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Keeping the At Bat Alive

Part of Luis Rodriguez's appeal, aside from not being Chone Figgins, is that fans consider him a battler at the plate. The prolonged at bat against the Blue Jays on April 11 that eventually won the game in the bottom of the ninth conceived the idea. Once formed, it took root and now nary a Rodriguez at bat can go by without a mention of the plaudit. Wary of our ability to self-deceive and remember events that conform to our already established narrative, I decided today to search for quantifiable evidence of this general impression.

Luis's average of 3.9 pitches seem per plate appearance is certainly good, but that is not telling quite the right story as Figgins is at 4.0 and nobody ever considers him a battler. There had to be a better formula that I could make that would capture that "not giving in" feeling. It struck me that battling in the sense that we often use it only begins to take place when the hitter has his back to the wall. In baseball terms that would mean he has two strikes on him. From there it was a matter of separating potential actions of the hitter.

That is when I recognized that with two strikes already, the batter cannot make himself worse off by fouling a pitch away. That and taking a ball are the only two ways for a batter to remain in the at bat in fact. Taking a called strike or swinging and missing both result in a strikeout and a ball in play obviously ends the matter as well. That realization crystallized in my mind what I think of when it comes to battling, keeping the at bat going. Some of the in play batted balls are good results but personally, I do not feel like the eventual positive or negative consequence of the at bat is directly related to our impression of how much the hitter fought the pitcher.

At first, I only counted the number of pitches that each hitter has taken for a ball or fouled off while in a two-strike count. The leader there is Justin Smoak with 129, but he also has had many more opportunities than Luis Rodriguez and some others so that hardly seems fair. That led me to my final step for now wherein I decided to take the ratio of the life-preserving balls and fouls compared to the other possible outcomes. In other words, given a two-strike count, how often did a hitter keep the at bat alive?

Disregarding Erik Bedard and other players with fewer than 25 trips to the plate, Luis Rodriguez does indeed appear at the top. Among 80 pitches faced in such a circumstance, Luis has taken 36 for a ball and fouled off another 20 for a 70% rate of delaying the end and forcing more pitches. The spread between the two options is also of minor interest to me. Jack Cust is about three times more likely to take a ball than foul off a pitch while Figgins is nearly 50/50.

Luis' current rate of 70% is third in all of baseball right now behind Jim Thome and Casey Blake. In case you were wondering, or even if you weren't, Vernon Wells is last in baseball at 43%. Amusingly, also bad in this metric is Adam Kennedy with a Mariner-worst 47%.

One concern I had is that this gives no indication of how often a hitter ends up in a two-strike count to begin with. Battling in two-strike counts is a good thing, but avoiding them all together is also good. However, that is no worry either for Luis as only 42% of his plate appearances thus far in 2011 have found their way into a two-strike count. That is the second lowest on the team to Ichiro and much better than some of our biggest hole diggers like Michael Saunders at 61%.

In conclusion, at least by my own just devised equation, Luis Rodriguez truly deserves a reputation this year as a battler. I went into this skeptical that he was so clearly worthy of the label and throughout all the steps I went through I was agnostic as to how the results would come out so I am bit surprised. Now if only he could stop hitting below the Mendoza Line.