Note: Last week I wrote an article on hit f/x, and within 15 minutes a number of astute and informed readers pointed out that I was wrong about where the point of contact was being measured from, which led to some incorrect conclusions. Mea culpa, but it did start an interesting discussion which you can still find in the comments below, although the numbers and conclusions in the following article have been corrected:
Warren Spahn once said: “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” And for all that PITCHf/x has told us about who has the nastiest pitches and what locations hitters feast off of, it has had very little to say about such a critical aspect of the hitter-pitcher duel as timing. As a result, while PITCHf/x can easily tell where in the strike zone batters are succeeding or struggling to make solid contact, for the most part why that is the case is just guesswork.
Further complicating saying anything useful about hitters is that the normal PITCHf/x data gives the location of each pitch as it crosses the very front of the plate. That’s fine for pitchers, since that’s where balls and strikes are decided. But with breaking balls moving wildly as they pass the plate and a full six feet of batter’s box in which the hitter could theoretically be standing as he reaches for the ball, where the pitch crossed the front of the plate and where the batter actually made contact with it could be far apart.
Enter HITf/x to save the day on both counts. Along with the horizontal and vertical location at which the bat struck the ball, it measures how far along its flight path the ball was when it was struck. This will be especially useful once we have enough data to compare a hitter’s normal contact point to where it is when he is in a slump or on a streak to see if anything has changed. But for now, here are the average travel distances for each type of pitch using the available April data. I have converted the values hit f/x provides to where the ball is in relation to the front of the plate (as pitch f/x measures things), with positive numbers how far out front of the plate the ball was struck, and negative numbers for when a ball was hit after crossing the front of the plate.
Pitch Type Average Distance Average Velocity (mph) in front of Home Plate (ft) Fastball 1.06 91.2 Slider 0.84 83.1 Changeup 0.79 82.4 Curve 0.71 76.5 Total 0.95 87.0
So on average, batters make contact with the ball about a foot in front of the plate, with fastballs hit sooner than offspeed pitches by about four inches. Here’s a look at the distribution of contact for every batted balls in April (hat tip to Alan Nathan in the comments):
There isn’t much variation between hitters, with batters at the extremes (of earliest and latest contact) in the league taking their cuts at balls within a foot of each other. Here are the top five of each through April—for the full list, you can download this Excel file .
Earliest contact (at least 25 balls in play)
Player Name Average Distance In front of plate (ft) Alexei Ramirez 1.44 Mike Lowell 1.42 Hank Blalock 1.35 Justin Morneau 1.32 Garrett Atkins 1.30
Latest contact (at least 25 balls in play)
Player Name Average Distance In front of plate (ft) Anderson Hernandez 0.40 Emmanuel Burriss 0.46 Nick Johnson 0.51 Kazuo Matsui 0.53 Chipper Jones 0.55
One player on this list who demands attention is Alexei Ramirez: he hit .214 in April but has hit .288 since, suggesting that he may have been jumping at pitches too soon in April. But it’s really too early to know if these are typical numbers for these hitters, let alone what this might all mean about their swings and approaches at the plate.
But in general, should different pitches be hit at different depths? We saw above that offspeed pitches on average travel about an extra four inches before they are hit. But should batters actually try to let certain pitches travel further, and contact others aggressively before they cross the plate, or is that just a result of the type of pitch? The following two graphs show how batting averages are affected on balls hit into play by how far in front of the plate contact is made. Zero is the very front of the plate, which extends 1.417 feet past that (picture a pitcher throwing from the right hand side of the following graphs, with 0 being the front edge of the plate).
As both groups of pitches (I lumped all the offspeed pitches together because they were essentially identical) peak at about the same point, there seems to be no difference in where hitters should try to make contact with the ball for maximum results. However, while offspeed pitches are equally hittable where they are contacted, batting average against fastballs rises steadily the later they are contacted, to a difference of almost 200 points between hitters when they make relatively early to late contact.
Once all the data are available, that will open up a new area of study—not just for hitters, in terms of little tidbits like who has the best timing on each pitch, or who can still get a hit when they’re fooled, but for the whole art of pitching that is disrupting timing, and how they do it as well. For now, here’s a rundown we’ve learned during our preview of the third dimension:
— Hitters tend to hit the ball about a foot before it crosses the front edge of the plate.
— Batters hit fastballs earlier, and let offspeed pitches travel further before making contact.
— However, if hitters are able to stay back and contact fastballs later, they get better results.
— On the other hand, it doesn’t matter when a player makes contact with offspeed pitches.
— Fastballs and offspeed pitches are equally bad with which to make very late contact.