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Short and Long At Bats: Matsui and the Astros

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I like reviewing some of the more unusual statistics shown at billjames-online.net.  (I can't link you to the stats, because the web site requires a modest subscription.)  Sometimes the challenge is determining whether the statistical patterns mean anything.

A statistic I hadn't noticed on the site, until yesterday, was "short and long at bats."  So I spent some time looking at this stat for various Astros, as well as other players. 

In order to provide context, Bill James provides the following stats for 2007 major league hitters, by length of at bat:

1 and done: .344/.349/.543 .892 OPS
Short(1-3): .301/.317/.467 .784 OPS
Long (4+): .223/.352/.348 .700 OPS
7 Up (7+): .230/.406/.372 .778 OPS

You might recall the post I made about former Mets' pitching coach Rick Peterson's pitching philosophy, in which he pointed out that the adage "throw strike 1 on the first pitch" isn't always successful, in part because the batting average for hitters is elevated on pitch 1.  The high batting average is due partly to the fact that it is impossible to strike out in the first two pitches of the at bat.  However, hitters may be looking for a fat pitch on the first pitch, and therefore find something they can drive.  The ML averages for OPS and slugging on "1 and done" above supports that idea.  You might recall that Biggio is well known as a good first pitch hitter.  And his "one and done" OPS in 2007 reflects that fact: 1.041.  His OPS on long and 7+ at bats:  .532 and .372.

One hitter who stands out in contrast to the league averages above is Kaz Matsui.  His performance on short and long at bats is unlike any other Astros hitter, and I couldn't find similar patterns among other players in my hit or miss sampling.

Matsui is horrible if he swings at the first pitch, but his offense improves dramatically with each increase in the length of the at bat.

Matsui (OPS)

One and Done .591

Short At Bat .706

Long At Bat  .829

7+ Pitches 1.085

Matsui's 2007 stats were similar, even though the increase with length of at bat wasn't as steep.  So, if you are watching Matsui bat, your hopes should go up the more he fights off pitches and lengthens the at bat. 

Darin Erstad was almost the opposite, even though, as a bench player, the sample sizes become smaller and perhaps less meaningful.

Erstad (OPS)

One and Done .940

Short At Bat .770

Long At Bat  .572

7+ Pitches .353

If you're looking for something good to happen in Erstad's at bat, you should expect it to happen early in the plate appearance.

I came up with a quick and dirty view of the Astros' average pattern by length of at bat.  I assigned one player to each non-pitcher position as the "starter" and took an arithmetic average of the OPS for each length of at bat.  This is not completely accurate as a team stat, because it ignores reserves and doesn't give a weighting to starters with more at bats.  But here it is:

Average  (OPS)

One and Done .855

Short At Bat .765

Long At Bat  .723

7+ Pitches .829

This pattern isn't that dissimilar from the ML average pattern.  However, the Astros starters seem to perform better than the typical ML player if the at bat is longer.  We know that Cooper preaches "tough at bats," and that generally seems like a good idea for Astros hitters.

For what it's worth, here are the best and worst Astros hitters (by OPS) for various lengths of at bats:

Best (OPS)

One and Done .Berkman, 1.265

Short At Bat  Lee, .995

Long At Bat   Berkman 1.001

7+ Pitches  Matsui 1.095

Worst (OPS)

One and Done . Towles .472

Short At Bat  Towles .466

Long At Bat  Quintero .320

7+ Pitches Quintero .347

If you're wondering where Bourn fits in all this, he had an acceptable OPS only for "One and Done" (.732), but hit almost equally poorly in all other bat lengths (.581 - .594).  Towles is horrible on first pitch hitting and improves mildly as the length of at bat increases.  Towles' best OPS is .619 for a 7+ pitch at bat.  Perhaps this is indicative of Towles' over eagerness to swing away early in counts.

Berkman's pattern demonstrates why he is the Astros' best hitter.  If he swings at the first pitch, the pitch is something he likes, and he hammers it.  If Berkman gets into a long 7+ pitch at bat, he usually ends up with a big OPS in that situation too.  Whether short or long length, Berkman's OPS consistently stays in the .900's.

I admit that I'm not sure what this statistic really means...or whether it is meaningful for most players.  However, perhaps it will make you think about the length of the at bat when you watch some of the "best" and "worst" of the Astros hitters, above, for various lengths of at bats.