Admit it, you’ve wondered. Not you, the former Division I baseball player or the major leaguer who’s maybe reading this. I mean you, the former pony-league baseball kid who maybe got a cup of coffee with the varsity in a nondescript high school league: you’ve wondered if, given a full season’s chance — say, 600 plate appearances — you could get a single major league hit.
Maybe you haven’t. I certainly have. And so has MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes.
Something I mull alot: If I took a season's worth of plate appearances in the MLB would I get a single hit? I think answer is no.
— Christopher Hayes (@chrislhayes) August 24, 2017
It’s easy to argue that he wouldn’t. Just making contact requires sufficient bat speed to catch up to the incoming pitch speed, and the difference between a layperson’s bat speed and a professional one is stark. I’ve linked this image recently, but this time it’s for the stats on the left. Take a look at how much faster Hunter Pence can swing a bat than I can.
Pence nearly doubles my bat speed and gets to the ball three times quicker. Maybe we mere fans just couldn’t connect with the hard stuff. And that’s on the fastball. What happens when a pitcher starts throwing the bendy stuff?
Hayes wondered the same. “I was recently at a batting cage and spent about half an hour, got the speed up to 70 mph, and after enough of them I was more or less getting around, though mostly fouling pitches off, with occasional solid contact,” he wrote in an email. “BUT: no breaking balls and no pitches out of the zone. I just think any major leaguer would be able to just terrify me with a first pitch fastball and then get me to chase garbage out of the zone and that would happen for literally an entire season.”
But isn’t this a question of numbers in the end? Over 600 plate appearances, more than 2000 pitches… couldn’t you swing as hard as possible middle-in and eventually get one measly hit?
I turned to our projections masters for comments. Dan Szymborski, father of ZiPS, pointed out that today’s game has a low batting average and that’s relevant. “Every batting-average threshold lower,” he wrote to me, “the number of people capable of hitting increases exponentially.”
Today’s league would be more welcoming to Hayes than the 90s. “I don’t think the average person in reasonable shape who has swung a bat before is that much worse than say, the worst-hitting AL pitcher that has no background being a position player,” pointed out Szymborski. “I imagine that Hayes would run into a few hits in 600 PA.”
A former pitcher agreed.
Yes you would
— dan haren (@ithrow88) August 24, 2017
When I asked the NEIFI team of analysts, they agreed that thinking about pitchers was one way to go. “Of the 536 pitchers for whom NEIFI projects an offensive talent level, let’s take the bottom 5%, the absolute bottom of a bad group,” said Adam Guttridge in an email. “Twenty-eight hitters. Ergo, effectively, the worst-hitting pitcher from each MLB team. The yield, from 2013-present, is 3029 at-bats of an .083 BA, 52.2% K rate.” Chris Hayes gets 40 hits!!!
Not so fast. “Bear in mind, though, this contact rate is deceptive. A certain amount of these instances are unsuccessful in-play sacrifice attempts which go for outs. Successful sac bunts of course don’t register as AB,” Guttridge wrote. And there’s more, of course. “Guys like Dan Straily, Jimmy Nelson, Ivan Nova, etc, are: (a) pro athletes at the highest level, (b) athletes who practice hitting, [and] (c) much, much stronger than your average citizen.”
So where can we go for a comp? NEIFI suggested a brilliant group of players, since there aren’t many Hunter College High alumni in the big leagues — and, anyway, Hayes picked basketball over baseball in high school.
That comp group? The “favors.” Guttridge: “A certain number of ‘favor’ draft picks take place each year, and some sign and play; the pitching coordinator’s nephew, an agent’s son, a friend of the owner’s family. Guys who don’t belong on a pro ball field, as Hayes didn’t. They probably belong on a pro ball field much more so than a decent high-school player in a northern city, but first, how do these guys wind up performing?”
Identifying the favors isn’t easy, but there are a few ways to find them. They are usually assigned to the Arizona League or the Gulf Coast League, get few plate appearances, and do badly. NEIFI used 20-plus at-bats and more than a 55% strikeout rate to gather the comps, even if it probably included some of your Russell Wilsons (athletes from other sports) or legitimate draft picks who just did poorly.
The collective low-minors line for this group: 1588 PA, a .120/.231/.180 slash line, and a 59.9% strikeout rate. That includes a .283 BABIP — somewhat surprising, given that .312 is the league average and we’ve tried to group some of the worst players in those leagues.
So how would that group do in the bigs? “Best we could estimate, this would yield an expectation of roughly an 83% strikeout rate in MLB,” NEIFI said. “It’s tremendously difficult to have any real confidence in this estimate, primarily due to the ambiguous nature of the quality of this sub-group relative to their league-level peers, though it may sound reasonable enough.”
There’s another adjustment to be made, though, as many of the favors may yet have been athletes and/or baseball players. “Nonetheless, it seems terribly unlikely Hayes’ contact rate would be 0.0%, either,” pointed out Guttridge. “If nothing else, just for the act of closing one’s eyes and attempting to get into the zone with proper timing, he may occasionally get lucky.”
But let’s say he struck out 97% of the time, which would be well worse than our worst group of comps. That’s still 18 balls in play. Remember how those favors did when it came to batting average on balls in play? Not that much worse than the league average. “Even if we add extreme further penalty in the case of Hayes, for whom we could assume the outfielders could play 30 steps shallower than normal,” Guttridge wrote, “we could give him half of a normal BABIP, or a third, and we still couldn’t escape the expectation of getting hits on balls in play.”
So! With a 97% strikeout rate, and a .100 batting average on balls in play — well worse than baseball’s ever seen — Hayes would get 1.8 hits.
Almost two hits! That’s more than one! “Under seemingly the most ungenerous assumptions,” as Guttridge pointed out. “It’s likely wiser and more realistic to expect a few more. Doesn’t hurt that, as a lefty, he’s closer to first base.”
So, it seems likely that Chris Hayes — or you or me, for that matter — might get one or two hits if given a full season of at-bats. For one, that would be one terrible season, full of boos from the crowd and side-eyeing from the players. A season you wouldn’t wish on your enemies, maybe.
And for two, this apparent fact shouldn’t take anything away from the pros. In fact, it makes their feats that much more impressive. Take a hit away from the best hitters, the hit you could manage with pure, dumb luck. They’ll have plenty of other hits based on their skill. That’s why we’re in awe of them.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.