Modern Baseball

Hey batter, batter, batter …

Maybe we understood the benefits of plate discipline back in Little League and just didn’t know it. Cameron Frye got it. That time-honored taunt encouraged the opposing batter to swing. No one ever shouted: Hey batter, batter, batter … take!

When a teammate let a pitch go that was called a ball, we chimed in with “good eye!” We sensed that swinging wasn’t always a good thing.

At an even younger age, our coaches lined up the tees in the middle of the strike zone where it was easiest to hit. That spot lines up the barrel of the bat to meet the ball when our hips are turned and arms extended. Yes, T-ball taught us that strikes are easier to square up.

Turns out, those childhood lessons are valid no matter what level of baseball you’re playing. Modern-day numbers crunchers have confirmed it. Batters should swing at strikes and lay off pitches outside the zone.

Scoring runs depends on getting on base and hitting the ball with authority to rack up extra bases. Those are skill-related attributes. Reaching base means possessing the talents of getting a hit or taking a walk. Hitting with authority requires the skill of making solid contact.

And at the professional level, all of that depends on pitch recognition and self-control.

Casual fans care about the outcome of at bats. Did the batter get a hit or make an out? The underlying concept of plate discipline is one of those core fundamentals that fans (and broadcasters) often don’t fully appreciate.

Truth be told, back in those Little League days being able to hit the ball – contact skill – was more important than possessing a good eye. If you didn’t have the heightened reflexes, coordination and strength to hit a fastball it didn’t matter how precise your talent to discern balls from strikes was. Inability to make solid contact against good pitchers is why most of us didn’t advance past baseball’s lower levels.

But major leagues hitters possess those qualities – hair-trigger reflexes, eye-hand dexterity and arm strength. They rose out of the group of backyard players. They are the best of the best of the best. Yet, what often separates major league stars from replacement level players is pitch recognition and self-control. Swinging at pitches outside the strike zone undermines all that natural ability.

It’s not a matter of avoiding strikeouts. For major league players, data shows that swinging and missing is not related to offensive production, once other factors are controlled. It’s more important for a big league hitter to swing at the right pitches and make good contact when he does, than it is to have a high contact rate.

All contact isn’t equal. Batters who swing at bad pitches usually forfeit power. Weak contact tends to finishes the plate appearance and ends in an out. Hitters are often better off swinging and missing rather than initiating poor contact. A high contact rate is no guarantee to produce runs.

Plate discipline doesn’t mean passivity. It means recognizing and swinging at the right pitches. Patience is not a virtue in every instance. Neither, however, is aggression. Ideally, the hitter should identify the pitches in his wheelhouse and swing at them.

Plate discipline has three benefits. Taking a pitch off the plate increases your odds of drawing a walk. It helps you avoid weak contact. And plate discipline also produces the dynamic effect of getting you good pitches to hit later. Research shows it is more important to take balls than it is to swing at strikes.

Pitch recognition, the discipline to lay off bad pitches and not passing on balls in the sweet spot are essential skills for a professional hitter. Every season, we read about breakthroughs for individual hitters that are traced back to improved plate discipline. Examples from this year include Daniel Murphy, Ryan Braun and Nolan Arenado. It was the case for Todd Frazier, for a while.

Let’s take a look at how the 2016 Reds are doing in this area. We’ll use the statistic O-Swing%, which is a common proxy for plate discipline. It measures the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that the batter swings at. Think of it as the chase rate. This table lists the 2016 O-Swing% for each Reds regular position player along with his career rate. MLB league average is 29.6%.

PlateDisciplineTable

A few comments:

In descending order:

  • Joey Votto’s rate is real and spectacular. It’s consistent with his O-Swing% dating back to and including the 2012 season.
  • Promising improvement for Billy Hamilton.
  • The guys in the middle – Tucker Barnhart to Jay Bruce – are pretty much at their career rates and close to league average.
  • You see why people were skeptical that Adam Duvall could keep it up. He’s hit .216/.293/.375 the past 30 days.
  • Jose Peraza is just 22. Jose Peraza is just 22. Jose Peraza is just 22.
  • #Phexit

Plate discipline tends to decline as the season wears on, a phenomenon blamed on fatigue. Batters swing at more pitches outside the zone when they are tired. Plate discipline has fallen since the league banned stimulants. If a team could figure out a legal way to prevent this drop off it would have an advantage.

Major league teams can develop pitch recognition skills through training. Research shows (serious research) that visual training can have a strong positive effect on baseball hitting. Major league teams are starting to adopt it. Are the Reds?

