The greatest eye in baseball

As a fan of numbers, I always look for the player who did something better than anyone else. We all know the best power hitters, for instance, but what about something a bit more subjective? When you ask what player had the best eye, you might say Ted Williams‘ OBP of .482 is a pretty good measure and call it a day, but that wouldn’t be much fun, and I also don’t think it’s the right answer anyway.

On-base percentage is a combination of too many things outside just a good eye at the plate. A great hitter like Williams can use power to add some hits that another hitter might not. So perhaps then walk rate might make the best hitter. That leads us to a similar discovery, though, when we look at the top 15 walk rates of all time.

Name              BB%
Ted Williams      20.6
Barry Bonds       20.3
Max Bishop        20.0
Babe Ruth         19.4
Ferris Fain       18.4
Eddie Stanky      18.3
Roy Cullenbine    17.8
Gene Tenace       17.8
Jack Crooks       17.6
Eddie Yost        17.6
Mickie Mantle     17.5
Bill Salkeld      17.4
Bill Joyce        17.3
Randy Milligan    17.2
Jack Cust         17.2

So Williams, Barry Bonds, Max Bishop and Babe Ruth seem to be the best all time at taking a walk. Few would complain if we said they had the best eyes in all of baseball, but something doesn’t feel right about just using walk rate. When Jack Cust can crack the all-time top 15 in a stat, I have to make sure I’m doing it right.

The next place to look would have to be strikeouts, but K percentage is littered with players at the low end who make good contact and yet can’t walk. I decided the best way to go would be BB/K. This list was something completely different and quite surprising.

Name          BB/K
Joe Sewell        7.39
Monk Cline        6.33
Johnny Bassle     5.4
Cupid Childs      5.26
Tris Speaker      5.20
Eddie Collins     4.23
John McGraw       4.15
Bill Gleason      4.00
Mickey Cochrane   3.95
Tommy Holmes      3.93
Willie Keeler     3.58
Davy Jones        3.56
Dan Brouthers     3.53
Ferris Fain       3.46
Johnny Evers      3.44

At first, the list looks like a bust as nothing matches with our first list, and perhaps we again are seeing a lot of extremely low strikeout guys with okay walk rates. That’s not what I set out to find when looking for the greatest eye in baseball history. That’s when I noticed one name repeats on both lists. Ferris Fain ranks fifth in baseball history with a walk rate of 18.4 percent, but he also has a walk per strikeout rate of 3.46, making the top 15 on that list. Could Fain be the greatest eye in baseball, or is he just an anomaly that fits the search criteria?

Fain was a first baseman who played only nine seasons, all in the American League, from 1947 to 1955 and had the great nicknames Burrhead and Cocky. He spent time with the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians. His debut was delayed due to military service from 1943-1945. His skills were that of the perfect leadoff hitter but odd for a first baseman. In 4,904 plate appearances, Fain carried a line of .290/.424/.396 and led the league in average twice and OBP once. He never struck out more than 7.6 percent in any season and had his best BB/K of 5.12 in 1950.

Fain was a very interesting character and known for a hot temper, which led to several barroom brawls, including a broken hand during a fight after the 1952 season. The temper and the fighting didn’t affect him on the field until 1954, when he suffered a broken leg and played only 65 games with his lowest walk rate at 14.2 percent. This, along with the drinking and fighting, seemed to spell his demise. He was still amazing at the plate in 1955 with 114 games and a walk rate of 26.2 percent, but that would be the last season for Fain and what might have been the greatest eye in baseball. At only 34, it’s a shame he had only nine years in the majors.

His final fWAR of 31.6 was very good for a player of nine seasons, with a wOBA of .390 and wRC+ of 127. He wasn’t a Hall of Fame candidate, but thanks to his amazing eye at the plate, he was an All-Star-level player. Now perhaps we can recognize him as the greatest eye in baseball.

