Hacking is a great fantasy skill

In real baseball, hacking is a bad skill to have. Hackers are generally worse baseball players (save for the lucky few, like Josh Hamilton) who carry low on-base percentages and diminished offensive value.

But fantasy baseball is called “fantasy” for a reason. We don’t care about real-life production. Sure, it’s nice to say that your team is full of .400 OBP guys, but Daric Barton’s .393 OBP in 2010 was worthless to virtually all of you—even if you were in an OBP league.

This time of year, especially, its important to keep this in mind. Every spring, it seems like there are a dozen or so players who are set for a “big year” because they’ve revamped their plate approach and are now more disciplined hitters. While this will make them better real-life players, it isn’t guaranteed to make them better fantasy players.

In fact, improved plate discipline can actually hurt your player’s value—significantly. I repeat: in fantasy, patience is NOT a virtue.

Take talented hacker Josh Hamilton for example.

Going in the third to fourth round in mixed leagues, Hamilton never gets enough credit for how much he hacks—and how much it helps his counting stats, batting average, and your team.

A prolific free-swinger, in 2011, he had the fourth highest swing percentage (57.1 percent), 11th highest O-Swing percentage (41.0 percent), and the highest Z-Swing percentage in the league (81.7 percent).

Regressing Hamilton’s plate discipline characteristics and batted ball profile, the outfielder carried an expected line of .288/.357/.526 with 28 home runs over 650 plate appearances in 2011.

While conventional wisdom states that he would be more valuable if he could tone down that approach and get more selective, the opposite is true. If Hamilton were to instead adopt merely league average discipline at the plate (30.6 O-Swing percentage and 65.0 Z-Swing percentage), he would carry an expected .269/.376/.508 line with just 24.5 home runs. That’s a drop of 3.5 home runs and almost 20 points in batting average.

Sure, his OBP improves and his walk rate goes up by almost five percent (7.0 percent to 11.8 percent), but that doesn’t matter in fantasy. Though he will earn a few extra runs from the OBP, that will be completely washed out—and then some—with the drop in home runs and batting average… and RBI as well.

Plugging the two Josh Hamiltons into the cleanup slot in Texas’ 2011 lineup, we regress the following overall lines:

Hacking Josh Hamilton: 98.5 R, 28.0 HR, 106.5 RBI, 9.5 SB, .2877 AVG
Disciplined Josh Hamilton: 101.5R, 24.5 HR, 93.7 RBI, 9.5 SB, .2694 AVG

Valuewise, these are two vastly different players. Hamilton the Hacker grades out at 4.77 points above average (12-team leagues) at FantasyPlayerRater.com, while Hamilton the Patient is worth 2.90 points. Both players are excellent, but that two-point difference is about the same as moving from Justin Upton (5.23 points as per Rotochamp projections) to Hunter Pence (3.35 points as per Rotochamp).

So, to all fantasy players, I say this:

LET ‘EM HACK!

Robinson Cano, Adrian Gonzalez, CarGo, Eric Hosmer, Ichiro, Mark Trumbo, Brandon Phillips, and anyone else with those care-free, free-swinging ways…

LET THEM HACK!

Final Note:

Before I ignite the fury of commenters everywhere, I would like to lay down one caveat: yes, it is a reasonable assumption that improved pitch selectivity will lead to a more efficient player—i.e. higher BABIP and higher HR/FB, which will even out the fewer balls in play.

However, for Hamilton to reach 28 home runs with his new approach, he would have to raise his HR/FB ratio from 16.4 percent to 19.3 percent—a huge gain. To get the batting average back, he would have to gain 40 points on his BABIP. Those are colossal improvements. And that doesn’t take into account that he may merely lose out on power or BABIP because he’s moving away from his natural tendencies and becoming a less aggressive hitter.

So, if your favorite manager starts talking about improve plate discipline leading to a breakout season for one of your players, think again—and get ready to use it against your competition.

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Comments

  1. tito said...

    What’s your take on Heyward and the Braves comments that they want him to be more aggressive at the plate this year? Do you see this as a strategy that might get Heyward over the hump or is it trying to turn him into a player he might not be?

