First Time? Start Here.
Poor Richard's Almanack: Benjamin Franklin's Incredibly Popular Book of Aphorisms, Forecasts, and More
You will get one short email every three days for a month.
You can unsubscribe any time.
"Everybody knows how to hit, but very few really do." — Ted Williams
This is my book summary of The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.
Ted Williams (1918-2002) was arguably the greatest hitter in baseball history. He was the last player to break the revered .400 barrier — a remarkable achievement in any era. How did he do it, and what can we learn from him to improve our decision-making?
Admittedly, I’m not a diehard baseball fan, but Ted Williams’ book, The Science of Hitting, piqued my interest. It contains a compelling illustration of him at-bat, with the strike zone divided into 77 distinct squares.
Williams recognized that waiting for a pitch in his sweet spot significantly increased his chances of getting a hit. Being patient and waiting for the right opportunity, offered a 40% hit rate. Impatience, on the other hand, could lower his success rate to a mere 23-25%.
Williams understood that average batters turned into great batters if they waited for the right pitch, and even the best batters turned into average ones if they swung at the wrong pitch.
A good hitter can hit a pitch that is over the plate three times better than a great hitter with a questionable ball in a tough spot.
According to baseball legend Rogers Hornsby, the most crucial factor for a hitter is getting a good ball to hit. Williams took this advice to heart, meticulously dividing the strike zone into 77 baseball-sized spaces, and understanding which pitches yielded the highest odds of success for him.
To cross the revered .400 barrier in baseball and become one of the greatest hitters of all-time, Ted Williams broke down the strike zone into 77 cells and learned what his 'best' and 'worst' zones were for hitting. By breaking hitting down into a science, Ted could lean into his strengths and intuition because he was only hitting balls he knew he could hit. As it turns out, this same concept is broadly applicable to business and investing — specifically the concept of understanding and staying within your Circle of Competence.
Ted Williams approached batting in a methodical way, he worked out his optimal strike zone where the odds were in his favor and he maintained the discipline to only swing if the ball was in that zone. By the time Ted Williams retired he had a .344 batting average, 521 home runs, and a 0.482 on-base percentage, the highest of all time.
Warren Buffett often refers to the Hall-of-Fame slugger Ted Williams, who played for the Boston Red Sox and is arguably the greatest batter of all time. He referred to Ted Williams in his 1997 Annual Letter for Berkshire Hathaway:
"We try to exert a Ted Williams _kind of discipline. In his book_ The Science of Hitting, Ted explains that he carved the strike zone into 77 cells, each the size of a baseball. Swinging only at balls in his "best" cell, he knew, would allow him to bat .400; reaching for balls in his "worst" spot, the low outside corner of the strike zone, would reduce him to .230. In other words, waiting for the fat pitch would mean a trip to the Hall of Fame; swinging indiscriminately would mean a ticket to the minors.
If they are in the strike zone at all, the business "pitches" we now see are just catching the lower outside corner. If we swing, we will be locked into low returns. But if we let all of today's balls go by, there can be no assurance that the next ones we see will be more to our liking. Perhaps the attractive prices of the past were the aberrations, not the full prices of today. Unlike Ted, we can't be called out if we resist three pitches that are barely in the strike zone; nevertheless, just standing there, day after day, with my bat on my shoulder is not my idea of fun."
In the recent HBO documentary Becoming Warren Buffett he added:
"The trick in investing is just to sit there and watch pitch after pitch go by and wait for the one right in your sweet spot, and if people are yelling, 'Swing, you bum!' ignore them."
Warren Buffett understands sticking to what you understand rather than chasing what’s new and exciting — a wonderful twist on only swinging at balls thrown in your 'best' spots. He writes:
If we have a strength, it is in recognizing when we are well within our cycle of competence and when we are approaching the perimeter. Predicting the long term economics of companies that operate in fast-changing industries is simply far beyond our perimeter. If others claim predictive skills in those industries—and seem to have claims validated by the behaviour of the stock market we neither envy not emulate them. Instead, we just stick with what we understand. If we stray, we will have done so inadvertently, not because we got restless and substituted hope for rationality.
Unlike Williams, Buffett can’t be called “out” on strikes if he resists pitches that are barely in the strike zone. He can, quite literally, wait for the perfect pitch — looking at thousands of different investments before finding one that is just right.
Li Lu on why investors should take inspiration from Ted Williams' approach to hitting:
In making investments, I have always believed that you must act with discipline whenever you see something you truly like. To explain this philosophy, Buffett and Munger like to use a baseball analogy that I find particularly illuminating — though I myself am not at all a baseball expert.
Ted Williams is the only baseball player who had a .400 single-season hitting record in the last seven decades. In the Science of Hitting he explained his technique. He divided the strike zone into seventy-seven cells, each representing the size of a baseball. He would insist on swinging only at balls in his 'best' cells, even at the risk of striking out, because reaching for the 'worst' spots would seriously reduce his changes of success.
