Much to the dismay of Joe West, the Yankees have made an early season habit out of wearing down starting pitchers. In the last three games, each opposing starter has had at least one 30+ pitch inning, and all failed to make it through five innings. So, it is not surprising that the Yankees lead the American League in runs per game. Then again, patience simply for the sake of taking pitches is not necessarily an optimal offense strategy. Consider the following:
As you can see, the Yankees only rank third in terms of pitches seen per plate appearance. But, that’s not the whole story. More important than taking pitches is not swinging at balls. In other words, there is nothing wrong with swinging at strikes, particularly ones in a hitter’s hot zone. In fact, a closer look at the numbers reveals that this is the approach that the Yankees have perfected.
As evidenced by the expanded chart, the Yankees have been most successful at drawing balls (i.e., not turning them into strikes by swinging). As a result, they have taken many more walks than the two teams ahead of them in Pit/PA. Because OBP correlates better to run scoring than just about any other stat, converting pitches seen into walks is vital. Again, however, there is more to consider.
Aside from the base on balls, a patient approach allows a hitter to work the count into his favor. This increases the likelihood of getting a hit, and often an extra base hit (i.e., the slugging component of patience). If a batter is unable to convert a favorable count into offensive production, his patience can often go in vain. Similarly, if a batter is unable to handle being behind in the count, a patient approach can be limiting. Let’s look at the three “most patient” teams once again.
The Yankees’ ability to both do damage when ahead in the count as well as limit futility when behind is another reason for the team’s offensive dominance. On the other hand, the Red Sox batters have not capitalized on favorable counts, while the Indians batters have wilted when even or behind in the count. As a result, their run production levels significantly lag the Yankees. (One note: the Red Sox low batting average on balls in play either suggests they have been unlucky, or not making “good contact” when ahead in the count. Most studies would seem to conclude the former, but because of the small sample, either conclusion is possible).
Finally, a third benefit of patience is running up the starter’s pitch count quickly enough so the offense can feast on the soft underbelly of the opponent’s middle relief. In our last chart, you can see that the Yankees have also had the advantage in this department. Not only have they batted against a higher percentage of relievers (albeit by a small margin), they have also performed much better against their opponents’ bullpens. This segment, in particular, is very dependent on the sample, so more than the others should be taken with a grain of salt.
|% PA vs. Relief||OPS vs. Relief|
In summary, yes, patience at the plate is a virtue. However, a patient approach entails much more than standing in the box with the bat on one’s shoulder. Patient hitters need to first work the count by laying off pitches out of the strike zone, but should be prepared to attack pitches that are in their particular hot zone. Then, if strikes are not forthcoming, he must take a walk and pass the baton to the next batter. Finally, if these approaches are executed properly, the team should be able to increase the number of at bats it has against its opponent’s middle relief. Far from revolutionary, this approach has helped the Yankees get off to a hot start and should sustain them over the course of the season.