2017 Reds

Reds’ plate discipline trending in the right direction

In the midst of the Steroid Era in the early 2000s, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane saw other teams were undervaluing on-base percentage (among many other areas), instead placing a priority on qualities like speed and runs batted in. He realized he could put together a formidable offense without spending on high-priced sluggers and speedsters, and, thus, the term “Moneyball” was coined. Since then, teams have slowly but surely begun to realize the importance of OBP in addition to more traditionally heralded statistics like home runs and stolen bases.

Although strikeouts and home runs are at an all-time high, both the league-average OBP and walk rate are back on the rise, currently sitting at their highest levels since 2010 as front offices continue to emphasize plate discipline. And for good reason: it’s been proven again and again how OBP correlates to run scoring, and this year is no different.

Here’s a look at the current top-five clubs in OBP and how they rank in runs scored:

Team OBP Runs
Astros .354 656 (1st)
Dodgers .343 569 (5th)
Nationals .338 598 (2nd)
Indians .336 530 (10th)
Yankees .336 573 (4th)

And here are the bottom five teams:

Team OBP Runs
Padres .300 420 (30th)
Giants .306 453 (28th)
Royals .307 481 (23rd)
White Sox .311 465 (27th)
Phillies .313 437 (29th)

Reaching base at a high rate — or even a league-average clip — has been a problem area for the Cincinnati Reds dating back to, no surprise, just before the current rebuild began. In spite of Joey Votto‘s best efforts, the team had a collective .308 OBP from 2014 to 2016. Only two teams, the Phillies and Padres, were worse over that span. As a result, the offense scored the sixth-fewest runs in baseball in those three years.

In the dreadful 2014 season, the Reds posted a .296 OBP, which was only the fifth time they posted a sub-.300 mark in team history. Since 1900, only the 1908 club was worse at getting on base (.288). It was one of the worst performances in baseball history, too. The 2014 Reds are tied for the fourth-worst single-season OBP by a team in the 21st century and are 41st-worst in the Live Ball Era, which dates back to 1920.

Of course, part of that low number had to do with the departure of Shin-Soo Choo and Votto missing 100 games due to leg injuries. But even if Votto took the field for 162 games that season, the overall OBP would’ve still been ugly.

Among the 12 players who had 200 plate appearances that season, only four had an OBP above league average (.314): Votto, Devin Mesoraco, Ramon Santiago, and Todd Frazier. Only six had an above-average walk rate (7.6 BB%). Two regular starters — Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart, both at a 4.6 BB% — ranked among the least patient hitters in the game. Votto and Santiago were the only players with a walk rate above 10 percent, and they combined to step in the batter’s box fewer than 500 times, hardly enough to make a huge dent in the team’s overall numbers.

Even in the winning years prior to that, there wasn’t an emphasis placed on getting on base. The Reds had players who could do so at a high rate, but it wasn’t a top priority preached by management. Rather, the narrative heard from manager Dusty Baker was that driving in runs is more important. Of course, saying one is more crucial than the other is faulty logic; driving in runs isn’t possible without players getting on base.

Here’s what Baker told MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon in 2008:

“I’m big on driving in runs and scoring runs,” Baker said. “Guys in the middle should score about close to equal to what they drive in. On-base percentage, that’s fine and dandy. But a lot of times guys get so much into on-base percentage that they cease to swing. It’s becoming a little bit out of control.

“What you do is run the pitcher’s count up, that helps,” Baker said. “You put him in the stretch, that helps. But your job in the middle is to either score them or drive them in. The name of the game is scoring runs. Sometimes, you get so caught up in on-base percentage that you’re clogging up the bases.”

Baker’s players, most notably Phillips, also echoed this old-school sentiment.

Here’s an excerpt from Phillips’ infamous anti-OBP rant in 2015 (this was well after Baker’s firing, but Phillips shared a similar viewpoint):

I don’t do that MLB Network on-base percentage (stuff),” Phillips told USA TODAY Sports. “I think that’s messing up baseball. I think people now are just worried about getting paid and worrying about on-base percentage instead of just winning the game.”

“That’s the new thing now. I feel like all of these stats and all of these geeks upstairs, they’re messing up baseball, they’re just changing the game. It’s all about on-base percentage. If you don’t get on base, then you suck. That’s basically what they’re saying. People don’t care about RBI or scoring runs, it’s all about getting on base.”

(Interestingly, Phillips’ only season with 100 runs batted in came in 2013, when he had Choo and Votto batting ahead of him. Hmm.)

