The difference between passivity and discipline

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The Oakland A’s lead the American League in a non-trivial offensive category. They swing at the fewest pitches of any other team. That might not seem like a huge surprise; after all, Moneyball is loaded with anecdotes that convey the A’s stance on plate discipline. Yet they haven’t turned that discipline into results. Their 92 wRC+ ranks 11th in the AL, and their 8.3 percent walk rate ranks only fifth. The results raise the question of whether the A’s are actually disciplined. Could they actually be merely passive?

Unsurprisingly, the evidence points towards passivity. It’s not as though Oakland hitters lay off only the bad pitches and swing at the good ones. While they have swung at the fewest pitches outside the strike zone, just 25.6 percent, they also have swung at the second fewest percentage of pitches within the strike zone. At the same time, they’re fed more pitches inside the strike zone than any other team. It comes as even less of a surprise, then, that they have the highest percentage of looking strikes in the league. They simply do not swing the bat as frequently as other teams.

The Yankees have the second lowest swing rate in the league, but they’re not nearly as passive as the A’s. They swing at more pitches within the zone than the A’s, they draw more walks, and they see more pitches per plate appearance. At the same time, they see the fewer pitches in the zone than any other team in the AL. On one hand, then, the A’s see more strikes than anyone and they swing at the fewest pitches, while the Yankees see the fewest pitches in the zone and they swing at the second fewest pitches. It doesn’t take much more than that to illustrate the differences between discipline and passivity.

Here’s another difference between the Yankees and the A’s. The Yankees lead the league in 3-1 counts, having seen them in 11 percent of all plate appearances. The A’s have seen 3-1 counts in 9 percent of their PA, which is right around the league average. The Yankees also lead the league in 2-0 counts seen, while the A’s are 13th. What’s the point of taking so many pitches if you’re not eventually working yourself into a better count? It’s hard to do, though, when pitchers simply feed you more strikes. That means more looking strikes, which leads to worse hitters’ counts.

There is no one stat that defines plate discipline. All we can do is look at a number of stats that relate to the concept and try to grade teams. When looking at overall swing rate and out of zone swing rate, it might seem as though the A’s are one of the most disciplined teams in the league. But when we dig a bit deeper, we see that they simply don’t swing the bat. The Yankees, on the other hand, swing infrequently because they’re fed fewer strikes than any other team. They for the most part lay off pitches outside the zone, they work favorable hitters’ counts, and they take their walks. It’s something we’ve seen them do for decades now, but it will never get old.

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  • Mickey Scheister

    I could see Brett Gardner leading off for the A’s, IMO he’s more passive than disciplined. Swisher has polished his Oakland passivity into some nice discipline.

  • Sayid J.

    So you’re telling me that good hitters that don’t swing at a lot of pitches are disciplined and bad hitters that don’t swing at a lot of pitches are passive? Got it.

    • rfwarrior

      No, it has to do with the kind of pitches you’re swinging at and the kind of pitches you’re letting go. It also has to do with the ability to change your mindset according to the pitcher or the circumstances.

      Tight game, man on second, two outs. The on-deck batter is having a rough outing. You DON’T look for a walk unless you get nothing to hit.

      Pitcher has been getting close calls all day. He’s ahead of hitters, regularly throwing first-pitch strikes. You look for your pitch, not a walk.

      • Ted Nelson

        If you’re concerned with who is on deck rather than your own at bat, you’re probably not an MLB hitter.

        • Jerome S.

          Yeah, seriously. If I’m a hitter who know the game, I’m looking to not make an out. If I can walk, fine, if I can hit, fine, but just avoid the out.

        • rfwarrior

          Fine, I’ll concede your point. But the same ideology applies. With a runner in scoring position, you should be more aggressive than passive.

          • Jerome S.

            Not if that “aggressiveness” ends up with you putting a weak 3-0 slider into play and GIDPing.

          • Ted Nelson

            In your opinion, based on the zero evidence that you have provided.

            My point is that it’s a lot more complicated than you imply.

            There is not one clearly right way of doing things. Different people have different theories. And different players have different mindsets they believe work best for them, whether that is superstitious or true.

