By Roger Weber
One of the issues in baseball that has always fascinated me is
the idea of "warning track power." It likely does not have too much statistical support as a notion, but it is clear that
some players have more power than others, that two players who hit a ball the same way might see two different results. A
player like Adam Dunn might see a home run while a less strong player may end up with an out.
A player who hits many fly balls and thus gets many outs might
be viewed as a power hitter if those fly balls which often are caught short of the wall go out of the park as they might in
a more hitter-friendly ballpark. It is a slight edge in strength that gives a player like Dunn a perceptional and statistical
edge over other players.
This brings up the issues of how baseballs are hit by different
players. A fly ball by Adam Dunn is more valuable than a fly ball by Sean Casey simply because it normally will travel further.
Besides home runs, what is the value of a ball traveling a greater distance in the outfield?
Imagine a baseball field, with the nine defensive players in typical
positions. Now draw a radius around each. Then draw a larger radius, and a larger one until the entire field is covered. To
account for speed differences, you may want to make the radii for the center fielder, maybe shortstop and second baseman and
right fielder a little larger and the first baseman and catcher's radii smaller. But with this diagram, there are many points
of overlap. But where are the points farthest from a player and farthest out in a radius. Well they should appear down the
lines and there should be more blank space the further back in the outfield you go. Each outfielder more or less covers a
triangular area, with the widest part of the triangle closest to the wall. It is there that he is least likely to catch the
ball because he has to not only cover the most ground but also must travel backwards to get to the ball and has further to
heave it to get it back to the infield.
So in fly balls, Adam Dunn holds more value than many other players.
But in ground balls, Dunn's value is minimal. Ichiro Suzuki, a very fast player, is likely to get on base when he hits a ground
ball. A ground ball hit by Ichiro holds more value than one hit by Dunn. For other players line drives are the most valuable
types of hits – Frank Thomas and Mark Loretta, for example.
There is a point when it comes to warning track power. It isn't
that it has a tremendous impact on the game. It is that there is more value to certain types of hits for certain players.
Generally a quicker bat speed means a stronger batter which usually means balls hit further which typically means better offensive
run producing statistics.
A value is given to pitchers based on their ground ball / fly
ball ratio. Normally the higher that ratio, the better the pitcher is thought to be. But if the pitcher is playing a team
of weak hitters, say a team with several players like Ichiro Suzuki and Carl Crawford, there is a greater value to the fly
ball since it will generally travel less far with weaker batters and more often result in outs, while a ground ball is more
likely to be a hit with quick hitters. This is one area where statisticians are often criticized – specific situations
don’t always match a uniform generalization about a player or value of a statistic.
This is also an idea that lends more value to the idea of ballpark
effects. A small ballpark could make a "warning track hitter" a star hitter because many of his long fly balls might be home
runs there. The difference in statistics would be greater than the difference shown by a generic park factor.
So much of baseball works this way. Events don't work on uniform
scales at all times. There are a few players whose batting averages on bunts are very high. Usually it is just due to a small
sample size, but if there is a player quick enough to run out bunts then the rule that bunts have little purpose except late
in close games is less valid for this player. So don't read too much into any statistical rule. Most are results of averaged
statistics. They are ideas that are usually true, but not always.
Statistical analyses and principles are often misunderstood by
fans and misused by statisticians. Bill James' ideas of the weights of the game (hitting 45%, pitching 36%, etc.) are averages,
not universal rules.