By The Numbers: Shorter hitters must improve other areas to catch big boppers

Matt Kuchar Ian Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

By The Numbers: Shorter hitters must improve other areas to catch big boppers

Digital Edition

By The Numbers: Shorter hitters must improve other areas to catch big boppers

Talk long enough about sports statistics, and “Moneyball” invariably drifts into the conversation. For a lot of people, Michael Lewis’ 2003 book about the 2002 Oakland A’s baseball season, which became a movie starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, was an introduction to the world of sports analytics.

An interesting article about Luke Donald by Golf Channel’s Rex Hoggard reminded me of one of my favorite portions of that story. It revolves around the idea that when a great player leaves a team, replacing that talent does not necessarily mean finding one person who can do everything just as well as the player who left. If other players can each pick up a little of the slack, teams can make up for deficiencies, “in the aggregate.”

In that clip, if Brad Pitt has substituted strokes gained for on-base percentage, he would be describing the challenge that faces Donald and every other short-hitting golfer who wants to be elite.

The chart below uses data from the 2016-17 season, and it shows there is a very clear relationship between PGA Tour driving distance average and strokes gained.

Among the 19 players who had a strokes gained total that was higher than 1.00 last season, only three — Francesco Molinari, Kevin Kisner and Matt Kuchar — were shorter off the tee than the PGA Tour’s average driving distance of 292.5 yards. The combined average driving distance of all 19 players was 300.8 yards, while the average driving distance of all the golfers who had an average strokes gained total last season of less than 1.0 was 291.9 yards.

Pros who hit the ball a long way but who are feeble on the greens can occasionally catch lightning in a bottle and make a few extra putts. When they do, players such as Hideki Matsuyama, Sergio Garcia or Kyle Stanley make winning look easy. Conversely, outstanding putters who tend to be short off the tee do not suddenly get hot with their driver and start piping 310-yard tee shots. I’m looking at you Graeme McDowell, Brandt Snedeker and Michael Thompson.

Kuchar, who averaged 285.4 yards per tee shot last season, was 30 yards shorter than Dustin Johnson, and last season he trailed the world’s No. 1 player in strokes gained total 1.905 (1st) to 1.049 (16th).

Johnson’s edge in strokes gained over Kuchar came solely from his performance off the tee and from the fairway. Kuchar had the edge around the green and in putting, but as the table below reveals, Kuchar’s prowess with wedges and his putter could not overcome Johnson’s woods and irons.

Kuchar Strokes Gained Johnson Advantage
0.215 Off-the-Tee 1.002 0.787 (Johnson)
0.193 Approach-the-Green 0.702 0.509 (Johnson)
0.39 Around-the-Green 0.104 0.286 (Kuchar)
0.25 Putting 0.096 0.154 (Kuchar)
1.049 Total 1.905 0.856 (Johnson)

Kuchar, who turns 40 in June, is not going to get significantly better off the tee as he gets older. If he wants to make up ground on Johnson, statistically, he needs to improve the other areas of his game. To quote “Moneyball,” he has to match Johnson’s edge in the aggregate.

Assuming Kuchar’s driving average stays the same this season, if he improved his other strokes gained stats by 0.285 each, he could match Johnson’s level. That would mean his strokes gained: approach-the-green average would need to go up to 0.478, his strokes gained: around-the-green average would improve to 0.675 and he his strokes gained: putting average would lift to 0.535.

That is a lot easier said than done, but it is the challenge facing golfers who do not possess a modern, power game.

To help them take on that challenge, many players are turning to analytics experts such as a company I recently spoke with at the PGA Merchandise Show, Every Ball Counts. Based in West Palm Beach, Fla., Every Ball Counts evaluates golfers and provides a service to numerous professional and elite amateurs that breaks down their game to the granular level. Working with coaches, the service reveals what areas of the game players should improve in order to see the greatest impact.

Jordan Spieth proved last season that golfers who don’t lead the Tour can, in fact, keep up with the big hitters. His driving average was 20 yards shorter than Johnson’s, but as the table below shows, from the fairway, around the green and with his putter, he made up for nearly all of Johnson’s advantage off the tee last season.

Spieth Strokes Gained Johnson Advantage
0.276 Off-the-Tee 1.002 0.726 (Johnson)
0.906 Approach-the-Green 0.702 0.204 (Spieth)
0.37 Around-the-Green 0.104 0.266 (Speith)
0.32 Putting 0.096 0.224 (Spieth)
1.871 Total 1.905 0.034 (Johnson)

So it can be done, but in order for mid-length and shorter-hitting golfers to overcome the advantage big hitters enjoy off the tee, they need to be solid and efficient in every other area of the game. Gwk

Latest

More Digital Edition
Home