            Cano is a very good contact hitter, so he feels he should just swing and he’s going to hit something. At the same time Garnder is a very good contact hitter, so he feels he should work the count because he’s going to be able to recognize and hit a strike even if he’s got 2 strikes on him. Cano is also aided in his approach with his ridiculous power, while Gardner is aided in his because he has virtually no power.

            Is there a chance that by swinging less Cano could be more successful and by swinging more Gardner could be more successful? Sure. Is there a convincing way to prove it? Not always. Sometimes there is a statistically clear answer, but sometimes it’s just conjecture.

        • Oscar Gamble’s Fro

          Your suggested approach would be the height of stupidity for certain hitters in the National League. The very height of it. Apex type stuff.

  • rfwarrior

    I’ve witnessed this with Garner too. He wastes down-the-middle fastballs by faking bunts and just taking a pitch no matter what. Bobby Abreu used to do the same thing. These are the people who seem to think “get a walk” rather than, “wait for your pitch”. It drives me nuts, especially when there are men on base.

    • Ted Nelson

      Yeah… Gardner and Abreu have had terrible careers. Wait, what? They’ve both had very good careers?

      • rfwarrior

        You’re missing the point. I never stated that they’ve had terrible careers, but they both fall into the category of more passive than disciplined. Nice try though.

        • Jerome S.

          If this “passivity” accumulates a .300/.400/.500 career line, I’d sell all my possessions to the HOF and beg them to let Gardner and Abreu in, passive or not.

        • Ted Nelson

          I’m not missing your point. I think it’s wrong.

          Since 2005 Bobby Abreu is 7th in MLB in BB%. He is 14th in OBP. Among all hitters. It is very hard to posit that there’s a problem with his approach that could have led him to be better than 7th in BB% and 14th in OBP among all hitters since 2005… even as he’s been declining physically. He is disciplined, and it’s worked out very well for him.

          Similarly… you have to show that Gardner would actually get better results with a different approach. For a guy with no power to speak of, he’s doing pretty well.

          The As problem is not that they have a bunch of Abreu’s and Gardner’s… believe me. I think you are dead wrong for bringing those two players up the way you did in this context. You could throw out their names, but to conclude they are passive to a fault with all the success they’ve had is tough.

  • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

    The Yankees, on the other hand, swing infrequently because they’re fed fewer strikes than any other team. They for the most part lay off pitches outside the zone, they work favorable hitters’ counts, and they take their walks. It’s something we’ve seen them do for decades now, but it will never get old.

    We have been coming to the same party for 12 years now, and that is in no way depressing.

    • CountryClub

      Hard to play quick games if the other teams don’t throw you strikes.

    • pete

      one nit to pick:

      “and in no way is that depressing”

      my syntactical knowledge of that movie’s dialogue, however, is.

      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        I bow to your memory, good sir.

  • rfwarrior

    One more, then I’ll shut up. Just so I’m not accused of being a gut-feeling “but I watch the games” kind of guy.

    Gardner this year:

    Count 0-0: 43 AB Count 0-1: 20 AB Count 0-2: 44 AB
    Count 1-0: 27 AB Count 1-1: 40 AB Count 1-2: 81 AB
    Count 2-0: 24 AB Count 2-1: 34 AB Count 2-2: 68 AB
    Count 3-0: 1 AB Count 3-1: 11 AB Count 3-2: 53 AB

    He is not working himself into good counts. He has way fewer ABs behind than ahead. With his contact rate and speed, that’s just ridiculous. ONE freaking 3-0 count. He’s digging himself a hole by letting everything fly by and then he has to hack his way out of it.

    • Scully

      This is a good stat. I think we can all agree Brett’s been successful even with this approach but man, this shows how good he could be if he let loose more often. Someone should show him this exact stat.

      • Ted Nelson

        I’m sure that the Yankees have far more advanced statistical analysis that Gardner is well aware of then what count a PA ended at.

        • Jerome S.

          Like his 50% Z-Swing rate, which basically tells the whole story.

    • pete

      somehow i doubt that a guy with 496 PA has seen 43 0-0 counts…

    • pete

      ah, I see how i misread it, but I think you have too.

