Virtue, and victory, no longer synonymous with patience at the plate
Jayson Werth of the Washington Nationals swings at a 3-and-0 pitch and when he grounds into a double play he invites howls of scorn about how could he have done such a dumb thing. Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds is hailed as an on-base machine because he takes more walks than anybody, though he has yet to get an extra-base hit with a runner on base and he lets more strikes go by with each passing year.
Welcome to the state of the art in hitting these days, where aggressiveness is disdained and passivity is exalted. The modern hitter is guided by the accepted wisdom in catchphrases such as "driving up pitch counts," "taking pitches" and "quality at-bats." There is one serious flaw in this groupthink strategy.
It isn't working.
Hitters are striking out more than ever before in baseball history while runs, walks, hits and home runs have been on the decline for years. And while teams still preach the religion of driving up pitch counts to "get into the bullpen" of the other team, they may be pushing an outdated agenda. So fortified are major league bullpens these days, especially with hard throwers, that last year relievers posted an ERA more than half a run lower than starters and averaged almost one strikeout for every inning.
(The best idea is to strike quickly; teams that get a lead after as little as two innings win 70 percent of the time.)
The proliferation of measurables in baseball is helping a generation of hitters turn offense into a passive aggressive pursuit. While batting average rightly has lost much of its inflated value, the flip side is that ubiquitous pitch counts, pitches per plate appearance, walks and on-base percentage are influencing how hitters go about their jobs.
As Yankees outfielder Vernon Wells told me in spring training, "Everything is measured these days, and players know it. There's so much attention on pitch counts and how many pitches you see. Players are aware of it. When you get deeper counts, you're going to get more strikeouts."
Cubs president Theo Epstein said it best when he observed, "In the information age, things that are precisely measured are rewarded disproportionally relative to impact."
What we are left with is a sport in which games keep getting longer but with less and less action. The ball is not put in play on 81 percent of the pitches, an all-time record of inactivity. The knottiest issue for baseball is not the stadium issues of Oakland and Tampa Bay or the Biogenesis scandal; it's the increased lack of action in your average baseball game.
Mindsets need to change. Think about Werth's decision to swing 3-and-0 Sunday. The guy is a veteran hitter with a good idea of the strike zone who is playing under a $126 million contract. And yet when he grounded into a double play you would have thought he committed the dumbest act on a baseball field since Jose Canseco headed a fly ball over the wall.
Why? Nobody swings 3-and-0 any more. You're supposed to take the pitch to drive up the pitch count and lengthen your at-bat, nevermind that it might be the best pitch the hitter sees.
Last year major league hitters managed only 94 hits on 3-and-0 counts, or about one hit on a 3-0 pitch every 26 games. (They hit .348 when they did put 3-0 pitches into play). The 94 hits on 3-0 were down 24 percent in just a decade, down from 123 hits in 2002. So because hitters swing less often on 3-and-0, Werth gets criticized for doing something "wrong," even though the average big leaguer slugs .767 when he does put such pitches into play.
It's not just 3-and-0 pitches. Hitters are turning traditional hitters' counts into passive counts. The number of plate appearances decided on 2-and-0 counts has gone down six straight years. Home runs on 2-and-0 counts dropped 33 percent from 2000 to 2012 (from 384 to 259).
And the first-pitch hack is fading into obscurity. While the strikeout has lost virtually all of its taboo, the one-pitch out has acquired the worst reputation in the culture of hitting. It's the last embarrassment in hitting. You can look at strike three all you want -- all in the name of being "selective" and "taking pitches" -- but woe to the ego and pride of a hitter who makes an out without "driving up the pitch count" of the pitcher. The best way to avoid such notoriety is simply not to swing at the first pitch. Check out how poorly that strategy is working in this snapshot of percentages in five-year increments:
Do the math: hitters are swinging at the first pitch less and less and striking out more and more.
You hear so much talk about "grinding out at-bats" and "making the pitcher throw more pitches" that you would think seeing a lot of pitches is a denominator to success. You would be wrong. There is no correlation between seeing more pitches and winning more games.
Entering this week, only one of the six first-place teams ranked among the top 11 teams in pitches per plate appearance. Five of those 11 teams that saw the most pitches had losing records.
Last year there were 13 teams that ranked above average in most pitches per plate appearance. Nine of those 13 teams did not make the postseason. The two pennant winners, San Francisco and Detroit, ranked 25th and 27th in pitches per plate appearance.
If there is one hitter who best personifies the modern passive aggressive approach it is Votto. He has phenomenal patience, balance and hand-eye coordination. Last year he came to the plate 475 times and suffered the embarrassment of the one-pitch out only 19 times.
This year Votto is off to a wildly efficient start. In 20 games he has reached base 49 times, including 25 times by way of a walk. His on-base percentage is a robust .500. According to the favored modern measurables, he is an offensive dynamo of historic proportions.
But that's not the whole story. Votto, who won the 2010 NL MVP Award when he hit 37 home runs, has become an extreme version of himself. He is swinging the bat less often with each passing year. No one should advocate Votto start chasing more pitches out of the strike zone, but it's interesting to see how Votto is letting more and more good pitches go by without attempting to swing. His percentage of swings at strikes has gone down four straight years: 74, 73, 69, 62, 60. Votto has told me the more pitches he sees, the more he believes the at-bat swings in his favor.
Votto is not alone and, even as a hitter who watches 40 percent of strikes go by, not all that unusual. Batters keep taking more and more strikes, and often leaving their at-bat in the hands of the umpire. The percentage of swings at pitches in the zone has been in steady decline since 2002:
Now consider what Votto has done this year with runners on base. The Reds' number three hitter has come to the plate 51 times with runners on and produced zero extra-base hits. His slugging percentage with runners on is .188. Only twice this year has he driven in a teammate with a hit. But he has an awesome on-base percentage.
Walks are great because they are one indication of "winning" the batter-pitcher matchup and lead to runs. But walks, other than calculating on-base percentage, are not exactly as good as a hit. They put no pressure on a defense and advance runners only one base at a time, and even then only when a force is in play. Votto is a master at winning confrontations against pitchers with his discipline and patience. He is rewarded in the modern groupthink for a lack of activity -- for not swinging the bat. Offense becomes defense. He is the supreme state of the art hitter.
The problem is the state of the art isn't working. Few hitters are as good as Votto. More teams than ever deploy two batting coaches, not one. More ballparks have constructed multiple batting tunnels that almost never go empty from four hours prior to the game to the last out. Video is more abundant and portable than ever. More data is available. And yet the modern approach to hitting is failing. Pitchers are four years into a run of dominance and there are no signs that their run is abating, especially when the modern passive aggressive approach to hitting has become so ingrained.