Keep in mind O-Swing% is one metric. Measuring plate discipline is loaded with imprecision. All swings outside the strike zone aren’t created equal. Chasing just off the plate isn’t as bad as swinging at a pitch way out of the zone. O-Swing% doesn’t differentiate. Similarly, measuring swings at pitches over the plate doesn’t account for hitters being able to handle different parts of the zone with varying effectiveness.

29 thoughts on “Hey batter, batter, batter …

  1. I just want to take this opportunity to let ALL the writers at RLN know just how much I enjoy their articles. This is not sarcasm by the way. This is genuine. And I threw that little disclaimer in there bcuz I don’t always agree with everything that is written/typed. But that’s really not indicative of how I feel about the writers and what they write/type. You guys research your subject matter as best as you possibly can and I hope I can speak for most everyone here when I say that that effort is highly appreciated by us. I’m sorry if I’ve given you guys a hard time in the past and even in the future but I do have my opinions. Nonetheless though, I enjoy your articles and I just wanted to let you guys know that.

  2. Can we get the #Phexit going as a chant at the stadium. Great article by the way Steve. I agree with the Sandman RLN has some of the best articles on the Reds and all are well researched. They have increased my knowledge of the new statistics and pretty much won me over.

  3. “…And at the professional level, all of that depends on pitch recognition and self-control…”

    That single sentence sums up the main thing that separates the best of the best. Most people know not to swing at bad pitches. It’s being able to identify those pitches and then having the control to not pull the trigger that makes all the difference.

  4. You know what is funny? I do statistical analysis in my job so I understand how these things work. Yet reading this article, the only person I can think of is a crazy statistical outlier: Vlad Guerrero.

    Good article, I the reds would be more forward thinking trying to improve every way they can.

    • I always think of Vlad when Marty and company are criticizing Joey Votto because that is who they expect him to be. They don’t seem to understand that Vlad was a freak of nature when it came to squaring up bad pitches. Joey can’t barrel up a pitch at his ankles like Vlad could. Votto is a great hitter because of his selectivity. Vlad was a great hitter because he could put the barrel on anything in the same time zone.

  5. Wanted to add that amphetamine use is still fairly common in baseball. Something like 10-15% of major leaguers receive exemptions for adderall, a very pure form of amphetamine. All it takes is an ADHD diagnosis, which is fairly easy to come by, and then approval by a MLB panel, which is supposed to be harder now. Still, a lot of guys are taking it legally, and it wouldn’t be surprising if a lot more were taking without the exemption, as it clears your system very quickly.

  6. It takes a true hitting artist like Votto to work the count. Instead it’s swing away and maybe I’ll get lucky. That’s been the overall hitting philosophy of the Reds for too long.

  7. I like clicking on last 30 days for my fbb team. Here are the Reds:

    Votto .352, 15 runs, 5 hrs, 11 rbis
    Hamilton .227, 15 runs, 11 steals
    Cozart .210, 4 Hrs, 10 rbis
    Bruce .215, 10 runs, 3 hrs, 11 rbis
    Duvall .214, 12 runs, 3 hrs, 16 rbis

    Votto is killing the ball but 11 rbis isn’t cutting it? They need to find a leadoff man somewhere and somehow! 15 runs = 90 for the season which is great for a .227 hitter but just bat Billy 9th and be done with it for a while! Duvall has a knack for rbis….16 rbis and he’s actually pretty cold. The guy can find a way to make 1-4 productive! I really hope he can make adjustments and force these pitchers to come to him! The Reds may be lost if he can’t!

    • RBIs are a stat of opportunity. Depends too much on teammates to tell you much about player. Better to look at a measure of power, like ISO (which I prefer) or SLG. There is no “RBI skill” or “RBI guys” there are just good hitters with power.

  8. Even when we were winning our team,except Votto and the one year with Choo,swings at everything.It won’t change until it becomes a point of emphasis within the organization,unless players take it upon themselves to make the adjustments.Looking at the data Steve showed its obviously isn’t going to happen with vets like Cosart,Bruce and BP.I will give the rest a pass for now until they have more data to go by.

  9. Loved this. Very timely for me as I am having eye surgery in a few weeks and have been talking baseball with my eye doctor and picking his brain a little. We’ve been talking pitch recognition, dominant eyes and better than 20/20 vision in a batter’s more forward eye. A RH batter’s more forward eye would be the left eye for example. This eye starts to receive the pitcher’s arm and ball movement a tick earlier than the other eye. 20/15 vision, or even 20/10 vision in that forward eye could get the information process in the brain started an instant earlier for pitch recognition, over a batter that has 20/20 vision in that eye.
    Fascinating stuff Steve.

