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Someone makes a great fielding play to end an inning, and he turns out to be the leadoff batter in the next. What do the commentators say?
"As so often happens."
And they leave it at that! In this day and age in baseball, in the era of the stat, they leave it at that! "As so often happens."
Here, surely, is what we want to know, what we are entitled to know in this era of many numbers: as how often happens?
Maybe—I hate to say this, but hey, this is hardball—maybe this last out-leadoff thing doesn't actually happen all that often. If it doesn't, then that myth needs to be exploded.
But if it does happen a statistically significant percentage of the time, then modern managers need to know precisely what that percentage is. Say you're the manager. Say you've got a lefthanded pull hitter on deck in a key situation with two outs, and you know the opposing rightfielder is going to lead off the next inning. If there is a 48.3% chance of that rightfielder making a great catch, you'll want to factor that into your decision whether to pinch-hit either a righthanded pull hitter or (ideally, if the opposing pitcher is righthanded) a lefthanded hitter who can go to the opposite field.
Furthermore, serious analysts will want to figure out why this phenomenon occurs so often. Does looking forward to leading off the next inning make a fielder peppy, cheerful, alert—and impatient to get this half inning over with? Or is it possible that a fielder facing the unpleasant prospect of leading off against, say, Nolan Ryan (who, as everyone knows, retired the leadoff man 77% of the time last year) is subconsciously inclined to make a diving stab in hopes that he will be hurt and therefore get removed from the game?
We cannot begin to study these questions until we have the figures. Broken down all kinds of ways. So I went to that fount of such information, an outfit called Stats, Inc., and asked the people there if they would compute how often the fielder who makes a great play for the third out leads off the next inning. They revealed this chilling truth: At present, we have no way of knowing.
Stats, Inc. explained that it could run a program to determine how often the fielder who makes the inning-ending play becomes the next leadoff hitter. "But I can guarantee you," said a Stats, Inc. spokesman, "it will be 11 percent [i.e., one ninth] of the time." Well, maybe so, but what about the DH in the American League? And what about inning-I ending strikeouts? Regardless, that program would not tell us anything about great plays.
Stats, Inc. did run a program that determined that last season the fielder who made the play for the last out on a hard-hit ball was the first batter up 11.1% of the time and that the fielder who made the play for the last out on a soft-hit ball was the first batter up 12.2% of the time. But because hard-hit balls may make for easy plays, and great plays may be made on soft-hit balls, those stats, though they are good to have, don't prove anything. (There were also numbers available for plays made on a medium-hit ball. What is a medium-hit ball?)