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%.
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.
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.