  10. In regards to preventing fatigue, I wonder what role nutrition could play. Do teams have nutritionists or try to promote good nutrition through educating player? I remember when I was a kid hanging around the clubhouse there was a lot of junk food. Perhaps nutrition could be an avenue a team could pursue to give themselves a slight edge. I’ve overhauled my nutrition in the past 2 years and I feel so much better and less fatigued.

  11. I’m sure there are readers who cringe every time I mention Votto, but Votto has the Old Cossack excited for the rest of the 2016 season.

    With Votto’s 2nd half surge, he is now slashing .271/.404/.475/.878.

    This puts Votto:
    .121 OPS behind NL leader Rizzo @ .999
    .143 SLG behind NL leader Lamb @ .618
    .016 OBP behind NL leader Carpenter @ .420
    .079 AVG behind NL leader Murphy @ .350

    During the past 36 games, Votto has increased:
    .113 OPS from .765 to .878
    .054 SLG from .421 to .475
    .059 OBP from .345 to .404
    .050 AVG from .221 to .271

    By the end of August (37 games), Votto will be the talk of the NL:
    Challenging the top 5 NL leaders in OPS
    Among the top 15 NL leaders in SLG
    Leading and running away with the NL OBP
    Among the top 10 NL leaders in AVG

    And that’s with a month left in the season…

    • Votto does not provide the same sensation flowing thru the younger Scotly as, it appears, the Old Cossack. Those statistics quoted assume walks equal to hits. This does not sit as well with the younger Scotly.

      Votto’s walk rate is 22% per AB. (2nd in NL.) He strikes out 29% per AB.( 13th in NL) He gets a hit 27% per AB.(40th in NL)

      • Huh? Nobody has said anywhere that walks are equal to hits. They are better than making outs but it’s been said by both contributors and writers at this site that a single is worth more than a walk and other hits are worth more than singles. I don’t know how you can say that “those statistics quoted assume walks equal to hits” because the only stat mentioned above that assumes that at all is OBP. Walks don’t help SLG and only help one of the two components of OPS (OBP). They also don’t help AVG which is also referenced and has risen from a poor .221 to a well above league-average .271 in the last month and a half. His strikeout rate is the only thing that’s at all troubling and it’s debatable just how bad strikeouts really are. There are a lot of good hitters that strikeout a lot. You also may be computing K% and BB% incorrectly as it isn’t a percentage of ABs but a percentage of plate appearances. Walks, Sacrifices, and HBP don’t count as ABs but do count as plate appearances. His BB% is 17.9% and his K% is 22.8%. Those numbers are good for 2nd in the NL and 18th in the NL respectively.

    • Shchi Cossack, thank you for these numbers on Votto. He’s my favorite Red and I get tired of people bashing him when he struggles. What they’re really bashing him for is the size of his contract and when he struggles these people are quick to jump the gun by saying he’s not worth his contract when he’s proven over and over again that he is. There are some that think that by the end of his contract we’ll have a very expensive bench player. Votto had said himself earlier this year when he was struggling that he’d rather retire than struggle like he was. I believe Votto. I believe that IF he ever does get to a point to where he’s struggling so bad that he feels like he just won’t ever be able to compete at his usual high level of production ever again, he’ll retire. Maybe I’m being a little gullible on this or maybe I’m just biased, I really don’t care. IF this ever happens (Votto retiring due to struggling) I’d like to hear what his naysayers have to say then. That’d be a pretty stand up thing to do, I think. I knew Votto would get it together bcuz he’s the best hitter in the game. People should have more faith in him, especially after all he’s given this club. On a side note: it would seem as if BP is starting to put things together offensively as well…10 gm hitting streak. Still to early to see if he can maintain this level of production for the remainder of the year, I admit. I just hope he can. He’s my 2nd favorite Red.

  12. Votto is a great hitter period.He will always be criticized for taking pitches especially with men in scoring position but you can’t have it both ways.In Weds game he swung 3-0 with two men on and two out and flew out to left.At the time I said that could have been our best chance to score which later proved to be wrong.I’ll take a bunch of players that just come close to what he does.I’ll take an OBP of 330 and a avg of 270 for everybody else and win lots of games.Home runs are great but if you can pitch and have guys that get on base you can win.

    • Yeah when he swung 3-0 the other day I said aloud “Yep, that Votto is always looking to walk.” then turned to my girlfriend and said “You don’t swing 3-0 when you’re looking to walk. You do it when you get the pitch your hoping to drive. Votto just missed it.”

      • I’ll add that I said the first part sarcastically, as I’m well aware that Votto isn’t looking for the walk. That idea needs to be purged from the minds of the the Reds faithful.

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