In a fairly routine 6-4 win last night, the Yankees saw 185 pitches over 43 plate appearances. The winning run scored on a walk, and their six and seven hitters saw a combined 53 pitches over nine plate appearances. The Yanks’ offense made the Red Sox hurlers work their way through a nine-inning game, and in the truest sense of the baseball cliche, they grinded out a win.
For the Yankees, taking pitches, working the count and upping opposing pitchers’ pitch counts isn’t a new story. Brian Cashman and, before him, Gene Michael have built teams based upon patience since 1994 when the Yanks led the league in on-base percentage and were second in pitches seen and third in pitches per plate appearance. In fact, the Yanks have been one of the AL’s top three on-base teams in all but two of the past 16 seasons.
All of this patience pays off. Last year, for instance, the Yankees led the AL in pitches seen with 25,049. They averaged 3.88 pitchers per plate appearance, good for fifth in the Junior Circuit, and the team’s hitters worked the count to 3-1 709 times, well above the league average of 583. In just 24 percent of plate appearances, Yankee hitters swung at the first pitch. Only the Red Sox and Angels swung at fewer first pitches. By taking so many pitches, the Yanks drew an AL-leading 663 walks and scored 915 runs.
Already this year, in two games, we’ve seen some similar trends. Over their first two games, the Yanks have seen 341 pitches and have made the Red Sox pitchers work for their strikes and for their outs. They’ve drawn 11 walks and have an overall OBP of .395. They’re already averaging 6.5 runs per game.
So why then does it matter? Last night we saw it matter when Nick Johnson stood at the plate with two outs and the bases loaded. He took a few close pitches, earned himself a few nice calls and walked away with the game-winning RBI. Overall, the team can use this patience and willingness to take pitches to tire out pitchers to their advantage. At 3.88 pitches per plate appearance, starting pitchers will reach the 100-pitch mark after approximately 25 or 26 batters. Managers will have to turn to their bullpens for around 9-12 outs, and the Yanks will see more outs secured by lesser pitchers.
In a sense, the need for patience goes without saying. Of course, the more a starting pitcher throws early on, the sooner he’ll be out of the ballgame. The more a pitcher throws, the more likely he is to make a mistake. The more pitches the Yanks see, the more likely they are to get on base. They more they’re on base, the more they score. On the other hand, though, enough teams overlook it that the Yanks’ attention to patience can become a significant advantage.
So as Nick Johnson puts up a .000/.500/.000 line over this first two games and as two hitters in the bottom half of the Yanks’ order sees a combined 53 pitches in one night, the team will put on a clinic in getting on base. Before Moneyball came around, the Yankees knew the importance of taking pitches, and the team still excels at it.