After baseball, things didn’t get better for Fain as he was arrested twice for growing marijuana. The first time, he was placed under house arrest, and the second time he received 18 months in prison. In response to questions about his marijuana production, Fain was quoted saying, ”I knew how to grow the stuff. I was as adept at it as I was in playing baseball.” He died in 2001 at the age of 80, regretting only that his off the field behavior likely kept him from a managerial chance later in life.

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  1. Troy Patterson said...

    I have to disagree with the point that strikeout rate has nothing to do with “batting eye”.

    I admit it’s not a perfect correlation like walk rate, which is why I used BB/K, but a player who swings at an outside pitch has a higher rate of swing and miss or foul balls. Both resulting in more strikes and more strikeouts.  I would be willing to say that strikeouts are somewhere around 30% result of the players batting eye, but to say it has nothing to do with it I just can’t agree with.

  2. Troy Patterson said...

    @Ctwink – IBB was tough to judge since as you stated it’s not recorded although we can see he did recieve 3 in his final year, but it would have taken an average of 6 or 7 IBB per season starting from his rookie year to have enough to drop his BB% out of the top 15. 

    Also as you stated the players we are comparing him to at the top of the BB% had plenty of IBB and probably many more than he did.

  3. DShea said...

    Can’t do it with the older data, probably, but rather than just look at Ks, looking at percent of total pitches that were “looking” strikes would be a good addition to the definition of best batting eye.

  4. rpb said...

    “What does strikeout rate have to do with “batting eye”?”

    You must have an interesting definition of batting eye to make this statement. You seem to forget that players do not need to swing to strike out.

    In my definition of ‘batting eye’ the batter would need to 1) identify the pitch to decide if they want to swing and project the path of the ball so that 2) they can decide if the ump will call the ball a strike. There is no point at swinging at a ball since it puts the pitcher behind the count forcing them to either throw the pitch you want or walk you.

    @ Troy – Your assumption about low K rate players is very biased toward modern baseball preferences that value power over singles which is why Fielder will make more $ than Ichiro. A power hitter would rather walk than single (same result) and never simply puts the ball in play. Prior to Babe Ruth, the opposite approach was preferred and admired. That is why Willie Keeler probably had the best eye in baseball. Anybody with over 9000 PA and an AB/K ratio of 63.17 had an amazing eye. His eye, and swing, were so good he could reliably foul of pitches he didn’t like until he got the one he wanted, which he typically hit for a single.

  5. Mark F said...

    Troy P

    I alos agree that a comparison of Ichiro and Fielder is not fair when it comes to “batting eye” AND that we might be able to improve on a way to still determine who does have the best ” batting eye”.  What if we bunched guys with similar slugging percentages (+.550, .450 to .549, -.449) to form Sluggers, All-Purpose and Singles hitting groups.  Within each group use on base percentage with a wary eye on large gaps in batting average.  Oranges to tangerines is a better comparison than an oranges to carrots comparison.

    Lance Berkman has a career slash of 296/409/545.  Juan Gonzalez has a career slash of 295/343/561.
    They both produced this in around 7200 PA and since they both struck out 1200+ times, it is clear that Berkman’s almost 700 BB advantage over Gonzalez’ totals suggest to me that Lance has a better “batting eye” than Juan. 

    Might this work?

  6. Troy Patterson said...

    @Mark F

    I like that idea.  Would also make a nice discussion between the three classes of who is best.

  7. David P. Stokes said...

    “Secondly, if you ARE gonna use strikeouts, at least adjust them for the era. The strikeout rate has been gradually increasing for almost a century…”

    He didn’t use raw strikeout totals, or even strikeout rate.  I agree that either of those really would need to be adjusted to yield anything meaningful.  But what was actually used was the players’ ratio of walks to strikeouts, and since walks have also increased over time, no era adjustment needs to be made.

  8. dave smyth said...

    Troy #4—sure, if you swing at a bad pitch you are more likely to miss than if you swing at a good pitch.  But that is not what ‘drives’ batter strikeouts. As a group, hi-K batters don’t swing at more bad pitches than lo-K batters.