As a securities investor, you can watch all sorts of business propositions in the form of security prices thrown at you all the time. For the most part, you don't have to do a thing other than be amused. Once in a while, you will find a 'fat pitch' that is slow, straight, and right in the middle of your sweet spot. Then you swing hard. This way, no matter what natural ability you start with, you will substantially increase your hitting average.
One common problem for investors is that they tend to swing too often. This is true for both individuals and for professional investors operating under institutional imperatives, one version of which drove me out of the conventional long/short hedge fund operation. However, the opposite problem is equally harmful to long-term results: You discover a 'fat pitch' but are unable to swing the full weight of your capital.
Originally published in Poor Charlie's Alamanack around the topic of discipline and patience.
"Hitting is the most important part of the game, it is where the big money is."
"Something you must always take up there with you: proper thinking."
"The longer a batter can wait on pitch, the less chance there is that he will be fooled""...you are going to fail at your job seven out of ten times"
On sticking to your circle of competence:
"You can see in the strike zone picture what I considered my happy areas, where I consistently hit the ball hard for high averages, and the areas graded down to those spots I learned to lay off, especially that low pitch on the outside 31⁄2 inches of the plate. Ty Cobb once said, ‘Ted Williams sees more of the ball than any man alive— but he demands a perfect pitch. He takes too many bases on balls.’”
"I gave the pitcher the outer 2 or 3 inches of the plate on pitches over the low-outside corner"
On learning and practice:
"Hitting is self-education — thinking it out, learning the situations, knowing your opponent, and most important, knowing yourself."
"Practice, practice, practice. I said I hit until the blisters bled, and I did, it was something I forced myself to do to build up those hard, tough calluses."
"If there is such a thing as a science in sport, hitting a baseball is it. As with any science, there are fundamentals, certain tenets of hitting every good batter or batting coach could tell you. But it is not an exact science."
On the mental side of hitting:
Hitting a baseball — I’ve said this a thousand times, too — is 50 per cent from the neck up"
"Most hitting faults came from a lack of knowledge, uncertainty and fear — and that boils down to knowing yourself. You, the hitter, are the greatest variable in this game, because to know yourself takes dedication."
On finding your edge and sticking to your style:
"Now, you can sit on the bench, pick your nose, scratch your bottom, and it all goes by, and you’re the loser. The observant guy will get the edge. He’ll take advantage of every opening."
"Now, there are all kinds of hitting styles. The style must fit the player, not the other way around. It is not a Williams or a DiMaggio or a Ruth method. It is a matter of applying certain truths of hitting to a player’s natural makeup."
"They had an article in one of the magazines one year, quoting pitchers on how they pitched to Mantle and me. Billy Pierce said he hoped for “minimum damage” and the the varied his pitches as much as possible—sliders, fast balls, slow-breaking stuff and prayers... What they all were saying was that there was no accurate ‘book’ on me, and that’s what a batter strives for"
"I feel in my heart that nobody in this game ever devoted more concentration to the batter’s box than Theodore Samuel Williams, a guy who practiced until the blisters bled, and loved doing it, and got more delight out of examining by conversation and observation the art of hitting the ball."
On studying the things that don't change:
"I honestly believe I can recall everything there was to know about my first 300 home runs—who the pitcher was, the count, the pitch itself, where the ball landed. I didn’t have to keep a written book on pitchers — I lived a book on pitchers."
"After two years of managing the Washington Senators, the one big impression I got was that the game hasn’t changed. It’s the same as it was when I played. I seethe same type pitchers, the same type hitters."
"It’s not really so complicated. It’s a matter of being observant, of learning through trial and error, of picking up things."
On doing your homework:
"A great hitter isn’t born, he’s made. He’s made out of practice, fault correction and confidence.”
"Have you done your homework? What’s this guy’s best pitch? What did he get you out on last time?"
"Where was the pitch that Frank Howard hit? What was it? Curve ball? Slider? Ask the guys on the bench, the pitchers, everybody. Get in the game, know what’s going on, know the reason when that pitcher takes the bread out of your mouth. That makes sense to me."
"I was a pain in the neck asking the older guys about pitchers. I was always asking about pitchers: What kind of pitcher is Bobo Newsom? What kind of pitcher is RedRuffing? What about Tommy Bridges? Ted Lyons? Lefty Gomez? Schoolboy Rowe? I wanted the information, and I wanted to put it to use."
On sticking to what you know:
"My strike zone, almost to the inch, was 22 by 32, or 4.8 square feet. Add two inches all around and it becomes 26 by 36, a total of 6.5 square feet — 35 per cent more area for the pitcher to work on. Give a major league pitcher that kind of advantage and he’ll murder you."
"The single most important thing for a hitter was ‘to get a good ball to hit.’”
"Now, if a .250 hitter up forty times gets 10 hits, maybe if he had laid off bad pitches he would have gotten five walks. That’s five fewer at-bats, or 10 hits for 35, or.286. And he would have scored more because he would have been on base more."
On sticking with the process:
"What I had more of wasn’t eyesight, it was discipline, and isn’t it funny? I took so many “close” pitches I wound up third in all-time bases-loaded home runs, among the top five in all-time home runs, in the top three in runs batted in per time at bat, and I drove in more than a fifth of the Red Sox’ runs in my twenty years inBoston. I averaged .344 for a career."
