After watching Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve during a recent a four-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners, I was thoroughly impressed by the 25-year-old’s impact on the success of Houston’s offense. An interesting aspect of Altuve’s hitting style is his aggressiveness at the plate compared to his contemporaries. Entering today, he’s only seeing an average of only 3.16 pitches-per-plate appearance (Pit/PA), yet he’s posted a superb triple slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) of .338/.390/.489.
Brief plate appearances are nothing new for Altuve. In 2014, he averaged 3.11 Pit/PA – lowest in the majors – while winning his first American League (AL) batting title. Seeing a player who is so aggressive, yet so successful at the plate, left me pondering whether plate patience was important to success at the plate.
Since getting on base is usually the primary goal of every hitter, I’m going to use on-base-percentage (OBP) to determine if there’s a correlation between plate patience and getting on base. On the table below, I’ve also included several other statistics – batting average (BA), slugging percentage (SLG), and on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS), walks-per-strikeout rate (BB/K), plus percentages for walks and strikeouts (BB% and K%) – in order to give a complete picture on each player’s plate production. Unless otherwise noted, all league-rankings and tables are American League-only.
The ten AL hitters with the highest OBP and more than 600 plate appearances is a diverse group of successful players who were successful with varying degrees of plate patience. Six of them – Altuve, Adrian Beltre, Michael Brantley, Robinson Cano, Jose Abreu, and Miguel Cabrera – were below the league-average of 3.82 Pit/PA. The best example of contrasting philosophies at the plate may be the two players who had the lowest and highest Pit/PA, but managed to have the same OBP in 2014 – Altuve and Mike Trout.
Highest on-base percentage
|LgAvg per 600 PA||600||3.82||.251||.314||.388||.702||.39||5.1%||13%|
Altuve was aggressive with a purpose. During attempted swings, he made contact with the ball 91-percent of the time – fourth best rate in the AL – and led the majors with 225 hits. Although the Astros’ second baseman didn’t walk often, he was efficient with his plate appearances, registering the second lowest strikeout ratio in the AL and a top-20 walks-to-strikeout (BB/K) rate.
A player like Altuve isn’t interested in letting a good pitch pass by, while Trout is more willing to wait for a pitch he can drive. Like most power hitters who take a lot of pitches, Trout is prone to strikeout more often. His 80-percent contact may have only ranked at number-50 in the AL. But, the 23-year-old walked far more often that Altuve. Combine Trout’s superb OBP with his top-three slugging percentage and you have a recipe for a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate and one of the best players on the planet. The success of these two great hitters demonstrates that a player can succeed at that plate by being aggressive or by being patient. Perhaps, the value-added becomes more apparent when reviewed at a club level.
Only one AL team – the Boston Red Sox – has been in the top-three in Pit/PA in each of the past five seasons. During that span they’ve had three winning years accompanied by two poor seasons and one postseason appearance – 2013 when they won the World Series. Since winning is a by-product of both run production and run prevention, let’s focus on the main goal of every lineup – scoring runs.
Highest runs score-per-game
Yes, the Red Sox were tops in Pit/PA, but they were also tied for the third worst runs-per-game (R/G). The team that scored the most runs in the AL –the Los Angeles Angels – were just below the league-average for Pit/PA. At the other end of the spectrum, the team with the lowest R/G – the Tampa Bay Rays – had virtually the same Pit/PA as the Angels. As with the individual players, teams enjoyed success with varying degrees of plate patience.
Some may argue that taking a lot of pitches can be a productive team strategy because it’ll get the opposing starter out of the game sooner and get the team into their opponent’s bullpen. That may make sense on a case-by-case basis, but not as an across-the-board strategy.
Working counts may make sense against pitchers who have high walks-to-nine innings pitched rate (BB9). For example, taking a lot of pitches against the likes of C.J Wilson in 2014 may have helped chase the southpaw a bit sooner. On the other hand, both Sonny Gray and R.A Dickey were in the top 20 for innings pitched-per-game start (IP/GS) despite being top 10 in BB9.
Highest walks-per-nine innings
|LgAvg per 180 IP||20||180||3.79||2.9||7.7||2.67|
On the flip side, a team strategy of working counts can be counterproductive against elite pitchers who have superb command and don’t walk many batters. Most of the pitchers on the top-10 list for lowest BB9 were successful at avoiding the base-on-balls and going late into games.
Lowest walks-per-nine innings
|LgAvg per 180 IP||20||180||3.79||2.9||7.7||2.67|
Even if a team is able to chase a starting pitcher a little early, how early is early? Assuming that a starter will be permitted to throw 100 pitches during a good start, there really isn’t much difference over the course of a season. An opposing pitcher would face an average of 24.6 Red Sox hitters based on their 4.05 Pit/PA average. Conversely, an opposing pitcher would face an average of 26.3 hitters when facing the Angels and their 3.80 Pit/PA. Is an average of two batters-per-game really a big deal?
There is something else to consider; getting to the bullpen may not be the best path to success. Six of the pitchers on the high BB/9 IP list were on a team with a bullpen in the top five for fielding independent pitching (FIP).
Regardless of a player’s or team’s approach towards plate patience, the most important factor is the talent of the player with a bat in his hand. During the young 2015 season, the three teams with the most R/G – Toronto, Kansas City, Baltimore – are near or below the league-average of 3.83 Pit/PA. Conversely, the three teams with the lowest R/G – Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle – have similar Pit/PA rates to the top-three teams. Seeing more pitches wouldn’t necessarily help these three offensively-challenged teams unless their hitters delivered positive results. As Altuve has already proven, talent can trump patience.