Advantage: Tim Tebow? Bizarre batting behavior made us wonder

BySam Miller via ESPN logo
Friday, March 10, 2017

The strangest moment of Tim Tebow's first game against major leaguers actually came afterward, when Tebow tried to explain the second-strangest moment of his first game against major leaguers:

About straying into the Red Sox's on-deck circle before his first at-bat, Tim Tebow said, "I thought you walk around [to the first-base side of the field] because you're a left-hander. I found out you don't do that."

This answer makes even less sense than the act he was asked about. Tebow has played a lot of baseball -- including a full season in the Arizona Fall League -- and presumably has watched even more, and this isn't how any baseball is played anywhere. It's a nonsensical answer that expects us to believe the Mets' designated hitter made an honest mistake that requires an almost farcical ignorance of the game's customs. His explanation might be true, but it makes so little sense it seems more likely he was covering up the real reason.

One other explanation for Tebow's weirdness is that going toward the wrong batter's box was intentional, even strategic. The New York Times' Tyler Kepner speculated that Tebow "hoped to get a better view of Porcello," the pitcher on the mound. Tebow bats left-handed, and the Red Sox's on-deck circle would give him a view of Rick Porcello more similar to the one he'd have in the batter's box. We know that major league players, and players at every level, routinely edge out of the on-deck circle toward the area behind home plate, in an effort to get a better view that way. So it's at least consistent with baseball player logic that Tebow would have tried to sneak an even better view. It makes more sense than his explanation, at least.

But if this is what Tebow was thinking -- that he'd gain an advantage by standing on his "natural" side while observing Porcello -- is he right? As it happens, this has been something I've wondered about for a long time. Specifically: Do batters get any advantage from an on-deck circle that's on their natural side, third base for right-handers and first base for lefties?

There are 17 major league parks where the home dugout (and, consequently, the home team's on-deck circle) is on the first-base side, and 13 where it's on the third-base side. If there's an advantage, the home team's left-handed batters should hit better in the 17 than the home team's left-handed batters in the 13. The reverse should be true for road batters.

We gathered every at-bat by major league regulars since 2014 and separated them into eight groups using three variables: Batter's handedness, whether they were at home or on the road, and the on-deck-circle geography of the stadium they were in. We then compared these eight groups in four pairings, with a hypothesis for each one. If the on-deck circle matters, then these four hypotheses should be true:

  • Right-handed home hitters should do better in 3B parks than in 1B parks
  • Right-handed road hitters should do better in 1B parks than in 3B parks
  • Left-handed home hitters should do better in 1B parks than in 3B parks
  • Left-handed road hitters should do better in 3B parks than in 1B parks

Or, more simply, the four "better" groups should collectively outhit the four "worse" groups. We used five measures of offense to check this: Batting average, home run rate, strikeout rate, walk rate and, conclusively, weighted on-base average (or wOBA), a total offense metric that includes every offensive outcome.

The results are interesting, in the somewhat disappointing way that inconclusive results always are.

The "better" group hit .270, with home runs in 3.2 percent of its at-bats, strikeouts in 18.5 percent, and walks in 8.4 percent. The "worse" group actually hit .271, but with fewer homers (3.0 percent), more strikeouts (18.3 percent) and fewer walks (8.2 percent). Batters whose on-deck circle aligned with their batter's box had a .340 wOBA, while their disadvantaged counterparts had a .338 wOBA.

That's not nothing -- over the course of 600 plate appearances, two points of wOBA would be worth about one extra run. It's also not much, considering that we have to speculate to credit those two points of wOBA to the batter's box. We're talking about a massive sample size here -- more than 260,000 plate appearances -- but that doesn't mean there's no noise whatsoever. For instance, left-handed batters -- like Tebow -- actually hit slightly better, collectively, when their batter's box was on the third-base side. That's probably not significant. But it makes you think that the two points of wOBA we found overall might not be, either.

That said, if that's what Tebow was going for, give him credit for trying and for thinking. (It's more generous than some other hypotheses for what he was thinking.) But anybody who hangs around a baseball team will learn that, in addition to hitting, running, throwing and the rest, a certain amount of feel is required to stick in this game. Tebow's feel remains raw.

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