  2. Mike Silver said...

    I’d guess that they’re trying to get him over the hump, but I’ve never done an in-depth analysis of Heyward’s PitchFX profile so its tough to say exactly what is going on.

    From a fantasy perspective, though, I love hearing it!

  3. Mark Himmelstein said...

    Interesting. I was figuring this was mostly going to be largely about the increased weight of batting average, but the HR/FB jump is a great point I hadn’t considered.

    But isn’t the inverse of the point about BABIP and HR/FB gains coming from improved discipline true too—that most hitters who hack and expand their zone have lower BABIPs and HR/FBs? My point being that you’re not looking for negative trends in O-Swing and BB%, you’re looking for guys who have high BABIPs and HR/FBs, and that a low BB% can be a positive for fantasy players who already do those things well. Obvioulsy I haven’t looked in depth, but that would be the instinctive guess. The guys like Hamilton, CarGo, and Sandoval who defy this logic are the exceptions, not the rules. Most players who improve their plate discipline will become better fantasy players.

    Basically, my point is its still not a good thing to be Jeff Francoeur.

  4. Mike Silver said...

    If I read your comment correctly, that was the caveat in the final paragraphs—he’d have to substantially raise his BABIP and HR/FB to accommodate the decreased balls in play.

    The two regressed lines for Josh Hamilton assumed the same HR/FB and BABIP so that the comparison could be made.

    I agree, it is perfectly reasonable to assume a rise in BABIP and HR/FB due to improved plate discipline. However, you have to wonder whether they could actually improve that much.

  5. Mark Himmelstein said...

    I’m not saying its a bad thing that Josh Hamilton is a hacker, in fact I’m agreeing that its a good thing.

    What I am saying is that it could be a bad thing if someone like Prince Fielder or Evan Longoria suddenly transformed into a hacker, and I think I missed the important point in my initial comment.

    The key is that guys like Hamilton and Sandoval not only maintain a combo of a high O-Swing%, low BB%, high BABIP, and high HR/FB, but they also maintain good Contact%, SwStrike%, and K%. That’s really where the selection bias is probably most prevalent with these guys. If you’re going to have a low BB% and high O-Swing%, you need to be able to keep the strikeouts in check, or you’ll have a hard time succeeding in the majors, let alone making it there.  Or, as it CarGo’s case, you’ll have to maintain an extraordinarily high BABIP.

    If Fielder or Longoria started swinging at more bad pitches, they would probably make less contact, so the fantasy “gains” they make by having fewer BB/PA would be negated by a higher K/PA, not to mention whatever issues with HR/FB and BABIP arise.

  6. Derek Ambrosino said...

    I’ve thought about this without doing much actual research, and my thoughts points toward player skill sets being really important.

    For example, being a hacker is at least potentially an advantage if you can still maintain a high batting average. …But, how do we know the reverse side of the hypothetical. I have my own thoughts for different players.

    Ichiro, for example, keep hacking. His biggest value is BA (when he’s good) and the more weight that has, the better. Also, he’s not going to hit for a lot of power anyway and his OBP is high enough, buoyed by his AVG, that he reaches base quite often anyway (last year excluded).

    Now, take Robby Cano. Smack dab in the middle of RISP paradise – go for it. The question we don’t know the answer to is what would happen if Cano only swung at strikes though – seeing as how he’s such a great hitter. Could he hit .340 instead of .310 if he largely stopped swinging at bad pitches. Would his HR/FB rate improve because he’s taking the pitch he grounds out on, or even singles on, today, and then hitting the next strike out of the park? And, what is the value of him just simply reaching 1B more often? This brings me to…

    Ryan Braun. What about a guy like Braun – similar player to Cano in many respects, but add to that the fact that he’s a legitimate stolen base threat. If you sacrificed a bunch of swinging ABs for walks, how many RBI groundouts and sac flies hit on bad pitches would you lose versus how many SBs would you gain from Braun reaching 1B 41% of the time vs. 37%?

