How Would You Produce if You Never Swung the Bat?

You. You, specifically. The person reading FanGraphs right now on your machine. Haven’t you ever thought about yourself as a player? You shouldn’t, you’d be terrible. You definitely wouldn’t want to even try to swing the bat. But, what if you were a batter, yet you never swung the bat? What might your numbers eventually look like against big-league competition?

It’s fun to think about the worst player possible, who would show up as essentially having the WAR of the complete absence of a player. The WAR of a vacuum, as it were, provided it weren’t such a strong vacuum that it attracted all batted balls in the field. A related thought project is putting yourself in the major leagues, and often, when people do this, they just comfortably assume a .000 wOBA. I mean, you’d never get on against a qualified big-league pitcher, right? That’s very kind of you to assume, but it’s also untrue. You could get on base sometimes. You’d just have to not swing the bat. How often could you reach if you followed that simple, single instruction?

Obviously, this is going to require some assumptions and approximations. Obviously, we’ll never be able to actually put this to the test. But what I want to calculate is the expected batting line of someone who never swings, not even once. That hypothetical individual might as well be you. There are, however, two requirements, which I think are necessary for this to kind of work:

  1. You have to be in at least some kind of shape, and not too young or too old. Basically, you have to not look like total crap from 60 feet away. This way, pitchers might figure they’re facing an athlete. Let’s set our threshold at Bartolo Colon. You have to be as athletic-looking as Bartolo Colon, or better.
  2. You have to have a bat in your hands when you stand in the box. If you just stood there without a bat, pitchers would throw you easy lobs. Pitchers need to be aware that the threat of a bat being swung is present, even if they know full well you’ve never swung before. It would probably help to take some practice cuts outside of the box, in the on-deck circle and in between pitches. Practice cuts would demonstrate that you are indeed capable of swinging. So you could conceivably swing at any pitch. You just don’t, time after time.

The whole foundation of this is that pitchers aren’t as good at throwing strikes as you might expect them to be, being the best pitchers on the planet. They are, absolutely, amazing, and some of them are even more amazing than the others. But the strike zone is small and the baseball is small and it’s just a difficult thing, pitching, even against a nothing opponent. The zone is an ever-changing little rectangle that’s more than 60 feet away from where the pitcher has to stand. There are accuracy limits, and by not swinging, that’s precisely what you’d be looking to exploit.

Let’s assume, for simplicity, that pitches in the zone would go for strikes, and pitches out of the zone would go for balls. Forget about framing, forget about umpires, and forget about handedness. In every plate appearance, you would either strike out, walk, or get drilled. You’d post a batting average of .000, and a slugging percentage of .000. We’re entirely concerned about OBP, and the trick would be drawing four balls before drawing three strikes. Or, you could get hit by a pitch. All we need are some expected frequencies.

And I think we have approximations. The last six years, pitchers have batted 1,223 times with the bases loaded. Three times in those plate appearances, the pitcher has been hit. It’s very rare, of course, because pitchers don’t want to hit pitchers with the bases loaded, but the frequency isn’t 0.0%. It’s a hair over 0.2%. Granted, one of those HBPs drilled Micah Owings, and another was done by R.A. Dickey, but everything counts here. This is the HBP component of the OBP.

Now for the walks. All we need for walks is an expected strike rate, or an expected ball rate. Which means an expected zone rate. Where is this going to come from? The answer, naturally, is PITCHf/x. During the PITCHf/x era, pitchers have thrown about 62% of pitches in the zone with the bases loaded and the count 3-and-0. But, that’s against all hitters, some good and some bad. They’ve thrown about 67% of pitches in the zone when facing pitchers with the count 3-and-0, no matter the base state. If you’ll pardon some little samples, they’ve thrown about 64% of pitches in the zone when facing pitchers with the bases loaded and the count 2-and-0. They’ve thrown about 66% of pitches in the zone when facing pitchers with the bases loaded and the count 3-and-0. That’s automatic strike territory. You have to throw a strike there. Pitchers have thrown strikes, two-thirds of the time. So.

The highest zone rate belonging to any hitter during the PITCHf/x era is 63%, with pitchers facing Brandon Webb. Of course, sometimes pitchers threw him pitches out of the zone on purpose. Pitchers have thrown about 58% of pitches in the zone when facing American League pitchers. Of course, sometimes pitchers threw them pitches out of the zone on purpose.

I’m going to set an expected strike rate of 70%. It’s higher than any of the numbers above, because I think some of those numbers are selective for pitchers going through spells of wildness. It’s basically a guess on my part, but let’s proceed with it anyway. There’s one way for you to walk on four pitches. There are four ways to walk on five pitches. There are ten ways to walk on six pitches. (There are zero ways to walk on seven pitches, given no swings.) Combining walks and HBPs, an expected strike rate of 70% would yield an expected OBP of .073.

Which means you’d have a batting line of .000/.073/.000, good for a wOBA of about .050. That would beat Aaron Heilman. That would beat Jon Lester and Justin Verlander. If you had a bat, but never swung it, you’d be expected to reach base a little more often than once per 14 trips. Sounds kind of amazing, when you put it that way.

And it’s easy enough to calculate different numbers based on a different expected strike rate. Boost the expected strike rate to 75% and you end up with an expected OBP of .040 and an expected wOBA of .028. You’d reach once per 25 trips to the plate. Knock the strike rate up to 80% and the expected OBP plummets to .019, with a wOBA of .013. You’d reach once per 52 trips to the plate. You would still reach though, is the point. Pitchers can’t throw strikes all the time. Not when there’s someone with a bat standing at the plate. Remember how pitchers threw 66.9% of pitches in the zone in 3-and-0 counts against other pitchers? Plug that in as the expected strike rate and you get an OBP of .100. That’s inflated and unrealistic, but it isn’t unrealistic by that much.

Probably. Maybe. I don’t know. Adam Greenberg struck out on three pitches. But he swung, and he was facing one of the best pitchers in baseball, and that was one plate appearance. Here’s an inconceivable four-pitch walk, from a few years ago, by a major-league pitcher facing a major-league relief pitcher with clearly zero interest in doing anything but getting out of there as quickly as possible without getting hurt. That happened, which means it can happen. It can probably happen a lot more often than once.

How would you do as a big-leaguer? Terrible. You wouldn’t even believe how terrible. You suck, even if you don’t suck among your friends. But as a hitter, you could still reach base, at least provided you never once swung the bat. Because even the best pitchers in baseball don’t throw strikes 100% of the time they want to throw strikes. Most of your outs, you’d make at home plate. But some of ’em, God bless you, you’d make on the basepaths.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

I went 2 for 5 on my comapny’s co-ed softball team one Saturday this summer. Translated to MLB numbers, over the course of my expected 20 year big league career, that would be like 528 HR, .329 BA, 1,753 RBI, barring injury (which is doubtful, because I’m built like a fucking rock.