All spring, we hear chatter about players poised for big seasons because they’ve made “much-needed adjustments,” gotten in the “best shape of their lives,” or started playing “with a chip on their shoulders.” Consequently, when we heard that Josh Bell spent the offseason doing yoga or that Andrew McCutchen was claiming, “I’m going to have a monster year, whether it’s in Pittsburgh or somewhere else,” we immediately entered the season scrutinizing those things.
Since we are only a week and a half into the season, we don’t have enough of a sample size to judge what is real and what is an aberration. But Plate Discipline statistics can signal possible trends in a player’s approach. For instance, Joey Votto has long been heralded for his patient and selective approach at the plate, but he’s come out this season looking “un-Votto like.” He is swinging at virtually every pitch thrown near the zone, as evidenced by his 90 percent zone swing rate (Z-Swing%) that eclipses his previous career high by more than 20 points.
Even if we can’t say with absolute certainty what’s going on with Votto, it’s too dramatic of a shift to attribute it to mere chance. Perhaps Votto is trying to be unpredictable and aggressive out of the gates for a team that was projected to be a National League bottom feeder. Regardless of the explanation, you can bet opposing pitchers will be watching as the season progresses.
So let us take a closer look at the Pirates’ Plate Discipline numbers to see what early-season trends are developing.
At this juncture, Adam Frazier is doing his best Ben Zobrist impersonation by being as selective at the plate as humanly possible. Not only is he refusing to chase balls outside the zone, but he is also waiting for his pitch even when it is in the zone with just a 60 percent zone swing rate. Those two signs alone are very impressive for a young hitter, so it is incredible to see that he has whiffed on only 1.9 percent of his swings, trailing only Andrew Benintendi.
Generally, Andrew McCutchen has been more discerning than he has in recent years. He’s rarely swung at balls outside the zone, and has never swung at so many pitches in the zone. Unfortunately, this improved approach hasn’t enabled him to cut down on his strikeout rate or translated to success.
McCutchen’s batted-ball numbers suggest he’s still hitting the ball hard with his standard split of grounders, line drives, and fly balls, so maybe the improved approach in conjunction with his batted-ball profile will correct itself sooner rather than later.
While Freese could never hope to replace what Jung Ho Kang brings to the Bucs, he’s doing his best to compensate for Kang’s absence. This is primarily because his contact rates, a 96.7 percent Z-Contact rate and an 84.6 percent O-Contact rate, are among the best in baseball.
If he were being more aggressive or more discerning, then it might give us hope that he could continue a high level of production. Neither of those are the case, and history tells us that most players don’t gain increased bat speed the further past age 30 they get.
Similar to Starling Marte and Jordy Mercer, there is nothing in Josh Bell’s plate discipline numbers that is significantly different from the previous season. It is promising, though, that Bell is keeping pace with the excellent numbers he put up in his debut season despite a horrendous spring training following knee surgery.
Considering Gregory Polanco hadn’t drawn a walk until yesterday’s game against Cincinnati, it is safe to assume that he was either getting hammered in the zone or pressing more in Kang’s absence. Polanco’s zone percent is on the low side, but that is not abnormal for him, so it must be the latter, as Polanco is swinging at roughly nine percent more pitches than he has in his career with the largest spike occurring on swings outside of the zone (O-Swing%).
As you can see below, Polanco has has whiffed on a few down and away, but other than that, he seems to be taking the liberty of swinging at any pitch on the edge of the zone.
The aggressiveness isn’t a problem if Polanco starts producing in the cleanup spot, but he needs to prove he can do that if he wants to avoid his zone percent decreasing as opposing pitchers take note.
In unsurprising news, Josh Harrison is continuing his free-swinging ways. His 15 percent whiff rate will hopefully regress closer to his career rate of 10 percent, but in the meantime, he’s getting pounded down and away, with only 40 percent of pitches falling in the zone.
Harrison has been a fairly competent “bad ball” hitter in terms of contact, so there’s reason for some level of optimism as the season progresses.
As with any early-season statistic, these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, but it should also be noted that strikeout and walk rates, which are heavily tied to plate discipline, are among the first offensive stats to stabilize during a season. If you’re interested in knowing how much of a sample size is needed, be sure to check out this article on Fangraphs drawing on the work of Russell Carleton.
For now, we will continue to see if Frazier’s excellent approach or Polanco’s aggression at the plate continues the further we get into the season.