Keeping It in the Infield

On a list of the highest single season infield hit totals since FanGraphs began tracking the statistic in 2002, Ichiro Suzuki occupies the first seven spots. Across all seasons, Ichiro’s 391 infield hits totally dwarfs every other hitter in baseball. The next highest is Luis Castillo with 248. By sole dint of his impressive cumulative total, it is tempting to award Ichiro as the best infield hitter in baseball, but is that a reasonable conclusion?

Ichiro bats leadoff and is incredibly durable, routinely garnering among the top number of plate appearances among hitters each season. That translates to lots and lots of opportunities to rack up infield hits. Instead of looking just at raw totals this illustrates a need to look at rates so that I can attempt to control for Ichiro’s advantage in opportunities.

Usually the most logical way to turn a total into a rate for a hitter is to divide by plate appearances. That runs right into a problem on the other extreme though as the leader in infield hits per plate appearance is Aquilino Lopez who has had one trip to the plate in his career and reached on an infield error (FanGraphs counts those among infield hits). I do not consider Lopez’s one-for-one to be more impressive than Ichiro and neither should anyone.

Lopez’s 100% rate is a symptom of ignoring the denominator, which we cannot afford to do any more than we should rely solely on the numerator. A balance must be struck between rates (to weed out people with far more opportunities) and counting stats (to weed out people with far too few opportunities). That balance typically takes the form of a minimum requirement, such as we see in Batting Average and ERA titles that require a certain number of at bats and innings pitched before a player is eligible to qualify.

Determining a reasonable minimum is often a subjective exercise and often varies with the measurement in question. For something like this, I desire something akin to two seasons worth of data. Putting in a 1,000 plate appearance threshold shows Ichiro to rank second (5.3%) slightly behind Joey Gathright (5.7%), but are plate appearances the right measure to use as rate denominator? It certainly is not a bad one, and I would not fault anyone who used it, but I believe there is a better one available, ground balls.

The vast majority of infield hits are going to come from ground balls. Ones that do not are not particularly interesting to me. An infield hit off a pop fly or line drive speaks more of flukiness than a repeatable skill to me. Ichiro retakes the lead when using that measure, with a 500 ground ball minimum, but just barely. He edges out Gathright by four-hundredths of a percentage point. Looking at infield hits per ground ball hit also introduces Brett Gardner, Drew Stubbs, Jose Tabata and Nolan Reimold as potential overtakers once they get a bigger sample. It also shows Jason Bay at a surprisingly high place. At 11.7%, Bay ranks third among hitters with enough ground balls to qualify.

So is Ichiro the hitter most adept at getting infield hits? I think so, though it is certainly a lot closer than his overall lead in infield hits would lead me to believe. I also give Ichiro slightly more credit for accomplishing a league-leading rate over such a larger sample than the other contenders possess.

The need to balance rates and totals is not a new or even an ignored idea. Still, I find it useful from time to time to break things down to their fundamental levels to make sure we lay out our assumptions and thinking patterns for any newcomers. Plus, it is always prudent to remember to evaluate our criteria before offering rankings.

Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

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good analysis, but you forgot to add something: Ichiro is just plain awesome.