Fortunately, then-general manager Walt Jocketty did not share that idea. Following the 2014 season, he had this to say to the Cincinnati Enquirer’s John Fay:

“But offensively, I think you recognize we didn’t get as many guys on base this year. Fewer guys on base, fewer runs are going to score. We’ve got to take a hard look at that.”

Unfortunately, it was not an overnight fix.

The Reds posted a team .312 OBP in 2015, good for 19th in baseball. However, it could hardly be considered a huge improvement; it was mostly due to a healthy Votto and his ludicrous .459 OBP and 20.1 BB%. Aside from him, Jay Bruce (9.1 BB%) was the only other full-time player with an above-average walk rate. Phillips had a respectable .328 OBP, but it was driven by a .294 batting average.

In 2016, Votto again posted an eye-popping on-base and walk rate as the team OBP (.316) increased, but this was mostly due to a higher batting average. However, he did start to see some of his teammates practice more patience at the plate. While no other player had an above-average eye except Tucker Barnhart (8.6 BB%), the Reds saw improvements from the likes of Cozart, Eugenio Suarez, and Billy Hamilton.

Minus Hamilton, that progress has continued in 2017. The Reds currently have a .324 OBP, their highest in four seasons — and it’s not a fluke caused by a high batting average, either. Fewer players are swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone, and the club’s walk rate has gone up to its highest number since 2013 as a result.

Season OBP BB% O-Swing% Runs per game
2014 0.296 6.9% 31.9% 3.7
2015 0.312 8.0% 31.0% 4.0
2016 0.316 7.4% 29.9% 4.4
2017 0.324 8.4% 29.3% 4.5

Three full-time players have a walk rate above 10 percent this season. Two of them in particular, Cozart and Suarez, have made tremendous strides in their approach at the plate. In 2013, Cozart walked in a meager 4.3 percent of his plate appearances. That number has risen every year since then and sits at 12.5 percent in 2017 — 49 percent better than the league average. Two years ago, Suarez’s 4.3 BB% was tied for worst on the team among regular players. Now, he’s one of the most patient hitters on the team at 12.4 percent, as Nick Kirby recently wrote about.

The catching platoon of Mesoraco (10.1%) and Barnhart (8.8%) is also drawing walks at an above-average rate, and Scott Schebler was doing so before his recent shoulder injury and subsequent slump. In his brief time as an everyday player, Jesse Winker also has a 14.3 BB%.

The change is certainly being driven, in part, by general manager Dick Williams. In his short time at the helm, he has been an outspoken proponent of analytics and expanded that department of the front office. Here was his answer in a recent Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) when asked whether speed or on-base percentage is more important at the top of the lineup:

“I wish I could say BOTH. If I had to pick, I would say on base is more important.”

The more patient approach is not being seen exclusively at the MLB level, however. Across the organization, some of the top up-and-coming players are noted for their plate discipline. And Williams is targeting many of these players in the draft.

Nick Senzel, Taylor Trammell, Tyler Stephenson, Alex Blandino, Phil Ervin, and Winker — all highly regarded for their patience at the plate — were either taken in the first round or the supplemental first round within the last five years. Jeter Downs, the 32nd pick in this year’s draft, has a 16.0 BB% thus far in Billings. Many of the Reds’ other top hitting prospects, including Shed Long, T.J. Friedl, and Stuart Fairchild, also get on base at a high rate.

When asked if the team has made a conscious effort to take high-OBP players with recent draft picks, here was Williams’ response in his Reddit AMA:

We do value OBP highly and I can see us starting to trend that way. Our analytics staff is very involved in scouting decisions now – more so [than] in the past and the scouts are very interested to hear what they have to say. I do think that has been a shift for us.

There’s still work to be done, of course. Despite the improvements, the team still ranks 16th in the league in OBP and 17th in walk rate. Jose Peraza has the second-worst walk rate among qualified players this season, while Adam Duvall, Hamilton, and Scooter Gennett are well below average.

But the overall trend is undoubtedly moving in the right direction. Whether it’s a shift in philosophy as an organization, the veteran leadership of Votto (who players are also emulating by choking up on the bat more often), or a little bit of both, a change is occurring in the way Reds’ management and players value the art of drawing a walk.

58 thoughts on “Reds’ plate discipline trending in the right direction

  1. “Just clogging up the bases” . An all time classic right there. One thing I noticed with the cubs a few weeks back was their OBP of every guy was over 300. Haven’t even looked at the Dodgers. They must be insanely high.

  2. Like I’ve said before , this team will look totally different in 2019-2020. There is a lot of talent in the minors that will arrive then and this team will be contending for years. It’s frustrating right now as fans but patience will be rewarded with years of great baseball.