      These are the counts on which the AB ended (and it does not include walks, I’m guessing). Not very many ABs end 3-0 because, well, you’re not supposed to swing 3-0, especially if you’re Brett Gardner.

    • Slugger27

      Wait you’re advocating gardner swing at more 3-0 pitches?

      • rfwarrior

        No, these stats, as I understand them are the ABs that he has reached those counts BEFORE something else happened. Therefore, the 43 0-0 counts are all first-pitch swings wherein he put the ball in play and never made it to a different count. The single 3-0 count means that the ump’s count, with Brett at the dish, has only ever once been 3 balls, no strikes. Clearly, most of his walks are from 3-2 counts.

        • MattG

          Sorry, this makes no sense. Either they “are the ABs that he has reached those counts BEFORE something else happened,”, or they are ABs that ended on that count. Since there are only 43 0-0 counts, they are clearly ABs that ended on that count.

          Thus, Gardner has only put the ball in play once on a 3-0 count, not only been in a 3-0 count once.

          • Jerome S.

            This is most logical, seeing as Gardner has been in several 3-0 counts this seasons just to my anecdotal knowledge. Putting the ball in play on a 3-0 count is an awful, awful strategy 99% of the time.

            • JAG

              Although we did see just that happen last night. I think the type of hitter that Gardner is, though, explains very clearly why he’s only had one AB end on a 3-0 count. This data is VERY misleading without context and explanation though. I thought it was a progression too, but then there’s no way he has only 43 0-0 counts.

          • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

            MattG is right, rfwarrior is wrong.

          • MattG

            but, thinking about this more, I don’t really see how it shows anything useful. Swing percentage in the strike zone would be much more useful. Swing percentage mapped to specific pitches would be the most useful thing of all. We know Brett’s passive because we watch him play–pitchers will challenge him on 2-0, and he’ll take–but in his case, he might actually be maximizing his ability.

            Think of it this way: 2-0 is a home run pitch, but Brett is not a home run hitter. Thus, this is not Gardner’s ideal count. I would say any 3 ball count is actually Gardner’s ideal count, including 3-2. If I were Brett Gardner, I would do everything I could to get to a 3 ball count every at bat, even if it meant taking a fastball on 2-0. If all I’m likely to do is hit a single something like 34% of the time if I swing, why not reserve those swings for 3 ball counts?

            • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

              Yeah, I agree. I’d like to see Gardner get into better hitters counts since it will allow him to see better pitches, but a guy like Gardner isn’t really going to generate tons of XBH anyway, his job is just to get on base any way possible, be it a solid single, a weak slap job, a bunt, a walk, an infield single, whatever.

              So I’m okay with Gardner using his good eye to prioritize getting to three balls to either work a walk or force the pitcher to give him a strike in a three-ball count.

              • JAG

                I think it’s pretty clear just anecdotally (although I’m sure there are stats that support it as well) that many, or maybe even most, MLB pitchers are either unable or unwilling to simply throw 3 straight pitches in the strike zone to guys like Gardner, further justifying his approach. He’s also helped considerably by his ability to foul off pitches that are close, forcing the pitcher to throw more and more strikes, which fewer and fewer pitchers seem able to do consistently.

          • rfwarrior

            Got me. I guess I was a little quick to pull the trigger. Now don’t get me wrong, Gardner is my favorite Yankee. But even on his own admission, at the beginning of this year he moved in on the plate to force himself to be more aggressive, figuring that after last year, pitchers were going to try to avoid the walk. Once he did that, he improved. Now he’s slumping again. Maybe it’s time for a tweak again.

            I can’t prove he’d be better if he swung the bat earlier. Same for Abreu. But you can’t argue with the fact that there are certain at-bats where you should look to produce the run by driving it in, not just extend the inning by getting on base, regardless of your spot in the order.

            However, I fully realize that I’ve now reached the territory of having no stats to back me up since the ones I did gather, I misread. haha

            • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

              But you can’t argue with the fact that there are certain at-bats where you should look to produce the run by driving it in, not just extend the inning by getting on base, regardless of your spot in the order.

