Who Has the Best Eye in Baseball?
The casual baseball fan is definitely happy about the home run barrage that seems to be every game played so far in the first month of the season. What might go unnoticed through all this, is the plate discipline of players around the league, driving the walk numbers up just as significantly as home runs. To see what gives players the accolade of a “good eye”, we look to advanced statistics, labeled under “Plate Discipline” in the Fangraphs Library.
Here is a table with players in the top 10 of walks as of April 29th. There is a mix of familiar and unfamiliar names on this list. Something these hitters have in common is that they all have a F-Strike% lower than league average, in which none of them come within 3 percentage points of, and they also have an O-Swing% below league average, in which none of them come within 4 percentage points of.
Then, I looked at Zone% in which pitchers threw more pitches in the strike zone than average when pitching to Joe Mauer. Given this, you would expect less walks but he is an excellent contact hitter, with a Contact% well above league average (78.07%) at 84.20%. He has one of the league’s lowest Sw-Str%, ranking in the top 10. Not only does Mauer have a low general Swing% at 29.3, he ranks 3rd out of 281 hitters who have seen at least 400 pitches, in swinging at pitches outside the zone with a measly total of 31. Based on these stats, it’s clear that he doesn’t miss the ball often when it’s over the plate. But, how does he draw walks? Mauer’s elite sense for the strike zone is what fuels his walks; If pitchers want to pitch around him, he has no problem keeping the bat on his shoulders.
Patience Pays Off
As opposed to Joe Mauer and Nick Markakis being thrown more strikes within the zone than average, the other 8 hitters saw less strikes than average. Specifically, Bryce Harper and Aaron Judge see the least amount of pitches in the strike zone in the league, ranking 5th and 7th respectively at 37.1% and 38.5%. Here are Statcast pitch heatmaps for Judge and Anthony Rizzo to compare a below average Zone% to a league average Zone%. It’s clear how significantly less strikes are thrown to someone like Judge when looking at these graphics. This seems to go without saying, but Harper and Judge are two of the most feared hitters in the majors so it makes sense that these numbers are so low. Digging deeper, Judge’s numbers are intriguing. His Swing% is 14th lowest in the MLB which could cause casual baseball fans to be confused; Given that he hit 52 home runs last year, many would think that Judge was an aggressive hitter especially with the criticism he’s received about his strikeouts. This criticism stems from his high Swinging Strike% of 12.5%, about 2.5% higher than average. In reality, he might be one of the most patient hitters in the league, tied for the most 3-2 counts with Carlos Santana at 42. He leads the league in pitches thrown to him, with 585. The combination of pitchers’ fear and his own patience have generated the second most walks in the MLB through the first month of the season.
Swinging at the Right Pitches
Lastly, I looked at the differential between O-Swing% and Z-Swing%. There’s something to be said for a player’s solid ability to swing at pitches in the zone as well as laying off pitches outside the zone, as opposed to one or the other. Not every player can be at the top of the leaderboards of both, but being better than the average player at both, added with a little luck, can lead to a surplus of walks. When you subtract O-Swing% from Z-Swing%, Joey Votto makes his way to 2nd on the list. It was surprising that Votto isn’t in the top 10 in walks to this point, but his slow start can be to blame. Given that he still has his elite plate discipline, once he starts to heat up he’ll be climbing the leaderboards and looking to lead the league in walks again for the 6th time in his career.
Drawing walks is a serious skill set that many players seek to obtain and there are different ways to do it. Some players do this by not swinging at all; They have a great sense of the strike zone and don’t need the bat to leave their shoulders to help their team. Other players are feared by pitchers and pitched around, working up counts regularly. Then, there are other players that have a good sense of the plate, swinging at most of what is in the zone and not much out of it. Finding who has the “best eye” in the majors is a more complicated question than many might think; Such a skill is the culmination of many things rather than just watching balls or strikes go by.
Baseball Savant. (2018). Statcast Search. Retrieved April 28, 2018, from Source Link
Fangraphs. (2018). Batting Leaderboards. Retrieved April 28, 2018, from Source Link
Fangraphs. (2018). Plate Discipline. Retrieved May 1, 2018, from https://www.fangraphs.com/library/offense/plate-discipline/
About the Author
Rory Houston is a Junior at Saint Joseph's University double majoring in Business Intelligence and Analytics & Sports Marketing, looking to pursue a career in baseball.