  3. Good stuff; meat and potatoes. Suarez’s BB% rising from 4.3 to 12.4 is remarkable. The team has an excellent player-teacher in Votto, an opportunity to learn from one of the best. Another RLN writer was noting how Winker has been watching Votto’s AB’s very closely. We all know how lethal Hamilton could be if his OBP elevated.

  4. Very interesting analysis. The info backs up what we have ben seeing on the field. The additions of Winker and Senzel will make the progress even better. The interesting thing is to make room for Winker, will the Reds deal one of Duvall or Schebler? Duvall’s hitting/OBP is improving, but Schebler has always been the better OBP player. Something will happen here.
    Has BHam turned the corner with a solid July?
    If they can get Jose Peraza straightened out before the 2018 season begins, that will be a huge bonus. If not, go SS shopping this winter.

    • Hamilton will always be well below average at the plate. The two questions are if the rest of the team can compensate for him (this article shows that they are starting to do that) and if the team will ever abandon the leadoff experiment

      • I think he is one of those guys that will be replaced in 19 or 20. Trammell will take his spot. I don’t think Duvall or Schebler will be there either. I think Suarez,Votto and maybe Barnhart will be the only ones left.

        • He got off to a fast start too. Minor injuries have coincided with his lapses in production. (Shoulder, hip, and thumb) Always came back to high production once he healed. Again…I blame management (Price) for running him out there when he was injured. He did the same thing with Phillips the last 3 years.

    • How many times have we said in the past “has BHAM turned the corner?” More than likely no.

      • Players are still capable of learning and changing–even at Hamilton’s advanced age (note the sarcastic tone). Cozart did it, so it isn’t impossible.

        • The problem is that Hamilton is a unique player and his skillset of baserunning and defense will decline quickly, meaning that even if he improves his on-base ability down the road, his overall value has hit a ceiling. With 2 more years of team control through his age 28 season, I do not see Billy as a Red for the long term.

          • I have been thinking the same thing. Without his defensive ability and baserunning ability which is tied to his speed, Hamilton will decline quickly. Very predictable. Sure hope Jose Siri can keep it up as he advances to higher levels of the minor’s.

    • With Schebler out now…Price appears to be running him into the ground (again) with 18 straight starts. Everybody and their mother knows Billy needs about 1 day off a week or so. Preferably against a lefty.

      • Agree but in 2 to 3 years there is no way they are going to pay Hamilton if he csn be replaced with a Trammell or whoever and get at least the same production . At a lower salary as well.

    • His swing remains God-awful, though. He doesn’t use his legs at all. They are kidding themselves with Peraza, who needs to go all the way back to High A and actually learn how to swing a bat.

      • Yeah, I don’t understand how nobody’s told him he doesn’t need to hit like 165 pound 18 year old any longer. A couple of his hrs have been absolute bombs tho…you sure will never see BHam run into a 450 footer. It’s there, somebody just needs to coach him how to use it.

  5. As Jack said more then likely Billy hasn’t turned the corner.He is in year number four and he is right at his average obp.Yes he gets banged up and yes he needs more time off and they could rotate all 4 guys which includes Winker and keep everybody fresh but they have done that to date.Bigger problem however is that Billy will cost 6 million a year next year while the other 3 will be making peanuts so what would we do if it was our money.Right now Billy and Peraza are the weak links with no power and an obp under.300.Can’t carry both of these guys every day and against lefties Tucker and Scooter are missing in action as well.Winker and Senzel help tremendously.

    • Winker and Senzel might help, but we don’t know yet, since Winker has played a handful of games at the MLB level and Senzel none. You are also ignoring the fact that hitting is one facet of game which is multi-faceted.

  6. Bat Billy 9th….when he running good then lead him off. Its not brain surgery! If he ever gained 10-15 lbs of muscle then he’d be able to drive the ball more and pitchers would nibble more often.

    Reward/punish these young guys. Peraza walks once/month….send him down! I’m sure we have another shortstop somewhere that can hit bleeder singles once in a while. Alex Blandino has a .383 obp at AAA….why is he not platooning w/Scooter? Reward the guys that are getting it. Alcantara might as well get some government cheese w/that paycheck because he’s done NOTHING! Cmon? Hunter Greene may end up regretting those few seconds that made him a Red. They’re idiots! Homer/Mesoraco get $34 mil next year. How many more millions to Cuban shortstops that can’t hit their way out of Single A?

  7. I agree Indy about where Billy needs to hit and the added muscle.Right now he is striking out 3 times for every walk and that’s right at his career numbers.Reason of course is that the pitcher says here it is and see if you can hit it.

