)."

Enough. I can sit by no longer; it is time to speak. Imagine a pitcher described as having a "high failure rate" for throwing strikes. An infield that customarily "failed" to field the ball successfully. Or a coach whose signals repeatedly "failed" to bring results. (Baseball, I'm afraid, is about succeeding.)

But let's stick with hitting. First off, that nonsense about the mere fact of hitting a ball three times out of ten. Even at the Little League level I would expect better results than that. How about foul balls? Line shots right at a fielder? Sharp grounders knocked down by swift infielders? Even feeble pop flies count as hitting the ball. So let's hear no more about the high standard of a three out of ten rate of connecting with a pitch.

"Okay," say my detractors, "We'll give you that one. But what about the 70 percent failure rate at the plate? Surely you'd concede that a .300 average represents outstanding hitting."

Depends, of course, on what level of play we're talking about. In Little League, my best hitters come in over .500. Top high school hitters routinely exceed .400. (At the 2000 World Junior Championships, Saint Paul's pride, Joe Mauer—the recent number one draft choice of the Minnesota Twins—hit .565!) Even at the major league level, hitting .300 doesn't guarantee a starting position, let alone the Hall of Fame. If you can't play the field, or if that .300 shows no power and no ability to move runners, then you may well be relegated to pinch hitting duty.

But my real point . . . and you knew that eventually I'd find one . . . is that base hits by no means represent the only signs of success at the plate. Whatever happened to a walk or being hit by a pitch? Think of all the times when it's crucial to produce a sacrifice fly, or bunt? As a coach, I'm plenty happy when my guy gets aboard on an error—and usually content when he moves the runner over with a routine grounder to the right side. Even "at-em" balls don't seem much like failure to me, unless they come at some sort of game-breaking moment, and even then they seem more like poor luck or team failure rather than anything the hitter might have done wrong.

Aside from the hard-fought at bats that simply result in outs, however, we're still left with the prospect of a .300 on-base percentage as being sufficient for success. Not so. Every single player on the team I coached through a season of indoor dome league ball this past winter had an on-base percentage of .326 or above. The top guys were all between .500 and .600. Now that's a baseball success rate.

In 1961, Roger Maris hit .269 and Tito Francona hit .301. Who do you think had the more successful season? There's far more to effective hitting than simply trying to best a false "failure" line of 70 percent. Preach production; preach working the count to expose the pitcher; preach finding a way to get aboard. But don't preach the likelihood of failure to young ballplayers—or acceptance of it by otherwise knowledgeable fans.

And don't even get me started on earned run average. —EFQ


DANIEL GABRIEL's stories and articles have appeared widely in eight countries. He is the director of the COMPAS Writers & Artists in the Schools program in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

© 2001 Daniel Gabriel

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