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Baseball is full of statistics, some of which have peculiar rules in terms of how they are calculated. For instance, why don’t walks and sacrifice bunts count as at bats?
Being awarded A base on balls or completing a sacrifice bunt are not counted as official at bats to avoid penalizing a batter for what essentially are successful and positive plays.
Discovering how baseball rules were changed to keep walks and sacrifices from harming a player’s batting average takes us back to the late 19th century when modern baseball as we know it now was slowly taking shape.
- 1 Understand Baseball Over a Hundred Years Ago
- 2 Welcome, Box Score and Batting Average
- 3 At-Bat vs. Plate Appearance
- 4 Batting Average Overview
- 5 It’s All About Baseball Rules
- 6 Sacrifice Bunt Leniency
- 7 The Sacrifice Legacy
- 8 Related Questions
Understand Baseball Over a Hundred Years Ago
The baseball we see today, with major leaguers and hopeful young players alike pitching 60 feet, 6 inches away to a batter wearing a protective helmet, looks little like it did for about 50 years after baseball’s generally accepted birth year of 1839.
Pitchers delivered underhand, from a shorter distance – and they even had to pitch balls to a location requested by the batter. That’s right: during an at-bat, the hitter would tell the pitcher where he wanted the ball thrown. If a pitcher failed, he tried again, until the umpire call of a ball was introduced, and later base on balls were invented as a penalty.
At one point baseball rules called for 9 balls to be called for a batter to be awarded first base with a walk. Additionally, strikeouts once required 4 or 5 strikes instead of the long-established 3 strikes.
As the years progressed, baseball’s pioneers tinkered each year with the rules, slowly progressing toward the unified guidelines we know today.
Welcome, Box Score and Batting Average
In the waning years of the 1800s, more attention was paid to conveying how a baseball game played out to the public. Long before the advent of television or radio, fans relied mainly on newspaper accounts of games played.
Hence introduction of the box score, to show in detail how each player and team performed – and provide a uniform way to keep track of player and team statistics. Early on, only at-bats, hits, runs, runs batted in, innings pitched, earned and unearned runs and earned run average flled a box score, along with runs scored by each team per inning.
A far cry from today, when newfangled stats like on-base-plus-percentage (OPS) attract attention, during baseball’s formative years the batting average was how a batter was judged in terms of his skills and performance.
Batting average is determined by how many base hits a batter achieves compared with the number of at-bats. To calculate a batting average, simply start with the number of hits and divide it by the number of at-bats. A perfect batting average is 1.000, which no players maintain over a whole season.
At-Bat vs. Plate Appearance
Official at-bats differ from plate appearances, which do not count in tabulating a batting average. However, plate appearances are important in terms of qualifying for a batting title, awarded the players in each league with the highest batting average.
To qualify, a player must have at least 502 plate appearances logged – and plate appearances basically include any time a batter stepped into the box regardless whether he finished the at-bat. That includes walks and sacrifices.
Batting Average Overview
Over time it was determined that succeeding 3 of every 10 at-bats – for a .300 batting average – was the point separating excellence from very good. Batting below .250 equaled mediocrity, and under .215 was terrible.
But the key is this: which at-bats specifically were included in calculating the batting average? For years, baseball rules dictated that base-on-balls, or walks, be recorded as base hits. Due to this, during the latter years of the 1800s many players finished seasons batting over .400 – a feat so exceptional today that no one has accomplished it since 1941.
That changed in 1889 when rule-makers made walks irrelevant to batting averages – they just don’t denote a batter hitting except that the player reached base (with a “free pass”).
It’s All About Baseball Rules
Specifically what counts as an at-bat or not is defined in Major League Baseball’s official rules under Rule 9.02(a)(1). In summary, it defines an at bat as the number of times a hitter batted, except when no at-bat will be charged for certain circumstances. A batter gets a “free” at-bat, not charged to their batting average, when:
- When a player hits a sacrifice bunt or sacrifice fly;
- Gets awarded first base when four balls are called on pitches;
- He is hit by a pitched ball; or
- He is awarded first base due to interference or obstruction.
- The batter is replaced by another hitter before completing the at-bat. (More on “plate appearances” below).
This last situation occurs periodically when a catcher reaches too far forward, and his mitt is struck by a swinging bat. A dead ball is called by the umpire, and the batter is awarded first base regardless of the result of the swing.
To put it the other way, an at-bat counts toward a batting average when:
- A batter reaches first base for a base hit;
- The hitter reaches first base on an error by a fielder;
- The batter is called out for any reason, other than being involved with a sacrifice; or
- There is a fielder’s choice putout on the play.
Sacrifice Bunt Leniency
That same late-1800s era featured baseball styles unlike what we see today. There were very few home runs, and even the ones that occurred were considered flukes mostly. The game was a base-by-base, methodical game of bunting, running, hitting players over, and low-scoring affairs.
Batter’s bunt for three reasons: to reach base safely; to move runners along to the next base over regardless of whether he is put out; or a combination of the two, bunting for a base hit with the accessory benefit being moving runners over.
During the “dead ball” era of the late 1800s into the first two decades of the 20th century, many players “sacrificed” their at-bat in the name of moving runners forward toward hopefully scoring a run. Runs were so scarce back then that a single run very often meant the difference in the contest.
Yet batters were not always happy to be team players and sacrifice at-bats to better the team. As baseball became a big business with big stadiums and clubs charging admission, players soon realized that the numbers logged on paper each game meant potential rewards (money) down the road.
Some of those very same players were deeply involved with operations of the league, such as Henry Chadwick, credited for inventing the box score. These leading players realized that the sacrifice bunt was unlike a regular at-bat, and eventually bunts where a batter is tossed out but still manages to move runners past first, second or third base, were discounted in tabulating a batter’s average.
The Sacrifice Legacy
The two types of “sacrifices” – the sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly – do not count against a batter’s average to avoid penalizing batters for what ultimately is a successful action in game play. They move runners forward and closer to scoring runs, the true goal of baseball games.
- For sacrifice flies, hitters have not been charged with an at-bat since a rule change in 1893. It was not counted as a statistical category until 1908; and was eliminated and re-adopted several times over the 20th century.
- For base on balls, note that the strike zone was not established until 1887, and 4 balls for a walk was not set until 1889. The 1890s with so many new rules, rule changes, new teams and shifting leagues aside from the National League, became a sort-of testing decade for professional baseball.
- Many of these new rules and rule adjustments resulted in what most consider the start of “modern” baseball at the turn of the century leading up to the first World Series in 1903.
Question: What if a batter attempts a sacrifice bunt, he reaches first base safely but no runners advance?
Answer: The batter will be charged an at-bat, if no runner advanced, whether or not he made it to first base safely. If a runner was thrown or forced out on the play, the batter will be charged with a fielder’s choice in the scorebook, the equivalent of an out in terms of batting average. Whenever a batter is put out when bunting it’s recorded as an at-bat regardless of intention.