  8. Great column, Matt. Extremely important topic for the Reds future. Promising signs in a lot of areas worth spotlighting.

    The transition from Jocketty to Williams (and who they rely on to help make decisions) could not be more profound in this area. Jocketty gave lip service to OBP but never followed up with moves. Every GM wants more OBP. Because of that, it costs more to acquire. The Reds under Jocketty didn’t put a priority on it. Right after Jocketty said that quote in your post, he acquired Marlon Byrd, for example. Making a gigantic trade for Jose Peraza was rock bottom.

    Bryan Price also doesn’t put enough value in OBP, otherwise Billy Hamilton wouldn’t be batting first every night.

    It’s important for players throughout the organization to believe that the front office and manager value getting on base.

  9. We don’t know about Winker and Senzel because they haven’t played in the big leagues.My comment was based on they have done it in the minors and its reasonable to assume they will be better then Billy and Peraza at getting on base.Not much of a risk to predict they will both get on base at .300 or better.We need guys that get on base or hit with power or both.I like Billy and Peraza but well the data is what it is and in Billy’s case its four years worth.I do feel Peraza can improve.Not sure if Billy will unless as Indy said he adds some muscle.

  10. Great points Steve.Its hard for any of us to believe its valued when you see Billy batting first.Regardless we seem to be headed in the right direction with other players so its a good thing.

  11. Sometimes numbers and stats don’t tell the real story but OBP is pretty cut-n-dried. Its a numbers game like most things in life. You get more guys on base and have more guys that run up pitch counts, then you’ll score more runs. Billy is somewhat of an outlier with his speed but another guy that doesn’t run like that might have 20 hrs and 35 doubles that Billy won’t produce.

    Steve is right…talk is cheap. When/if the Reds can get Senzel/Winker into the lineup and construct the lineup correctly, then they should have a shot at a top 5 NL leader in runs scored! Suarez is seeing so many pitches….why not bat him 2nd? Cozart is fine but he’s out of the lineup constantly.

  12. You talk about how a good batting avg drives up OBP and then you call that a fluke…are you kidding me? Since when did getting hits become a bad thing? Maybe I’m missing something here but I always thought getting hits was a good thing. Now, I want to let it be known that I do understand the importance of plate discipline and maybe even walks. But it almost seems as if taking a walk is becoming more important than getting hits. Walks should not be more important than hits BUT hits shouldn’t be more important than walks either. There should be a balance between the 2 (in the same player ideally). But in the absence of this ideal, again, it almost seems as if walks are more accepted than hits. Which would seem to almost be making an excuse for players who don’t or can’t get a lot of hits, “Oh, it’s alright if you don’t get a lot of hits, so long as you walk a lot!” Again, maybe I’m missing something here and if I am, then I apologize, but if a player has a good or even high OBP due to mostly getting hits I’m sure we can certainly live with that. Hits are a good thing people! And it shouldn’t matter what kinds of hits they are (ie, bleeders or seeing eye singles). Hits are hits are hits and I know there are those of you who’ll disagree with this bcuz there’s this prevailing belief that certain kinds of hits are more valuable than others. I’m not gonna get into all that.

    • I don’t think anybody is saying that walks are better than hits.

      But one thing to remember is that all players are not pitched the same way. Joey Votto gets a lot of walks in part because he has a very good eye, but it is also due to the fact that pitchers know he can and will crush strikes. As a result, Votto gets pitched to very carefully, with pitchers nibbling around the edges (busting him on the hands). By contrast, pitchers don’t mind challenging Billy Hamilton, because Hamilton hasn’t shown that he can hit with any authority.

      It doesn’t really matter with Peraza, because he will swing at anything, and if he does hit it, it won’t travel very far.

      In other words, if Mike Trout saw the pitches that Billy Hamilton does, he’d hit about .475 and slug about .800; if Hamilton saw the pitches that Trout does, he walk a lot more.

    • Sandman, you are forgetting that the average MLB hitter has a .060 point differential, as we have learned on here.
      So which player do you want? they both have the same Slugging % for arguments sake.

      Player A: .285/.315/.430; A gets on base 31.5%; the .030 is a below avg. differential.
      Player B: .260/.350/.430; B gets on base 35%; the .090 is an above avg. differential.

      Base hits are not bad. They aren’t saying they are. It is the below avg. differential they are talking about.

      • WVRedlegs, is there really that much of a difference between 31.5 & 35? I would think that the difference wouldn’t be felt all that much. So I’d take player A with the higher BA considering the SLG% is the same.

