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Baseball discussions about plate appearance vs. at bat may seem irrelevant. But a closer look should reveal significant differences in the terms’ meanings — and indicate which term most fairly records a batter’s success in terms of game strategy.
The at bat is better in terms of truly indicating how successful a batter performed during a turn with the bat.
Dividing Point: Judging Batter Performances
What’s different between a recorded at bat and a plate appearance? An at-bat is officially logged when a batter reaches base safely through a base hit, fielder’s choice or error (excluding the catcher’s interference error), or when a batter is put out in any way that is not considered a sacrifice. On the other hand, plate appearances are counted for each completed turn batting, regardless of what happened.
The key is whether a turn hitting resulted in a base on balls, hit by pitch, or sacrifice. Those hitting results are not counted as official at bats — so they do not impact a hitter’s statistics, as if the turn with the bat never happened.
However those same results are indeed recorded as plate appearances. The importance of this distinction is outlined below.
The Nitty-Gritty of At Bats and Plate Appearances
Batting Average Computation 101
A hitter’s batting average is computed by:
- Taking the number of base hits; and
- Dividing it by the number of official at bats over a game or season.
A perfect batting average is 1.000 — which never occurs after a game or two. Hitting a baseball is the most difficult single action in sports. No one, ever, will bat 1.000 for a full season.
But hitting the ball well a third of the time means a hitter is doing well. The .300 batting average is the unofficial line between excellence, and fairly well.
Basically an at bat occurs when a final verdict is achieved: safe or out, in baseball terms.
Plate Appearance at a Glance
Baseball rules further outline a plate appearance as a “completed turn” batting, no matter the result. That is, finishing an at bat in some manner, like with a walk.
To put it simply, a plate appearance records every time a player steps into the batter’s box, and some “result” occurs — even if only a single pitch. Something that can be recorded that the batter participated.
Basically, the plate appearance is about participation in batting during a game; an at bat is a record of its official conclusion — as in, a hit or an out.
The plate appearance is important mainly to determine leaders for batting categories at season’s end (See below). At the end of each 162-game MLB season, a player must have had 502 plate appearances to qualify for batting titles. (Basically, 3.1 at bats per game; you have to play a lot to win a batting title).
Plate appearances carry no value in a game-strategy sense, as they are not really indicators of success during game play. Yet, baseball still tracks “leaders” in plate appearances, like Pete Rose with his career-accumulated 15,890 plate appearances, or shortstop Jimmy Rollins who had the most PAs in one season with 778 in 2007.
Why the DIfference Between At Bats and Plate Appearances?
The difference is an effort to not punish batters for sacrificing his opportunity to perform (and therefore benefit), in exchange for action that could help his team win. It all comes down to trying to be fair to the batter, in terms of the batting average and other statistics.
From 1863 to 1886, walks counted as an at bat but nothing else – counting against a player’s batting average and providing no upside. So you might ask: why would a batter take a walk?
In 1887, the rule was changed to record each walk as a base hit – boosting averages for a season. It did not last long: in 1888, batters were exempt from an official at bat for a walk.
Later, as bunting to sacrifice yourself to move base runners forward became not only commonplace but imperative during a low-scoring era of baseball, rule-makers decided it was unfair to punish a batter with an out for doing what truly was a successful, productive action. That is, moving runners closer to touching home plate.
Not long thereafter it was decided to do the same for the sacrifice fly ball, since batters became adept at knocking high balls to outfielders when a runner was on third base. In this case, if a runner makes it home on a fly-ball out, the batter does not get an at bat recorded against him therefore protecting his batting average.
Could you imagine today if bases on balls counted against a batter’s statistics? With MLB players more than ever trying to build their play numbers to help negotiate the next big contract, if walks hurt averages players would swing at nearly any pitch. Why walk then, right?
On the flip side, what if walks were recorded officially as base hits? How many poor hitters would always wait around for the base on balls? Games could drag on forever …
Rule-makers over the years have considered what to do with a hitter who is standing in the batter’s box when some action elsewhere on the field, or a manager’s decision, occurs to end his turn at bat. For instance:
- A batter is not credited with a plate appearance if, while he’s batting, a base runner is put out on the basepaths for a third out, in a way other than by the batter putting the ball into play. This means by being caught stealing or picked off a base. When this occurs, the same batter resumes his turn batting the following inning with a fully new count (no balls or strikes).
- It gets complicated when a batter takes at least one pitch, maybe more, then gets replaced with a pinch hitter. Basically it depends on whether or not there are already 2 strikes. If a pinch-hitter arrives with none or one strike, he gets the plate appearance (and possible at bat). However, if there are 2 strikes on a batter and a pinch hitter replaces him and then strikes out, the plate appearance and at bat are charged to the first hitter.
- For pitchers there’s hardly a difference between the two. Because pitchers’ records and statistics are based on the number of outs recorded while he pitched, and (primarily) runs scored against his team while he was on the mound, most pitchers could care less about either designation. An out is an out, as they say.
Question: Are sacrifice flies that easy to hit, to be considered equally with the sacrifice bunt?
Answer: Adept major league hitters can usually adjust their approach and swing during an at bat to focus on certain pitchers to loft balls into the outfield. This, however, is not always easy since pitchers know what the batter wants to do and can tend to throw very inside, outside or low to prevent fly balls. It’s one of many cat-and-mouse games played in baseball between pitchers and hitters.
Q.: How did Jimmy Rollins get 778 plate appearances in one season?
A.: A combination of reasons: He batted first in his team’s lineup the entire season; he played almost every game; he got a lot of base hits; and he walked a lot or was hit by pitches. That title is astounding considering it amounts to 4.8 at bats during each game. Clearly, the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies could hit and ensured Rollins came to the plate often.
Q.: Did anyone come close to, but not quite at, the 502-plate appearances threshold to qualify for a batting title?
A.: Yes, and it’s complicated. Outfielder Melky Cabrera in 2012 finished the season with 501 plate appearances, only to qualify for the batting title due to a loophole of MLB rules. Cabrera to his credit requested to be removed from consideration anyway, due to his suspension that season for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Even with the loophole, Cabrera’s BA was far ahead of the competition (.346 to .339, which in baseball terms over many games and at bats is quite considerable.).
Q.: Are there any batting title-related quirks?
A.: Yes, throughout MLB history. One: Bill Mueller, Boston Red Sox, 2003. Mueller batted 8th out of 9 in the lineup nearly every day, so it’s intriguing to baseball insiders how he won the batting title. Mueller had a phenomenal season, no doubt, but upon closer inspection consider how close it was (with his own teammate, no doubt!):
- Mueller, BOS: .326
- Manny Ramirez, BOS: .325
Ramirez was a fierce hitter known throughout the league as a slugger extraordinaire. Mueller meanwhile hit little before, or after, that season. Which, by the way, he was surrounded in a batting lineup that compares well with the best ever – with David Ortiz, Johnny Damon, etc.
This reflects on a note mentioned above: the number of at bats and plate appearances can be impacted greatly by where a player bats in the lineup day in, day out. Players usually set higher in a batting order most often finish a season with more at-bats, than players who bat at the bottom of a lineup.
Mueller snuck by batting way at the bottom – yet he delivered, and excelled.
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