ST. PETERSBURG, FL: Outfielder Chone Figgins #9 of the Seattle Mariners is jammed against the Tampa Bay Rays during the game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Which opposing batter have pitchers been the least afraid of so far this season? Math can tell us! Lead us to the answer, math!
One of the great things about having so much access to the game is sometimes we can get into the players' or managers' heads. The players or managers might explain what they were trying to do with a particular maneuver, revealing strategy we might not be able to identify otherwise.
But there are limits to how much players or coaches will reveal, and if, for example, you were to ask a pitcher who he thinks is the least intimidating batter in baseball, he probably wouldn't give you a very good answer. For one thing, maybe the pitcher wouldn't know. For another, more important thing, answering that question honestly would be disrespectful, as no batter wants to hear that he's puny. Even if he knows that he's puny, and everybody knows that he's puny.
With this specific question, though, we don't necessarily need to go to the source to get a clue. The numbers can tell us what pitchers and teams are thinking, independent of their words. The way I figure, a non-intimidating batter will get thrown a lot of fastballs, right? No need to mix things up too much when that guy's at the plate. And the way I figure, a non-intimidating batter will get thrown a lot of pitches in the strike zone, right? No need to try to get that guy to chase, he probably won't hurt you too bad if he swings at a strike.
I wanted to look for an answer to this question, so I dove into the numbers available at FanGraphs. I looked only at qualified batters - of which there are presently 185 - because I didn't want to deal with small-sample-size noise. I grabbed each batter's zone rate, and I grabbed each batter's fastball rate. I wasn't interested in grabbing anything else.
From there, I got busy with standard deviations. Feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph because it is uninteresting. I calculated how many standard deviations each batter's zone rate is above or below the mean. Then I calculated how many standard deviations each batter's fastball rate is above or below the mean. Then I added those two numbers up and sorted, highest to lowest.
I should tell you that we can't interpret the lower part the opposite of the way that we interpret the higher part. The players with the lowest sums aren't necessarily the most intimidating batters in baseball - they might be intimidating and aggressive. Josh Hamilton is at the very bottom with a sum of -5.5, and while Josh Hamilton is certainly very intimidating, he's also not afraid to swing at balls, so pitchers throw him a lot of balls. There's a blend of contributing factors.
But we aren't here to identify the most intimidating batters in baseball. We're here to identify the least intimidating batters in baseball, and here's the top five, according to this methodology:
- Chone Figgins, +5.7 total standard deviations
- Jemile Weeks, +4.2
- Orlando Hudson, +4.1
- Marco Scutaro, +3.5
- Jamey Carroll, +3.2
Now we have to test to see if we're measuring what we think we're measuring. Does the method show the least intimidating batter in baseball to be Chone Figgins? It does! Therefore the methodology is valid. One would assume that Chone Figgins would be non-intimidating, and the numbers show that he has been the most non-intimidating.
Figgins' fastball rate is nearly three standard deviations above the mean. His zone rate is nearly three standard deviations above the mean. During the 2009 season, when Chone Figgins was just about exactly the same size, he drew 101 walks. He showed excellent discipline. That discipline contributed to the contract he signed with the Mariners. Since then pitchers have been like, whoa, wait, hold on, look at this guy, are you serious? Why don't we groove, like, every pitch we throw him? Pitchers this season have come after Figgins with fastballs and strikes, and to show for it, Figgins has an impressive two home runs, but an unimpressive .555 OPS. Last year he posted a .484 OPS. There's a reason pitchers give him so many fastballs and strikes. There's a reason they're probably not going to stop.
The other batters up there are a little more surprising, but only because Chone Figgins is the least surprising. Scutaro's a strange one because he can actually hit a little, but he has yet to hit a dinger in 2012. Carroll as well. Hudson has one. Weeks has two. The numbers don't not make sense.
It'll be interesting to follow this over the rest of the year. For the first part of the year, it looks like Chone Figgins has been considered the least intimidating batter in baseball. We have used statistics to support something we probably didn't need statistics to support. All right.