Guest post by Jack Shannon
While lurking through the NWLA Tournament’s Twitter mentions on the flight home from Columbus, I couldn’t help but see a number of outsiders criticizing the rules of the tournament. The main issue in their eyes: pitching. They complained that the pitching was too hard to hit and contained too many walks. I wouldn’t say either of those claims are all that controversial. I invited family to come watch the NWLA Tournament in 2013 and they left for a bar after a couple hours because they said it was the most boring form of wiffleball they’d ever seen. I don’t blame them (I mean, I do blame them for voluntarily giving up a weekend to go to Dublin, Ohio, but that’s neither here nor there), but I don’t think things are as bad as they seem.
But rather than dismiss these complaints out of hand, I think that we should look at some data and examine whether or not there is a legit grievance. I took NWLA data from the last 5 years and compared it to data from the last 5 years of the PWL. Since the PWL is a medium-pitch league (colloquially referred to as “Granny Pitch” in Southern Michigan), it should serve as a good proxy for what a “balanced” – i.e., good combinationn of pitching and hitting – format would look like.
Is NWLA Pitching Too Hard?
Let’s first examine the basic claim that it’s just too hard to hit NWLA pitching. Here are the 5 year averages from the PWL and NWLA Tournament for a selected number of basic hitting metrics. This should give a very simple look at pitching difficulty.
First, it does not appear that it is any more difficult to hit a home run in the NWLA than it is in the PWL. It’ll be claimed that the NWLA numbers are inflated in pool play when the best pitchers usually don’t pitch. But I’ll counter that by pointing out that half of the PWL teams don’t have serviceable pitchers at all. And as the all-time PWL home run king, I’ll fully admit that I racked up home runs against bad pitching. Bottom line: it is hard to hit good pitchers. Anecdotally, this year’s NWLA Tournament also saw 3 “elite” pitchers each give up home runs for the first time in their NWLA careers (Farkas, Harley, and Shannon).
The all-time batting average of .245 (note: the weighted average is actually .244 – in case someone wants to get picky with the methodology here) is not all that low. Sure, it’s decidedly lower than the .307 average of the PWL, but this is where I point out that we have a 27 mph speed limit. All of a sudden, that .307 average looks pretty pathetic, huh? The MLB league-wide batting average for the past 5 years averaged .253. “Are you seriously comparing wiffleball to the MLB?” Yes. If the NWLA wants to be seen as showcasing the best of the best in wiffleball, surely we can’t complain if our batting averages roughly mirror the MLB average, right? I mean, we are the best in the country at this “sport,” right? Right? RIGHT?!
NWLA players strike out in 43.8% of their at-bats compared to 30.2% in the PWL. I say again, the difference may seem large at first glance. But remember that we’re talking about 27 mph in the PWL, here. I imagine that if we bumped our speed limit up to 30 mph, strikeouts would rise fairly significantly. By the way, this is wiffleball – the ball was invented to move all over the place. A good pitcher is supposed to throw pitches that are hard to hit. There should be a lot of strikeouts in wiffleball. So I’m not sure the NWLA strikeout rate is anything to worry about. Go look at your bat on the bench.
Since we do not have walks in the PWL, I’m not going to even attempt to put that number in perspective. Someone with data from a league with walks will have to tackle that one.
Is NWLA Pitching Getting Better or Worse?
Let’s move onto the subject of whether NWLA pitching is getting harder or easier to hit.
At first glance, it’s easy to see two main trends: strikeouts are going up and home runs are going up. You would think those would head in opposite directions. More strikeouts would seem to imply harder pitching. Harder pitching would seem to imply less home runs. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ is all I can say.
The walk rate has remained very steady at the 25%-28% range. I would’ve expected the walk numbers to decrease generally each year. For leagues like the PWL who don’t play fast-pitch, it would appear logical that they would get better at fast pitching the more they play. But apparently we need to practice more than the 3 hours a year we usually do. I will say that I don’t think the amount of walks is due to the fast-pitch style of play. We see soft-tossers have trouble hitting the board. At 47 feet, it’s not tremendously easy (although it’s not tremendously difficult, either) to keep a wiffleball on target. Any discussion on widening the strike zone or moving up the mound will just further drive up strikeout totals, lower batting averages, and increase whining.
When combining the walk data and the strike-out data, the downward trend of the batting averages seems obvious. The walk rate is remaining constant while the strike-out rate is climbing. And since everyone knows that you have a better chance of getting a hit when you put the ball in the play, that trend is about what you’d expect.
Overall, pitching is probably getting better each year. But the home run totals (and who they have been hit off of) are also proving that even the best pitchers in the tournament are not infallible.
Bottom Line (from a pitcher’s perspective)
“I know I’m gon get got. But I’m gon get mine more than I get got tho”