  9. dave smyth (dcs) said...

    Walks have increased over time? I don’t think so, Stokes.

    And as far as using called strikes to judge batting eye? Not straightforward, because batters take strikes all the time that they know are likely to be called strikes, simply because it is not a good enough pitch to want to end the PA on. IOW, the called strike (to a player like Boggs, for example) is not necessarily the sign of a faulty eye (ball vs. strike), but the sign of a good eye (strike, but not a good enough pitch to hit).

  10. Brandon said...

    Great write up. Fain is an interesting character in the history of baseball and I think the writer hit the nail on the head.

  11. Donald A. Coffin said...

    I don’t know what the “correct” way to deal with this is, but I do think that some standardization across time is caled for.  Using data from Baseball Reference, we can plot K/9,  BB/9, and K/BB (or its inverse) quite readily.

    Beginning in 1920, we can see that both K/9 and BB/9 rose steadily unti about 1950, with K/BB rougly constant at 1.  From about 1950 to about 1968,  K/9 continued to rise, while BB/9 fell, so K/BB obviously rose (to a little over 2).  Since 1968, BB/9 has been roughly constant, at about 3.3.  K/9 actually fell from 1968 to 1981 (down from 5.9 to 4.7), at which point it again began to ascend to its current (2011) level of 7.1/9 in 2011.  So, from 1968 to 1981, K/BB fell (1.49) and has since increased to 2.3.

    So while a K/BB rate of 1-1 would be average in 1920—it would take a K/BB of (say) 0.5 for a hitter to be regarded as “walking a lot” relative to his strikeouts—today, a K/BB for a hitter of 1 would be regarded as excellent…













  12. dcs said...

    What does strikeout rate have to do with “batting eye”? Players don’t strikeout because they swing at bad pitches, they strikeout because of the mechanics of their swings.  I cringe every time I see someone try to make this connection…

  13. dcs said...

    Secondly, if you ARE gonna use strikeouts, at least adjust them for the era. The strikeout rate has been gradually increasing for almost a century…

  14. Ctwink said...

    Thirdly, walks are a byproduct of the players around you so just because someone has a high walk rate doesn’t mean that they are great judges of pitches.  Ruth, Bonds and Williams were good judges of pitches BUT they were also walked to avoid a big hit.  While that may not be true with Fain, he played on some ordinary A’s teams – he might have been one of the better hitters on the team.  Did you check this?  It doesn’t look like Baseball Reference has stats for IBB before 1955, but you never know, he may have led the league in being “intentionally” walked without it being an official IBB.

    Also Fain had VERY little SB’s so it wasn’t like putting this guy on base automatically turned into a double like some of the great leadoff hitters.  But then he also had little power eventhough he was in the top 10 in doubles 3X’s.

    I have to say I agree with dcs that your whole premise has many flaws.  Hardball Times should have really vetted this article before posting it…

  15. rpb said...

    @ Dave – a called third strike is the sign of a faulty eye. If you knew it was going to be called a strike you should have at least fouled it off.

  16. dave smyth (dcs) said...

    rpb, yes, but called strikeout pitches make up only 7%  of all called strikes. Plus, a certain % of them occur on 3-2 counts, when it may be correct to take a borderline pitch. Anyway, if someone wants to use called strikeouts, at some weight, to help measure batting eye, that’s probably fine.  Figuring out the best weight is the tricky part…

  17. Eddie said...

    I think a combination of BA, BB and K’s would give a better indication of “greatest eyes.”

    Removing IBB would be problematic unless one can differentiate between a tactical “one out, runner on second, first base open” and “We are so afraid of this batter that we are going to give him a pass.” I remember Bonds being IBB with no one on because pitchers were afraid of him. I am sure people like Ted Williams, Chuck Klein, and Babe Ruth also received these on occasion. As a kid I remember an IBB given with the bases loaded because the opposing team was up by three runs and the batter was that feared.

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