    It’s complicated and I’m not sure the answer is the same for each player. Totally off the cuff, I happen to think that if Robby Cano woke up with plate discipline, he’d basically be Joey Votto. Now, put them in the same line-up and give them the same positional eligibility, who would you rather have? Probably Votto, right?

    …And, you might say, but Votto has more power than Cano – but Cano’s performance in the home run derby was pretty impressive (I know the unique circumstances there). Perhaps the real difference is just that Votto is selecting better pitches to swing at.

  7. Mike Silver said...

    Love the debate fellas!

    Mark, funny you brought up Prince Fielder. This past season he actually started hacking a lot more (I know this example off-hand because he’s been on my team every season for what feels like the last 5 years). His O-Swing went up almost 3 points—at 31.1%, that was his highest since his rookie season. He also had the lowest Z-Swing rate of his career.

    For Fielder, it worked out. Both his O- and Z-Contact rates were the highest of his career and his K-rate was a career low by about 2.5 percent. His batting average tied a career high and his HR/FB recovered to near 2007 and 2009 levels.

    Sure, this is one example… and I would also like to say that no, I don’t think that getting more aggressive was what made Prince’s HR/FB and BABIP recover.

    But I do think that, given the amount a player’s efficiency would have to improve to even out the volume of balls in play, hacking is better for a fantasy player.

    Sheer volume is what counts in fantasy and, in my opinion, that increase in volume trumps efficiency in fantasy.

    However, I am planning (at some point) to do a study on how change in approach effects batter efficiency. In limited research, I can say that a change in O-Swing percentage definitely does change Zone percentage (which would have an effect on walk and BIP rates). So, this article has left something unsaid as to the cascading effects of changing approach. These effects were not taken into account for this article, as it seemed a little wider than the scope of a general “here’s an interesting little tip” fantasy column.

    Either way, it’s a very interesting topic that I would love to pick apart at some point in the future.

  8. Mark Himmelstein said...

    Definitely an interesting debate, and interesting point on Fielder. Two points on him in particular:

    1. There’s a discrepancy between his Pitch F/X O-Swing% and his standard O-Swing%. According to the former, the mark has been incredibly stable over his career.

    2. The lowest O-Swing% of his career came in 2009, which was the year he had 46 HR and 140 RBIs.

    Of course, this could partly be the long term interaction between batter and pitcher—pitchers started avoiding Fielders “strong zones” and in response he started targeting different zones, which after some adjustment paid off. Or it could just be noise, its not clear.

    On many issues, I agree with you that volume trumps efficiency in fantasy baseball. But not all, and particularly on the extreme ends, I tend to believe there’s diminishing marginal returns for most players based on skillset, which lends somewhat to Derek’s point. I tend to agree with Derek on this one, his point is very similar to the one I was making, just much more strongly and comprehensively articulated.

    It may be that Fielder should hack MORE than he does to achieve peak production, but I’m fairly certain (insofar as I can be without doing the real research) that if he hacked like Hamilton, the results would rapidly decline.

    Either way, definitely a fascinating and under-discussed topic, and something I’d love to see more of.

  9. Mike Silver said...

    Using PitchFX plate discipline characteristics, you’re correct. I have been using the non-PitchFX plate discipline characteristics due to the fact that I last updated my regression model last seaosn before they debuted their PitchFX data. Perhaps I should do an update.

    I guess we can agree to disagree for the moment! Hopefully a more targeted study will give us a definitive answer!

  10. philosofool said...

    Seems like successful hackers need good contact skills too, though, right?

    Also, is there a danger that a history of hacking predicts collapse? I worry that as bat speed slows, these guys sudden fall apart because their swinging strike rate ballons.

    Also, I’m worried about selection bias in your regression model. If your PA cut off is high, you’ve implicitly selected good players who might have other underlying skills that compensate for a bad approach. Are you sure that the model will work for Miguel Olivo too?

  11. Mike Silver said...

    As for selection bias, I think the cutoff for this study was either 400 PAs or 450 PAs. It was some time ago so I don’t remember off hand.

