Aiming a hit baseball.
July 17, 2007 9:14 PM   Subscribe

Are major league baseball players capable of intentionally hitting a pitch to a desired location on the field?

Or do they just get up there and try to make contact? I know they are capable of intentionally hitting sacrifice flies, or swinging softer or harder like swinging for the fences vs. trying for a base hit. I am curious about whether or not they can pick a location on the field and hit it there.
posted by comatose to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It isn't possible to reliably choose a destination for a hit unless the pitcher is being kind -- which shouldn't ever happen in a real game. (It isn't even possible to reliably hit without the pitcher being kind. No player in 40 years has had a batting average as high as .400.)

But they can change the probabilities, depending on what they're trying to accomplish. They can increase the chance of grounder, or a fly, or of going left, or whatever.

And they can bunt.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:17 PM on July 17, 2007

I like to add that any player who could do what you're saying could go to the Yankees and ask for the key to the corporate treasury, and they'd give it to him.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:18 PM on July 17, 2007

How precise are you talking? You can go the opposite way, or pull the ball. I suspect that a person could spend all of his or her time trying to hit batting practice pitches to precise spots. But that would make for a terrible player. The energy spent on hitting BP easy would be wasted because pitchers aren't going to throw BP to you, they are trying to get you out.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:41 PM on July 17, 2007

Well, according to legend, Babe Ruth once called a shot -- once -- and the experts are still arguing about it 75 years later. I would say no.
posted by dhartung at 9:42 PM on July 17, 2007

that any player who could do what you're saying could go to the Yankees

posted by Heywood Mogroot at 10:15 PM on July 17, 2007

Are major league baseball players capable of intentionally hitting a pitch to a desired location on the field?

The answer is yes, the good ones can, with the limitations described by Ironmouth and SCDB -- that is, they are increasing probabilities ... even significantly so ... but never making a 100 percent guarantee.

This is done through shifts in footwork, changing batting stances, adjusting swings and only swinging at certain pitches.

The opposite is true, too -- pitchers can prey on poor batters (or even a great batter) and increase the chances he will hit to a specific area. This allows the defense to shift their locations to maximize their chances of making easy put-outs.

Probably the best player in the big leagues right now for spreading their hits around is Ichiro Suzuki.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:16 PM on July 17, 2007

No player in 40 years has had a batting average as high as .400.

It's actually been 66 years, but batting average isn't necessarily the most reliable measure of an ability like this one.

Hitting batting-practice quality pitches, many major leaguers could certainly hit the ball in the direction they choose. Many could also hit the ball to about the distance they would like as well. Watch batting practice before a ballgame -- you're likely to see hitters trying all kinds of different swings to hit the ball to different parts of the park. And they're very, very good at it.

If you're asking whether a hitter could reliably and repeatedly hit bp-quality pitches directly to an area on the field, I think you'd be surprised at how successfully major league hitters could do it.

If you're asking about game situations, that's different. Facing different pitches and situations (not to mention the pressures of playing the game), it's much more difficult to reliably hit the ball to a desired spot. However, situational hitting often depends on hitters being able to direct the ball to a very specific part of the field.

The hit-and-run, for instance, pulls a middle infielder towards second base, opening up a hole in the infield. The hitter's goal is to poke the ball straight through that gap. It can be difficult to execute on, but that's why managers call the hit and run when they expect pitches they believe their hitter is more likely to be able to direct successfully. And yep, it works. Major league ballplayers are awfully good at it.

There are a lot of players who have built their careers on intentionally slapping singles to the opposite field or wherever else they can find holes in the infield (Brett Butler and Juan Pierre come to mind).

Others who have (or have had) uncanny skills in directing the ball where they'd like it to go:

- Ichiro is incredibly gifted at adjusting to pitches and situations and finding gaps in the field. He's probably the best current example. Check out the way he adjusts his swing over the course of an at-bat if you get a chance to watch an M's game.

- Hall of Famer Wade Boggs. Check out his 1987 season. As the story goes, he was put under some pressure to hit for more power before the season, so he decided to hit more home runs. Because he could.

