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Baseball announcers on television and radio broadcasts will use the term “at bat” multiple times every game, and fans new to the sport may be left to wonder: Exactly what is an at bat in baseball?
An at-bat in baseball is when a batter steps up to home plate to take a turn hit. Whether or not that appearance is recorded in statistics as an “at bat” or a “plate appearance” depends on the action that follows.
Officially, at-bats (denoted as AB in box scores) are counted when a player comes to the
plate, and then either safely gets a base hit, gets put out for any reason, reaches base on an error by a fielder, or hits into a fielder’s choice.
There are times when a batter is not charged an at-bat, which we will explain below. Why does it matter? Read on.
Compared with any other major team sport, baseball is driven by its statistics. There are various theories for the reason, but regardless, the sport’s fans have had a fascination with counting ever since the lead-off batter for the New York Knickerbockers stepped to the plate for the first at-bat in summer of 1845.
The National League was formed to bring top-level professional baseball to the masses in 1876, and soon thereafter league founders worked to figure out how to show the results of games visually after-the-fact ~ to serve newspapers, the biggest form of media back then. Printed paper newspapers were the dominant media delivering information to Americans at that time.
There were only a few MLB clubs back then (depending on the season and typically being about 8), and only in the major cities, which were not as large or close together as they are today. (Plus there were no commercial air flights then).
Spreading the popularity of baseball outside of the cities would have to depend on ingenuity, since people living outside of cities could hardly drive all the way into the city often to attend games live. Some could not afford it, or could not get off of work for games that had to be played in daylight.
So baseball leaders figured out a way for newspapers to publish the results of games in a manner that people could almost follow the action by reading it. The end result was the box score, a game summary written out in chart style, based on the scoreboard and baseball scorebook from the game.
The original box score actually looks a lot like those today found still in newspapers, but more often seen online. They include a list of players on both teams in rows, followed by columns to the right tallying how they performed in a number of hitting and pitching categories.
The starting point in box scores for hitters is the number of at bats recorded by each batter. It shows who had the most opportunities to hit, who took advantage of it, the damage caused (e.g. runs scored or knocked in), etc. Basically a lot of numbers above zero meant the batter produced.
The at bat is the foundation of 1 of the most important statistics in early baseball: the batting average. This number, conveyed as a decimal point followed by 3 numbers (e.g. .250), helped baseball coaches, fans, and journalists identify which batters were better than others.
Generally, .300 is the dividing line between excellence and mediocrity. The higher the average over .300, like Ted Williams’ .406 in 1941, the better the performance. As averages are lower, the worse the performance.
Many insiders consider hitting above .250 as doing fairly well; and above .275 generally is good hitting. Reaching the magical .300 point indicates excellence.
The batting average is obtained by dividing the number of total hits (all singles, doubles, triples, and home runs obtained by a player in a game, series, or season), by the number of at bats recorded. If a batter gets 4 at bats and produces 1 hit, for example, use 1 divided by 4, which is .25 (25% in everyday vernacular), for a .250 batting average in baseball.
Baseball in the 2nd half of the 19th century featured a lot of tinkering with the rules, as leaders of the sport tried to find the perfect balance of offense and defense so the game would be more attractive to players and fans.
As the box score (and batting averages) became popular, people noticed that certain batters were kind of penalized for doing things that actually helped the team win. Things like popping a fly ball to the outfield for a catch-out, while a runner on 3rd base was able to tag up and score.
There was a lot more bunting back then, too, to move runners forward in low-scoring affairs. All of these at bats were officially recorded as putouts, and therefore dragged down batting averages. Baseball leaders responded by excluding them from counting in official batting average compilations.
Those results are a “sacrifice fly,” where a batter is put out by a catch but a runner tags up and scores a run on the same play; bases on balls (walks); and sacrifice bunt, where a batter purposely drops a ball into the infield grass with the sole intention of moving runners forward, not caring whether or not he reaches 1st base safely.
However, those instances are counted as “plate appearances,” a statistic not used in batting averages but helpful to know nonetheless for analysis reasons. Players with a lot of plate appearances are batting a lot, meaning the lineup is turning over quite often, giving that hitter more times at the plate. It also means that the player is playing a lot of innings in most games.
For more detailed information you can have a look at this article: Why Don’t Walks and Sacrifice Bunts Count as At Bats?
Question: What is a “quality at bat”?
Answer: The term quality at bat refers to whether or not a turn to hit was productive toward the success of the team. This does not necessarily mean the batter safely reached base via base hit (nor even hit the ball, for that matter!). It could be a bunt, a hit to move runners forward and closer to home plate, or even a batter taking as many pitches as possible so his teammates can see how well a pitcher is throwing. In the last example, the batter could ultimately hit into a putout, but his action is considered a personal “sacrifice” that helped others on the team in the long run.
Q.: What does a batter have to do to get a quality at-bat?
A.: There are 8 ways a batter achieves a quality at-bat: Safe base hit; ball hit hard; base on balls (walk); hit-by-pitch; run batted in; well-placed bunt; advancing a runner to 2nd or 3rd base; or an at-bat that featured 8 or more pitches. Hall of hitter Pete Rose is the all-time MLB leader in at bats with 14,053
Q.: Who has the most career at-bats now?
A.: Only 30 MLB players have reached 10,000 career at-bats, and the list includes Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera. When those 2 retire, the most at bats will belong to Robinson Cano, with 8,773 at bats (should he continue playing past 2022). After Cano would be Elvis Andrus with 7,398 as of the 2022 season.
Q.: Are at bats timed?
A.: No, although the MLB is instituting a clock to force batters to get ready faster, starting with the 2023 season. The longest at bat recorded was that of Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants in April 2018, where he saw 21 pitches, taking 12 minutes and 45 seconds. He fouled off 16 pitches, including 10 in a row before flying out.
Q.: Are there penalties for taking too long to be ready to play in baseball games?
A.: Until 2022, only in an umpire’s head, if he chose to count seconds to possibly penalize a hitter or pitcher for unsportsmanlike conduct, for taking too long. However, it was very, very rarely called. Starting with the 2023 season, Major League Baseball will implement rule changes for the season, which includes addition of clocks for both pitchers and batters. Pitchers will have 15 seconds to throw a pitch with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on base; hitters must be in the batter’s box with 8 seconds remaining on the pitch clock. The penalty is a ball for the pitcher, or a strike on the batter.