"There isn’t a hitter living who can hit a high ball as well as he can a low, or vice-versa, or outside as well as inside. All hitters have areas they like to hit in. But you can’t beat the fact that you’ve got to get a good ball to hit."
"More often than not, you hit a bad pitch in a tough spot and nothing happens.""The greatest hitter living can’t hit bad balls good."
"I was forever trying a new stance, trying to hit like Greenberg or Foxx or somebody"
On knowing how big to swing:
"Well, it was obvious to me the first time I saw him play, when he was with theDodgers in a World Series in 1963. I knew then exactly what I would say to him if I ever got the chance: the value of knowing the strike zone. The value of proper thinking at the plate. The importance of getting a good ball to hit. Of knowing when not to be too big with his swing."
"Ideally, for maximum power and efficiency, you want your stronger hand closer to the point of impact"
On being adaptable:
"The reason hitting a baseball is so tough is that even the best can’t hit all the balls just right. To do so is a matter of corrections every minute, in practice as well asin the game."
On dealing with losses:
"There is no question that some strikes are called balls, and some balls are called strikes, but you’re far better off forgetting the calls that hurt you and concentrating on that next pitch, or that next turn at bat."
"If you’ve struck out on a ball you thought was bad, don’t argue. Talk to a teammate, somebody you know pays as much attention to the game as you do. Ask him if the ball was low or outside or wherever you thought it was, and if he agrees with the umpire, file it in your memory. You’ve got some work to do on that particular pitch. You might even make a diagram for yourself to pinpoint the problem areas. Paul Waner did that, and I did it."
On using your intuition:
"Guess? Yes! “Proper thinking” is 50 per cent of effective hitting, and it is more than just doing your homework on a pitcher or studying the situation in a game. It is“anticipating,” too, when you are at the plate, and a lot of hitters will say that is college talk for “guessing” and some will be heard to say in a loud voice, “don’t do it!”They’re wrong. Guessing, or anticipating, goes hand in hand with proper thinking"
"Well, you’ve got to guess, you’ve got to have an idea. All they ever write about the good hitters is what great reflexes they have, what great style, what strength, what quickness, but never how smart the guy is at the plate, and that’s 50 per cent of
it. From the ideas come the ‘proper thinking,’ and the ‘anticipation,’ the ‘guessing.’”
"I had 20-10 vision. A lot of guys can see that well. I sure couldn’t read labels on revolving phonograph records as people wrote I did. I couldn’t “see” the bat hit the ball, another thing they wrote, but I knew by the feel of it. A good carpenter doesn’t have to see the head of the hammer strike the nail but he still hits it square every time."
On improving with age:
"I think there are things you learn growing older in the game which practice brings out."
"At eighteen I might not have been quite as strong as I was at twenty-eight or thirty-eight, but I had better eyesight, better reflexes, could run faster, etc. But at seventeen or eighteen I wasn’t thinking as clearly at the plate as I was later on. When I came up with San Diego in 1937, I hit .271, then .291. My average went up steadily thereafter because in those formative years I was exposed to experienced players who knew the game between the pitcher and batter."
On being aware of the environment:
"The batter who is alert will consider the environment, the park, the background. What kind of a day is it? Is the wind blowing a gale from centerfield? If so, it will be silly to try to hit the ball 480 feet... Is it damp and rainy? The ball you hit won’t go as far because on a damp day the air is heavier. A curve-ball pitcher will be even more effective on a heavy day. Be alert to these things."
On balancing confidence with humility:
"Oh, I can’t say I never had that little fear at the plate, especially in those early days when I’d be hitting against some guy who was a little out of my class. But I remember the time in Minneapolis, my third year as a professional, when a pitcher named Bill Zuber hit me in the head with a pitch. Knocked me out and put me in the hospital for two days. When I got back in the lineup, I dug in as hard as I could and said to myself, ‘Boy, this isn’t going to stop me. Not a bit.’”
"I know there are hitters who can be intimidated, and pitchers who believe in keeping you loose. Jimmy Piers all told me he was afraid at the plate when he was with the Red Sox, and I tried to needle him out of it. ‘If you’re afraid, you might as well go sell insurance. But why be afraid?’ He worked himself out of it. His confidence grew. If you stay intimidated, you’re done."
On the consequences of being wrong:
"Much of it has been poorly defined, or not defined at all, and some things have been told wrong for years. The consequence is a collection of mistaken ideas that batters parrot around."
"I think that every player should have goals, goals to keep his interest up over the long haul, goals that are realistic and that reflect improvement. For me, if I couldn’t hit 35 home runs, I was unhappy. If I couldn’t drive in 100 runs, if I couldn’t hit at least .330, I was unhappy. Goals keep you on your toes, make you bear down, give you objectives at those times when you might otherwise be inclined to just go through the motions."
For more, I highly encourage you to order The Science of Hitting and read the entire book yourself.
If you enjoyed The Science of Hitting, you might also like:
You can find other books like The Science of Hitting in these collections: