Patience at the plate has always been presented as a goal for hitters at all levels to strive towards.
Conventional thinking tells us that opposing pitchers get more and more uncomfortable as individual plate appearances wear on. Certainly, that makes some intuitive sense. It is only logical that the chances that a pitcher makes a mistake increase the longer an at-bat lasts, after all.
That one-on-one chess match between batter and pitcher makes baseball unique. However, the simple fact is that the pitcher has an inherent advantage, so much so that failure is the norm for a hitter. Can you name another sport where a 33 percent success rate for your career puts you on an inside track to a Hall of Fame spot?
It has long been said that the most difficult thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball with any amount of regularity, and this era’s increase in velocity has not helped hitters. In that light, it makes perfect sense for hitters to perform as selectively at the plate as possible to give themselves the best chance at success, if nothing else.
If we accept all that, then hitters need to see as many pitches as possible. Period. But is that really the best blanket piece of advice that will result in success for all batters? Should evaluators and instructors instead tailor their teachings to an individual's abilities and hitting profile?
We will attempt to answer that question today, but be warned: The answers are not as concrete as you may think.
An uncomfortably tight range
When we talk about how many pitches a hitter sees, we are using P/PA — pitches per plate appearance. This metric states the obvious: the total amount of pitches seen by a hitter divided by his total plate appearances.
If we look at historical data from the last three years — 2014 through 2016 — we see a tight range in P/PA. The lowest single year P/PA for a qualified hitter over this time frame belonged to Salvador Perez with 3.43 in 2014. The best single year P/PA came from the bat of Jayson Werth with 4.60 rate in 2016.
Year-over-year numbers fluctuate in terms of best to worst, but the gap between the two stays nearly constant, in the 1.27 to 1.60 range. In other words, we are talking about a less-than-two pitches per plate appearance difference. What possible conclusions we can arrive at with such a tight window of variance?
P/PA and wRC+ — a love story?
For the purposes of this study, we will use wRC+ as a measuring stick against P/PA. At the end of the day, the goal for any hitter is to create runs. wRC+ measures a batter’s ability to do just that.
There is an argument to be made that wOBA should be used as an indicator of the effect of P/PA. However, wOBA is the foundation for the wRC formula, which eventually gives us wRC+. Therefore, an ability to get on base or get hits by taking more pitches is inherently built in to the more advanced formula.
With that said, we begin by taking a cumulative look at the top 10 qualified hitters by wRC+ from 2014 through 2016, and their P/PA.
P/PA vs wRC+ — 2014 through 2016
The first takeaway from this table is a simple one: These are all very solid, accomplished hitters. Among these 10 players we see one surefire Hall of Famer in Miguel Cabrera, the best player in today’s baseball in Mike Trout, and eight other highly accomplished bats.
All hover above or around the 4.00 P/PA mark, save for that future Hall of Famer who has the lowest P/PA of the bunch. It is not like Cabrera is getting lucky, of course. It is a fair assumption that anyone who reads this is aware of Miggy’s bona fides, but it should nevertheless be noted that during this three year stretch, he maintained a below-league average strikeout rate — 16.8 percent -- and an elite 11.3 percent walk rate.
Perhaps examining a hitter with a less lofty resume can give us a better grasp on how seeing more pitches can affect a more mortal hitter. Nelson Cruz posted a robust 147 wRC+ over this time frame, and he did it with just an 8.8 percent walk rate. He did carry a .354 on base percentage over these three years, but also carried a .549 slugging percentage — the second-highest on this list, only behind Trout’s .567.
In Cruz’s case, perhaps we can surmise that his unique benefit in seeing more pitches than most came from the deference he saw from pitchers over this three-year slice. In 2014, Cruz saw pitches in the zone at a 44.2 percent clip, just down from that year’s MLB-wide 44.4 percent. 2015-2016 saw declining Zone% rates, with 41.4 percent and 42.7 percent rates, respectively. But Cruz’s F-Strike (first-strike) percentage also decreased with each passing year. In 2014 he posted an F-Strike of 62.1 percent, a figure which fell to 42.8 percent in 2016.
As it turns out, Zone percentage is a great indicator of tangible effects from higher P/PA.
wRC+, Zone % and P/Pa - a love triangle?
If we look at last year’s 10-best and 10-worst hitters by P/PA, we can start to see a more telling trend develop.
2016 Top Ten P/PA
These qualified hitters represent the top ten in P/PA for 2016. The list is not so formidable as our three-year slice, but there are still some quality names present.
Immediately, one notices that this grouping is again a tight one. Werth and Jose Bautista are separated by just 0.35, but there is a 4.2 percent difference among them in zone percentage.
The MLB-wide zone percentage for 2016 was 44.6 percent, and four players were above average in this regard, with Mike Napoli nipping at the average’s heels. Additionally, all but one of these players met or exceeded the MLB average wRC+ of 100 — and Russell Martin was darn close at 99.
If we average the wRC+ ratings of each of the top 10, we come up with a rate of 124.6, 24.6 percent above average.
How do the 10 worst in P/PA for 2016 compare to this group?
2016 bottom ten P/PA
Again, we see a tight grouping; only .12 separates Perez from Yadier Molina in this listing.
However, we still see five players with average or greater wRC+ rates. We also see two of the four-highest individual zone percentage rates among these 20 players.
The average wRC+ of these 10 players is 105.3, 19.3 percentage points below the average of the top 10. The 10 “worst” did have several hitters very near the average, however, and a few breaks here and there — a few more bloops, a couple more blasts — would have easily pushed them over the threshold.
Jose Altuve’s inclusion here proves our final point. His inclusion in the 10 worst P/PA figures sticks out like a sore thumb. He carried a 150 wRC+ in 2016 despite averaging just 3.45 P/PA and a 42.6 zone percentage.
Altuve’s 2016 was a monster one — he carried a .338/.396/.531 slash while posting 24 home runs, 96 RBI, 30 SB — and it added up to a 6.7 fWAR season. And, as we can see, he did it while seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance.
If we look at his slash once more, we can see that he “hit his on-base percentage,” meaning that there was rather small difference between his batting average and on base percentage. Did this mean that he swung a lot more, perhaps taking a few more strikeouts along the way?
In a word, no. Altuve was incredibly patient last year, carrying just a 9.4 percent strikeout rate. He was locked in for the bulk of the year, posting an OPS of .954 in the season’s first half to go along with a .894 mark in the second half.
Much like Cabrera from 2014 through 2016, Altuve was just a phenomenal hitter in 2016, despite seeing less pitches.
And therein lies the best conclusion we can make from all that has been presented here to this point.
That conclusion is this: Seeing more pitches can lead a pitcher to coming into the zone more often. Good hitters will take advantage.
That last part is important, so let’s state it again. Good hitters will take advantage. Hitters such as Michael Saunders will benefit greatly from forcing pitchers to come back into the zone. More established hitters — the Trouts, the Cabreras and the Altuve’s of the baseball world — will likely perform at or about the same despite how many pitches they see.
It will always be good advice for a hitter to see more pitches. Not seeing as many pitches as others is not necessarily a death sentence, provided the hitter is fundamentally sound to begin with.
Jason Rollison is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @Jason_Rollison