    Is there a selection bias? Absolutely. However, the MLB minor league system makes it pretty much impossible to commission a study that does not include some sort of substantial selection bias.

    However, for the fantasy purposes for which this analysis was designed, the sample fits fine. This analysis was designed to be applied to fantasy hitters—players who already have made the MLB and shown the requisite contact skills deemed necessary for ownership on a fantasy team.

    Therefore, for the purposes of fantasy usage, I find this methodology perfectly valid.

    As for poor contact skills: I think the main thing you need to consider is that hackers make up for poor contact skills (if they have poor skills to begin with!) with volume of swings. If you swing at every pitch in the at-bat, you would only need to make contact with one of the three pitches to put the ball in play. Therefore, you’ll rarely strikeout.

    From there, the value question boils down to whether they will lose enough points off of their BABIP and HR/FB with this approach to offset the strikeouts. From the comments above, I think we can agree that the verdict is not yet in, but I’m of the opinion that it adds value to a fantasy player and that gains in BABIP and HR/FB are not as large as most assume them to be.

    Also, hacking is not just about going fishing outside the zone. “Hackers” typically get their reputation from swinging a lot as well as not walking swinging. This includes swinging at both pitches in the zone and outside the zone.

    “Patience” has more to do with taking pitches and walking more. However, when you’re “Patient”, you invariably will let a lot of good pitches pass by.

    Read Jeff Gross’ article from yesterday that references Steve Treder’s work on first-pitch counts from the 2011 Annual.

    http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/fantasy/article/lima-rises/

    Batters are taking way too many first-pitch strikes. A “hacker” would swing at a lot of these pitches, while the “patient” hitter would take many of these pitches. That’s another nice little ancillary benefit—hackers will benefit from fewer 0-1 counts because they put that first-pitch strike in play.

    There’s a very complex strategy at play here between the pitcher and hitter. Unfortunately, too many of us are guilty of the knee-jerk reaction of condemning the hackers when they are really doing their fantasy owners a lot of good.

  12. Mark Himmelstein said...

    Definitely looking forward to any further study into this subject.

    I just wanted to add to the back and forth above, the one potential issue I think you’re missing is the potential tie in between increased swings and increased swings and misses (and potentially foul balls as well I suppose). If it was just an issue of HR/FB and BABIP, I would agree with your rationale, but contact IS important.

    As to the point about taking pitches inside the zone, while that’s surely true, the ratio between pitches swung at inside and outside the zone would be upset, and the weight would travel in the direction of outside for most batters who are increasing the number of pitches they swing at.

    That’s not to say batters shouldn’t swing at more first pitches, and there aren’t some batters out there that should swing more often in general, or that the batters who do swing often and get away with it are more valuable fantasy assets than similar “producers” who don’t. Its just to say that some hitters would see diminishing marginal returns by simply swinging at more pitches, and MOST batters (in real baseball more, but probably many in fantasy as well) benefit from being somewhat selective about which pitches they swing at.

  13. chuck said...

    i would like to see hamilton’s average when swinging at the first pitch.  albert belle had a career first pitch average of like .380 and he was a hacker.

  14. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Speaking strictly as a Mets fan for a second, I don’t know if there was ever an elite hitter who let more good strikes go than Mike Piazza. Ironically, he wasn’t a Frank Thomas walker type, but I recall that he was once identified as having the lowest swing rate on 3-0 pitches in the league. I think there were entire seasons when he didn’t swing 3-0. The list of least frequent 3-0 swingers was like a who’s who of terrible hitters, and then the greatest offensive catcher of all time, and one of the best hitters of his generation. At some point, it must have become mental with him because it wasn’t as if the book was out. Pitchers didn’t think twice about throwing a BP fastball to one of the most feared hitters in the game on 3-0. An already high average hitter, and lacking speed, Piazza is probably one player who would have increased both his real and fantasy value by increasing his swing rate – if only in that situation.

  15. Brock said...

    Does Juan Francisco fall into this category? He’s somewhat interesting now that he’ll be playing 3rd base for Chipper….

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