        • Using Bill James’ basic runs created formula:
          Player A would create 5.12 runs per 27 outs.
          Player B would create 5.49 runs per 27 outs.

          • Dave, again 0.37 runs doesn’t seem that big a difference. Figure that difference won’t be felt much.

    • Not saying hits are a bad thing at all. I’m saying in 2016, the increase in OBP was driven by a higher team batting average rather than an increase in walk rate. Walks and hits are equally important.

      • Matt, so what did you mean when you said, “The Reds currently have a .324 OBP, their highest in four seasons-and it’s not a fluke caused by a high BA, either”? A high BA is because of a lot of hits. I don’t see how a high OBP driven by a high BA can be a fluke.

        • I’m not arguing that hits don’t help OBP. My point is a well-rounded offense needs a healthy dose of both walks and hits. OBP going up is always good, but it isn’t necessarily indicative of an improved approach at the plate if the walks aren’t going up with it, which is what I meant by “fluke.”

      • Equally important in determining OBP. Didn’t I read here that a walk is something like 2/3 as valuable as a single?

    • No one is saying that walks are more important than hits. NO ONE.

      What they are saying is that relying solely on batting average for your OBP is not sustainable, unless you are hitting the ball hard and getting lots of line drives. Hoping and praying that your bleeders find a hole or that your popups fall in is not a sound strategy for getting on base.

      The ability to draw walks is tied to plate discipline, which means not swinging at bad pitches. You know what swing at bad pitches leads to? A few hits and a ton of outs. Better to take the walk and get on base than to swing at a bad pitch and more than likely get out.

      One other point: some hits ARE better than others. A double is better than a single. And a homer is better than all other hits. That’s obvious, and is somewhat measured by slugging percentage. Look at OBP and SLG, they’ll tell you way more about a hitter than BA and RBI’s.

      • Docmike, I understand that relying solely on basehits isn’t sustainable. That’s why I said that I’d prefer a balance of walks and hits. A .260 BA with a .350 OBP means relying mostly on walks to get on base. So are you saying that this “strategy” is more sustainable?

        • Yes, the walks are more sustainable. And, as is noted on the recent post on Suarez’s improvements, the more a batter stops swinging at pitches outside the zone, the more the pitcher has to throw legit strikes, which then usually leads to improved hitting and overall contributions.

          It is so important that people understand that nobody, ever, has advocated for a player to go up to bat and whisper “I hope I walk, I want to walk, I hope I walk above all else.” Rather, it’s just important that they go up there and think “I’ll swing at pitches I can drive and I’ll take what’s given to me.”

          Every time you cringe when another Reds started walks yet another guy?… that’s exactly what we want going on when the Reds are batting.

  13. Right or wrong Suarez provided us with an example of how a player can go into a hitting slump but because he still walks and plays defense he still is valuable.People get benched because they don’t get on base as was the case with Peraza.

  14. I wonder what Dusty’s Red teams were at with OBP if you subtracted Votto? Stubbs used to drive me crazy swinging at borderline 2-0 pitches. Cozart always hacked at anything close. BP same thing. They scored runs but I can’t think of anyone particularly patient except Votto and Rolen.

    • The 2012 Reds went 91-71 with no regular above .350 obp except Votto. Ryan Hanigan (.365) and Xavier Paul (.379 for 86 atbats). Ryan Ludwick w/honorable mention at .346.

      • The 2012 Reds went 91-71 in large part because of their rotation of Cueto, Latos, Bailey, Leake, and Arroyo.

        Imagine how much better that team would have been with more OBP in the lineup?

  15. Look at Dusty’s quote again:

    “On-base percentage, that’s fine and dandy. But a lot of times guys get so much into on-base percentage that they cease to swing. It’s becoming a little bit out of control…but your job in the middle is to either score them or drive them in.” “The name of the game is scoring runs. Sometimes, you get so caught up in on-base percentage that you’re clogging up the bases.”

    Now check out Phillips:

    “I think people now are just worried about getting paid and worrying about on-base percentage instead of just winning the game.” “People don’t care about RBI or scoring runs, it’s all about getting on base.”

    Sigh.

    Both of them seem completely clueless about what actually helps a team win. They talk about getting on base and scoring runs as though the two are mutually exclusive. Why is it so hard for some people to realize that getting more people on base means you score more runs? It’s not rocket science.

  16. I am going to guess because I don’t know but for Dusty and BP it probably wasn’t a topic discussed at contract time.Old school thinking I would imagine and I am an old school guy but its just common sense isn’t it that they go hand in hand,Unless you homer you have to get on base to score.

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