In the irresistible baseball movie “A League of Their Own”, Geena Davis’ character Dottie chastises her younger Sister Kit (played by Lori Petty) by saying “Lay off the high ones!” The Sister, like thousands of Little League players of the last six decades, responds by saying, “I like the high ones!” If we went through a time portal and the girls were having this conversation in 2018 instead of 1945, Dottie would be a SABR member and her critique of Kit’s hitting style would be more like, “You have lousy plate discipline and your chase percentage is much too high.”
One of the best players of this generation is also a case study in plate discipline. Albert Pujols played nine seasons with the Cardinals and is now in his 7th campaign with the Angels. Intuitively, fans have figured out by merely watching Pujols since he joined the Angels, that his plate discipline was significantly worse than during his Cardinal days. However, with today’s advanced metrics, we now have actual evidence of how often any individual hitter swings at a pitch out of the strike zone. Fangraphs.com calls it “O-Swing Percentage” (O representing out of the zone), but we’ll use chase percentage because even the most old school fan understands what it means to “chase” a bad pitch. In Pujols’ first seven years, he never had a chase percentage higher than 22.6%. In 2010, it crept up to 26.8% and in 2011 jumped considerably to 31%. That is when the Angels made the long-term commitment that has, to some extent, burdened their franchise. His percentage has been above that 31% figure every year he’s been in an Angel uniform with an average rate of 33.6%…this season it is 36.4%!
The Old Duck had the privilege of seeing both Yogi Berra & Valdimir Guerrero play and they were certainly two of the greatest “bad ball” hitters in the history of the game. The real issue, however, is that for every hitter like Yogi or Vlad, there are hundreds who never succeed with that approach. Ted Williams once said, “the only thing dumber than a pitcher is two pitchers” but a genius IQ isn’t needed to figure out that if a hitter swings at pitches that aren’t strikes, you don’t need to throw strikes to get him out. Pitching is dominating the game at the moment and one reason could be today’s information age. In the 50’s, the adage was that once a hitter got around the league, pitchers would figure out his weakness. Today, video of every at-bat from every MLB game is at the fingertips of pitchers and coaching staffs.
Another interesting factor that improves modern pitching is that teams are much more careful with their investments and the game now embraces pitch counts and innings limits. This also leads to fresher arms being in the game in the 7th, 8th & 9th inning. Veteran fans point out great hurlers from their youth who pitched every 4th day and accumulated 300 IP in a season, but for every Robin Roberts or Jim Palmer, there are hundreds who had their careers ruined by over-use. Think about these two examples…1) In a 2015 SI piece about the Mets and their staff, Tom Verducci told the story of pitching coach Dan Warthen. He reached the major leagues at age 22 with Gene Mauch’s Expos in 1975 and in mid-July with the team already 15 games out of 1st place, Mauch allowed Warthen to throw 142 pitches in 10 innings. Two days later, Warthen was brought to pitch in relief in a game the Expos were losing…his arm never felt the same. Over the next six weeks, Warthen exceeded 130 pitches four times including once where he threw 164 pitches in 11 innings. By age 26, he was out of the majors and by age 29, he was out of baseball. 2) Current MLB staff member John D’Acquisto was the Giants 1st-round pick at age 18 in the 1970 draft. In his first full minor league campaign (1971), he compiled 233 IP with 14 complete games in the Midwest League. The following year, it was 209 IP and 17 complete games in the California League and then in ’73, 212 IP and 14 complete games in the PCL. 700+ IP by the time he was 21! In his rookie season with the Giants (1974), he made 36 starts and pitched 215 innings and, essentially, was never the same. His lifetime record was 34-51 with 15 Saves. Fortunately for today’s young pitchers, the 1970’s are just baseball history and not a blueprint for success.
With that as our backdrop, let’s look at today’s hitters and see which ones have the poorest plate discipline…or if you’re being optimistic, which ones are most aggressive. Through games of August 25th, here’s the bottom ten in relation to swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.
1) Salvador Perez, Royals C – 49.5%
2) Javier Baez, Cubs 2B – 48.3%
3) Corey Dickerson, Pirates OF – 45.3%
4) Kevin Pillar, Blue Jays OF – 42.8%
5) Jonathan Scoop, Brewers 2B – 42.6%
6) Eddie Rosario, Twins OF – 42.4%
7) Yangervis Solarte, Blue Jays IF – 41.1%
8) Tim Anderson, White Sox SS – 41%
9) Dee Gordon, Mariners 2B/OF – 41%
10) Adam Jones, Orioles OF – 40.6%
That group probably includes some players you expected to see and others who are surprises. Very few are power hitters the only real outlier in terms of success is Baez. Another interesting component to this analysis is that all free swingers aren’t created equal. It isn’t just swinging at bad pitches that matters, it’s how often you swing and miss. For example, Solarte has the best contact rate on bad pitches at 75% while Scoop is the worst at 58%.
On the flip side, let’s look at the most disciplined hitters this season…
1) Joey Votto, Reds 1B – 16.3%
2) Cesar Hernandez, Phillies 2B – 18.9%
3) Andrew McCutchen, Giants OF – 19.7%
4) Mookie Betts, Red Sox OF – 20.1%
5) Alex Bregman, Astros 3B – 20.1%
6) Joe Mauer, Twins 1B – 20.2%
7) Brett Gardner, Yankees OF – 20.7%
8) Brandon Nimmo, Mets OF – 20.8%
9) Aaron Hicks, Yankees OF – 20.9%
10) Mike Trout, Angels OF – 21.6%
Your baseball experience would lead you to think that the second list would be made up of lead-off hitters, line-drive hitters and slap hitters. Looking at the list, Hernandez, Gardner & Nimmo might fit that criteria but certainly not Votto, Betts & Trout. Possibly the most impressive stat from the research is that even when Votto & Bregman occasionally swing at a ball outside the zone, they make contact over 87% of the time.
Not surprisingly, Matt Carpenter, Rhys Hoskins & Jose Ramirez are in the top 15 and having very productive seasons.
A very curious case study is White Sox 2B Yoan Moncada. The #1 prospect in baseball a few years back, his 2018 season is certainly disappointing with a .220 BA and a league-leading 179 K’s. Our “chase” stats show that he is a top twenty performer in plate discipline at 23.3% but when he swings at those pitches, his contact rate is only 48%. Imagine the progress if he lays off those pitches? Or doesn’t try to hit them 400 feet?
In the modern age, there are no longer any secrets in baseball.