Baseball players obsess over batting average, a statistic honored by tradition despite its shortcomings.
It is possible to help score while hurting the batting average. It is possible to hurt the team in pursuit of batting average glory.
For years, Wichita State coaches talked about quality at-bats in a general sense. This season, they are getting specific and defining quality at-bats with numbers.
"We were trying to get guys' brains off of batting average," assistant coach Jim Thomas said. "My hope was they would see the importance of more than 'I got a base hit or I didn't.' "
Thomas found a chart and a system at a coaches convention in January. It rewards players for standards such as walks and hits, as well as more nuanced production such as seeing at least eight pitches in an at-bat or a well-placed bunt.
"A quality AB can be moving a runner over," designated hitter Preston Swinger said. "We've had guys that squared balls up, right at players, and you've can't do anything about that. It's still a quality AB."
WSU (29-17, 10-5 Missouri Valley Conference) plays at Creighton (22-17, 9-9) in a three-game series beginning today. A resurgent offense carried the Shockers to wins over Kansas, Oklahoma State and MVC leader Illinois State last week. Tuesday's 6-4 loss to Oral Roberts represents a step back that coach Gene Stephenson hopes is temporary.
"I'm frustrated, a little bit, with our offense because we make bad decisions," Stephenson said. "Some people have not bought into the fact that they need to make adjustments. If we make the same approaches that we made (against Oral Roberts), we're going to lose to Creighton."
Strikeouts and groundballs are the biggest killers of quality at-bats, two issues that hurt WSU on Tuesday. The Shockers struck out nine times. But they also hit some balls hard — most notably Chris O'Brien missing extra bases by a few inches with the bases loaded — with no reward.
The quality at-bat chart seeks to organize some of baseball's randomness.
Volunteer assistant Brandon Hall charts at-bats during games to record how the at-bat fits into one of eight categories. He assigns numbers to weak grounders and routine fly balls and everything in between. A line-drive out is a 5 — quality. Beating the ball into the turf for an out is a 1 — not quality. Strikeouts are bad, unless the hitter saw eight or more pitches.
"You get a guy over from second to third or you get a guy in on a groundball — these things go down as 0 for 1," WSU outfielder Ryan Jones said. "You look here and it's a positive at-bat and it helps the team out."
The goal is to reach 50 percent of quality at-bats. That usually means a win. Reaching more than 60 percent should mean a big scoring night — WSU's high is 68 percent against Kansas in a 22-7 victory. Innings in which the Shockers work three or four quality at-bats together usually produce multiple runs.
In WSU's past six games, the Shockers had quality at-bats 53 percent of the time. They went 4-2, scoring 22 runs against Kansas, 13 against Oklahoma State and 22 in three games at Illinois State. They totaled 10 or more hits in four of those games.
When WSU went 9-1 to start the season, with 55 percent quality at-bats. They dropped to 41 percent during a 4-6 stretch that followed.
"The most important thing is to string them together," third baseman Nate Goro said. "If there's a guy on third and you hit a sac fly, that's a quality at-bat. You may not get a hit for it. It definitely helps the team out."
Freshman Erik Harbutz led WSU with a 71-percent rate the past six games. outfielder Bret Bascue, with a .443 batting average, leads the team with 57 percent quality at-bats. Shortstop Tyler Grimes, whose batting average has slumped to .260, is at 56 percent, which reflects his team lead in walks and hit by pitch.
The Shockers get the report from Hall every 10 games.
"You can get those numbers, and you're in front of everybody, so you want to get that percentage as high as possible," Harbutz said. "You're competing to get that as high as possible."