              Yes I can.

              • MattG

                And that’d be a healthy debate. Stats have pegged a walk at 70% the value of a hit. That’s averaged across everything. There are certain instances where a walk is the exact equivalent of a hit, others, like 2 outs and a runner on third, where a walk isn’t close to 70% of the value of a hit.

                There are situations where Gardner, perhaps with the runner on third and two out, in a 2-0 count vs a RHP, should not be taking a fastball in the strike zone.

        • Ted Nelson

          Walks do not count as ABs…

    • Ted Nelson

      “He has way fewer ABs behind than ahead.” That’s a good thing… what you wrote is that he had more ABs ahead.

      Mind sharing a link of where you are coming up with this information? Gardner had a 3-0 count just last night. You mean to tell me that was his first 3-0 count of the season?

      • rfwarrior

        Thanks for the correction on my wording. You’re right, I meant way “more”, not fewer. And the stat-line is from YahooSports. There’s a possibility that I’m misinterpreting the data, but if you add up the ABs from each individual count, they do add up to his total ABs for the year.

    • Jerome S.

      Major interpretation/miscommunication of data going on here.

  • Mike

    Yes, because how someone produces is more important than that they produce.

    • pete

      yeah man, fuck analysis. I don’t want to learn how to play the guitar, I just want to play it.

      • Jerome S.


      • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

        Brian: I was in love once.
        Ron: Really? What was her name?
        Brian: I don’t know.
        Ron: That’s not a good start, Brian, but keep going.

  • Eric

    How about this for a stat?

    Discipline% = (% pitches outside strike zone not swung at, plus
    % pitches inside strike zone swung at), divided by 2

    A perfectly disciplined hitter would have 100%, and a perfectly undisciplined hitter would have 0%

    • Jerome S.

      Would seem fairly solid, if not for the awful, inconsistent strike zones that umpires have that seems to throw a monkey wrench into this whole situation.

    • Eric

      I guess this is the same as (Z-Swing% + (1 – O-Swing%))/2.

      2010 league average would be 67.6%.

      • NJ_Andy

        2010 Yankees (Min 200 PA) score out with a 69.3%.

        I haven’t weighted by PA though (don’t have time), so that would probably give them a slight boost.

    • Owen Two

      This stat seems to imply that you should always swing at a strike, and never swing at a ball. But you could:

      * Bunt at a low pitch because you’re looking to move a runner over.
      * Lay off an inside strike because you want to hit the ball the other way.
      * Follow Ted Williams’ advice: If a pitch fools you, and you have less than two strikes, take it.
      * Be a bad-ball hitter, like Yogi.

      • Jerome S.

        This has nothing to do with plate discipline. Yogi Berra had pretty meh plate discipline, but does that matter? No. Plate discipline doesn’t make you a good or a bad player, it’s just another tool in the box.

    • Dave

      Except that there are plenty of pitches in the strike zone that shouldn’t be swung at, and occassional pitches outside the strike zone that should be.

      • NJ_Andy

        True, but it’s a step in the right direction. Robbie Cano, for one, would be well served by applying a little more of this approach to his game.

    • Yazman

      “There is no one stat that defines plate discipline.”

      Eric’s metric sounds right to me.

      Can this be adjusted for umpire error?

      Sounds like a new stat for RAB to pioneer!

  • Peepee Hands

    That game last night was one of the worst umpired games (for both sides) I have seen all year. Namely Rapuano…

  • rfwarrior

    “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

    You guys tore me a new one. But seriously, I am still gonna yell at Gardner from time to time “SWING THE F*CKING BAT!”

    • NJ_Andy

      Welcome to RAB.

  • nsalem

    Plate discipline and speed are Gardner’s only offensive assets and he does a great job using them to the best of his ability. If all major league ballplayers ran at the same speed I would imagine that he would have close to the lowest batting average. He just doesn’t make good contact that often. His glove, his speed and his improving bunting and base stealing ability has turned him into a very good ballplayer who is holding his own on a top echelon mlb team. He is having a better year than his Red Sox counterpart for 20 million less dollars a year.