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Is hitting contagious? Notes on an epidemiology of offense

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More in the interest of providing a shiny distraction-bauble from the events of the last couple of days than anything else, I thought I’d post some preliminary thoughts on a post I’ve been working on for the last couple weeks. As I say, this is preliminary at best, and highfalutin’ and unmoored at worst. I’m hoping to eventually work this into something more polished – and/or perhaps to simply make this an ongoing group-project diary.

One of the more exhausted baseball clichés is that "hitting is contagious." Not only is this metaphor so over-used as to have been virtually leached of all meaning, but the very precept on which the metaphor is grounded – i.e., that positive attitudes and confidence at the plate can be passed on from batter to batter, and that successful outcomes at the plate can be multiplicative from batter to batter in similar fashion – is subject to suspicion as to its veracity or falsifiability.

The metaphor also seems ludicrous when you subject it to simple logical analysis: after all, if any sport or contest were simply a matter of will and positive thinking and hortatory team-building, then Tom Cruise and Tony Robbins (or, say, Lenny Dykstra and Mark Kotsay) would be the ones poised to break Hank Aaron’s record. It also flies in the face of both sabermetric analysis (which emphasizes both the random-distribution and the predictable-outcome effects inherent in baseball matchups) and the common understanding that hitting is an endeavor where even the greatest practitioners fail 60% of the time.

But what if the metaphor were in fact true – only in a mirror of the original sense?

That is, what if hitting is in fact "contagious," not in the locus of batters, but in pitchers?

[continued after the jump]

What I’m suggesting is that there is a productive analytic metaphor to be made, wherein "offense" is viewed as a contagion in various pitching population "vectors." Sabermetrics – and, for that matter, more general baseball analysis – could potentially profit from using epidemiology (and, by extension, immunology) as a model by which to study the way in which offense "spreads" and how it can be prevented.

Epidemiology is the study of health outcomes in and across populations. The field has developed both descriptive and prescriptive powers, as an "invested" discipline with empirical research being directed toward the solving of specific problems. It also relies on statistical models that use discrete individual transactions/outcomes as base counting units, with analysis being performed at a population level. Immunology interacts with epidemiology as the basic set of mechanical interactions at the root of each transaction/outcome. The problem-solving of epidemiology is in identifying populations (and sub-populations, and individuals within sub-populations) at risk for contagion, and seeking either prophylaxes to block contagion, or the identification of contagion-resistant populations/sub-populations/individuals.

In the context of the "contagion" metaphor, immunological mechanisms are roughly equivalent to the rudiments and mechanics of pitching and hitting. A hitter is like a virus, seeking out weaknesses in the defensive organism – the primary agent of which is the pitcher. To extend the metaphor, where epidemiology uses the at-risk individual as the base counting unit, in baseball it would be the at-bat. Innate immunity – the systems and mechanisms that "dumbly"/automatically block contagion – would be equivalent to simple defensive glovework/throwing, the basic pitching repertoire, the physical limitations of fair territory and the gaps between fielders. Acquired immunity would be strategic defensive positioning from spray charts, pitch-calling ... and the MKE.*

Now, I’m not sure exactly how this metaphor could be put to use in sabermetric analysis (and, heck, perhaps it’s already been done, and/or is utterly unnecessary). Next week (ideally, with suggestions from the comments here), I’ll try to put together some more concrete thoughts on both the micro-level parallels between epidemiology/immunology and offense/pitching/defense; and in the following weeks (again, with all of your help, especially the more numerate amongst us) I’ll try to outline specific epidemiological/immunological models/tools, and how they might be useful in generating real, actionable baseball knowledge.

Once again, though I’ve been thinking and taking notes on this for a while, these thoughts are still pretty inchoate. I had been planning on working up something more authoritative and less tentative, but BDFA+2 seemed like a good a time as any to introduce an airy distraction onto the front page.

Thoughts? Criticisms? Catcalls?

*Magik Katcher Effekt