That's not to say every major league hitter could hit as reliably as these guys in game situations. Power hitters like Barry Bonds or Ryan Howard, for example, aren't paid to hit the ball to spots around the park. They're paid to swing hard and hit it far, so they might not even have much interest in being that reliably accurate.

But yes, it can be done better than you might expect.
posted by sellout at 11:17 PM on July 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

No player in 40 years has had a batting average as high as .400.

I'd also like to add that the question is about hitting to specific areas on the field, and not an actual batting average -- there are multiple variations as to what constitutes a "hit" vs. "making contact." Batting average is not the yardstick here -- after all, I can deliberately direct a batted ball to the opposite field and still be thrown out.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:24 PM on July 17, 2007

If either batting or hitting was overwhelming, the game wouldn't be worth playing. There has to be some reasonable balance between offense and defense to keep the game interesting.

(That's why the NBA banned the zone defense: it made pro basketball boring to watch.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:41 AM on July 18, 2007

@Steven C. Den Beste: You can now play zone defense in the NBA as of 2001.
posted by EastCoastBias at 5:34 AM on July 18, 2007

Yes, they can, but not every time. Batters are always trying to guess what kind of pitch is coming in. On those occasions where they guess correctly, and they are attempting to hit to a spot, they do. It's a game of averages.
posted by mzurer at 6:34 AM on July 18, 2007

You already know intuitively that if they could - successfully that is (defined as a hit) - with the historical mean batting average at .265 or so (of course that's a 75% fail rate), that they suck at it. And that's if you grant that they try every time.

In a sport where you hit a sphere coming at you between 70 and 100 mph with a round stick, your question can have a lot of answers.

If you say "success" doesn't mean getting a hit, just the art of placing a batted ball in a area and you divide the field in half, right and left of second base then a pro probably can pick right/left about 90% of the time. When you narrow the parameters, say to the ten feet behind the wall or the 100 square feet around the left fielder, the success will drop. Remember the pitcher is actively working against you as well.

Deduct outs and you can generally get a sense of the success rate with the stats. I say generally because when players try to consciously try to place a ball in a area they are less "successful" than when they allow the whole field as a possibility.
posted by Kensational at 7:14 AM on July 18, 2007

sellout and Cool Papa Bell, among others, have very good answers. It depends, on the game situation, the pitcher, and the batter.

As Cool Papa Bell points out, teams have responded to Ted Williams (and today, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz), all terrific lefty hitters for power and average, by placing an extra fielder on the right side of the diamond. That shows that some of the very best hitters are disinclined to go the opposite way, or have great difficulty doing so.

Going the opposite way is, I think, usually more of a response to an individual pitch than something a batter sets out to do going up to the plate. If you're thinking "go the opposite way" and you get a fastball inside, you're in trouble. But if you get an outside pitch, and you can stay on it (ie, not swing ahead of the pitch), you can send it the other way by bringing the bat head around a fraction of a second later.

As everyone's pointed out, Ichiro is probably the best guy to watch at this today. Consistently aiming where you're hitting the ball comes at the expense of power-- you're much more reactive to the pitch, trying to poke it through a hole, rather than taking a strong swing for power.
posted by ibmcginty at 9:07 AM on July 18, 2007

Tony Gwynn (who came reasonably close to .400 quite a few times in his career) was famous for slapping singles through what he called the 5.5 hole, between the shortstop and third baseman (the third baseman being "5" on a scoresheet and the shortstop being "6"). Obviously not always successful, but good enough at it that he'll be entering the H.O.F. in a couple weeks because of it.
posted by LionIndex at 9:20 AM on July 18, 2007

Some hitters are better at it than others, and most lineups include a couple of guys known for it. Polanco on the Tigers is excellent at the hit and run, and placing the ball accounts for a good part of A-Rod's RBIs. In fact, RBIs would probably be a better stat to use when comparing batters' ability to place the ball where they wanted it (though even then, you'd have to control for line up and situation).

But Cool Papa Bell and Sellout are much more on this than SCDB.
posted by klangklangston at 12:13 PM on July 18, 2007

I don't think I disagree with CPB or Sellout.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:38 PM on July 18, 2007

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