Ted Williams, Saberist

One of my first encounters with sabermetrics came when I was a kid visiting Cooperstown for the first time. There, in that house of tradition and history of all places, was an exhibit of baseballs bolted to the wall in the shape of a strike zone, each one painted some colour with some number written on it. The number was a batting average, and the colour corresponded to how hot or cold the average was (from grey or blue for the mid-.200s all the way up to deep red for .400). Together, they replicated a famous chart Ted Williams had put together by keeping track of how well he hit pitches in any location in the zone. Using this information, Williams estimated how well he would be expected to hit on a pitch thrown to any location in the strike zone. You could plainly see his weakness down and away, exacerbated after he shattered his elbow in 1950, as well as how quickly that target zone for pitches turned into a .380+ wheelhouse for Williams if the pitcher missed by the slightest of margins.

I later learned that the chart the exhibit was based on was from a book Williams had written called The Science of Hitting (I probably learned it reading the info from the exhibit, actually, but I relearned and remembered it later). The book embraced the objective, analytical thought processes that form the basis of sabermetrics. Nowadays, analysts like Jeremy Greenhouse are still building on the work Ted Williams was doing already decades ago. So when I was browsing through interviews of the Splendid Splinter recently, it's really no surprise to find him espousing sabermetric wisdom right and left.

Tangotiger of The Book Blog recently praised contemporary sabermetric spokesman Brian Bannister for speaking intelligently on the role of luck in the game. While a player's skill is clearly a huge part of his success or failure in the game, it's also impossible to ignore that random chance also factors into that success, and sometimes the effects of that random chance can play a significant role. As one of the most sabermetrically-minded players in the game today, Bannister understands this.

So too, it seems, did Ted Williams. From a Sports Illustrated interview:

TW: I've been a very lucky guy. Even I know how lucky I've been, especially in my baseball career. Anybody who thinks he's had great success or outstanding success, he's a lucky guy. You're damn right.


One of the key ideas to understanding future performance in baseball is that if someone has performed at a spectacular level, and you want to estimate how he will perform in the future, chances are he will not perform as highly as he did before. That concept is usually called regression to the mean. Basically, if you have a hitter who just hit for a .400 wOBA, it is possible that his actual expected level of performance is .400, and he hit just like he was expected too, and it's possible that he is really an expected .420 hitter who got unlucky and only hit .400, but it's more likely that he's really an expected .380 hitter who got a bit lucky to hit .400. Another way to look at it is if you take all the hitters who hit for a .400 wOBA over a given period of time, and you look at what they do after that. A few of them will keep hitting at .400 or better, but most of them will regress, and as a group, they are very likely to hit at a lower level going forward. If you take any one hitter from that group and try to predict whether he will be one of the few who improves or one of the many who declines, the odds are greater that he will decline.

That's why whenever we have a player who has performed at a high level, we know, with some degree of certainty, that he was a really good player, but we also know that there was a better than average chance that he was a bit lucky too, and that he really hit a bit higher than his expected level of performance. Ted Williams sums this up rather succinctly in the above quotation.

He expands on this in another interview, this time with Esquire:

Somebody will hit .400, maybe .410 or .415. Oh, you bet. It’s a hard thing to do. Ya gotta be lucky. Baseball might be a little tougher today. They bring in a new pitcher any old time. Ya gotta go through that whole ritual again of trying to find out as much as ya can on six pitches. Ya hit at him four times, ya got a chance of gettin’ him locked in a little better.

In addition to the special bonus material discussing the benefit of facing a hitter multiple times through the order and the added difficulty of hitting relievers even though they are worse pitchers talent-wise than starters (these are among the subjects explored in the modern sabermetric masterpiece The Book), we see Williams again discussing the role of luck, this time in perhaps his most historic feat as the last hitter to bat .400. Williams again says it simply, "Ya gotta be lucky." When he says someone will hit for a .400 AVG again, he acknowledges the role of chance in the game, that there is random variation in a hitter's performance, and that while no one is truly an expected .400 AVG hitter, sometimes, by chance, hitters hit several points above their actual talent level, and that if you have enough true .330 hitters play enough seasons, eventually one of them will get lucky and hit .400. You've got to be good to even have a chance, but you've also got to be lucky to be the one it happens to.

Going back to the Hall of Fame exhibit, Williams marked his hottest zone right at the center of the strike zone, 1 ball wide and 3 balls high. In that area, just 3 balls across, Williams estimated that he was a true .400 hitter. That was as good as he got, and nowhere else in the zone was even Ted Williams that good. When he hit .400, it was basically like he hit the whole season as if pitchers were grooving every pitch right down the middle to him. Obviously, they weren't putting every pitch right down the middle, so it's easy to see from the chart how it is impossible that Williams could have hit .400 simply because that was his true talent level, and not because he was a ridiculously good hitter who also benefited from some good luck that season and hit better than his expected level. He had to have gotten lucky, and Williams openly acknowledges this.

Earlier in the Esquire interview, Williams discusses another way in which he was lucky:

I was lucky. I’m talkin’ about the fifty thousand balls that was thrown at me, the times I slid, the times I fell. You gotta be lucky to have longevity in any sport. It’s a tough routine. Some people are just a little inherently more tough than the next guy. I think that’s God-given genetics.

Williams had a truly great career as one of the best hitters the game has ever seen. He hit like no one else in the game, and he kept doing it from the time he broke into the Majors at age 20 right up into his 40s. It takes incredible talent and devotion to do that, but, as Williams plainly points out, it takes a lot of luck too. Even with all the talent and desire and work ethic in the world, you can still end up like Herb Score or Dick Allen or Andre Dawson or Jim Edmonds or Ralph Kiner, players whose luck broke the wrong way, to varying degrees, at one time or another and left them never quite the same. Bad luck can push you right out of the game; it can leave you a semi-productive shell hanging around for years; it can even leave you a still-immense talent, robbing you only of the chance to be one of the small handful to reach the Ruthian peak of the game's history. However it gets you, it can get anyone at any time, and for all the players who may have had the talent and everything else to reach that peak, very few have the luck Williams did to be allowed to actually reach it.

None of this is intended to take anything away from how great Ted Williams really was. Williams was an honest and candid man who had no trouble placing himself among the handful of greatest hitters of all-time, and he was absolutely right to place himself there (and this isn't to say he was arrogant about it either; he also refused to claim to be the greatest hitter ever or that he had distinguished himself from the other handful of greatest hitters even as many felt he was and had). The same honesty let him publish his chart saying that he was only truly a .400 hitter on the very fattest of pitches, and saying that if the pitcher could paint the lower-outside corner perfectly against him, he could be reduced to a .230 hitter. Part of that honesty is that Williams had the sense to understand that no matter how great he was, his greatness was enabled by good fortune along the way, and that no amount of greatness can erase the role of chance and luck in the game. It's that honest pursuit of objective knowledge of the game that makes Ted Williams a perfect pioneer in the field of sabermetrics. He looked for the truth of the game around him and learned to understand its workings, and then he very matter-of-factly presented the truths he learned with no bias toward his own career or his teammates or anything other than what he saw to be true. And that, in essence, is sabermetrics.

3 comments:

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