We are continuing the plate discipline series with first basemen, but for some of you this will be your introduction to the series. Before we dive into the numbers we should pause and discuss the various numbers you are viewing and why they are important. We first should talk a little about why we are looking at plate discipline. The simple answer can be seen on the Philadelphia Phillies.
In 2011, Ryan Howard hit a robust 33 home runs and drove in 116 runs. This had been the sixth season in a row he had hit at least 30 home runs and driven in 100 or more runs. His new contract began that very next season (5 years and 125 million). The problem was that he was coming off of a season that saw him strikeout more than 170 times and he walked “only” 75 times. In his early years, he was able to overcome bad plate discipline. Often times, hand-eye coordination is the first thing to go (I can’t remember the second).
Looking at plate discipline numbers like strikeouts, walks, and strikeout to walk ratio can clue you in to players that will either go off the deep end (like Howard) or will see their luck improve. The process numbers are even more telling in most cases. We look at the percentage of swings that come on balls outside the zone (Oswing), the percentage that a player makes contact (contact%), and the percentage of strikes that come on swings and misses (Swstr). Those numbers can tell us why the strikeouts and walks are occurring. More importantly, it can tell us if a player is being successful because of good plate discipline or in spite of it. We are looking only at first basemen that are scheduled to their team’s regular first baseman (or DH) and have at least 1000 plate appearances at the big league level. If you notice any big names missing (most notably Jose Abreu), that is why.
In past editions, I have broken up players by looking at their respective numbers first. This go around I am dividing them up by how they are being drafted (or not drafted). Since you are reading this after your draft (and after the season has begun), you might want to pay special attention to the last group. This is where your waiver wire guys will be. Some of them are there for good reason, but some of them are there because people just don’t notice them. You can use that to your advantage.
If you want to start an argument in a sports bar or on an internet message board, then talk about strikeouts. The traditionalists will decry the strikeout as the bain of our existence. The modern guys say that an out is an out is an out. The answer is somewhere in between. The question is how one gets to the strikeout. If a hitter takes a lot of pitches because he has discriminating taste, then it’s just part of the territory. This is where the process data comes in. Look at how many pitches outside the zone they are swinging at.
This is where we look at the numbers and realize Miguel Cabrera may be in some trouble. He is one of those guys that has gotten by on sheer superior talent. However, when the process is shaky, then you eventually get shaky results when that talent begins to erode. In his case, the Tigers have a ton of money invested in him and there is no way he could possibly live up to that contract. Anthony Rizzo and Freddie Freeman will eventually get there, too, but they are currently in their prime, so it isn’t as much a concern.
The Second Tier
Again, we are looking at guys that are either towards the bottom of your starting lineup (either as first basemen or utility guys) or on your bench. However the occasional guy will slip through some drafts. Amazingly, that has happened with Joe Mauer. The guy who once sold video games and shampoo in his spare time has now become a fantasy afterthought. Say it isn’t so. Well, all good things must end.
In Mauer’s case it isn’t so much that he’s become a different player, but that hitting .300 and hitting around ten home runs doesn’t make you a special first basemen. However, it makes for a pretty good bench presence in a pinch. Otherwise, you are looking at a mixed bag. Adrian Gonzalez might be one to look out for on the other end. The basic numbers look good, but the process numbers are a little disconcerting. Like Cabrera, he isn’t likely to age particularly well.
The Waiver Wire
You would expect to see guys struggle with plate discipline in this group. Most of them have strikeout to walk ratios greater than two. If we focus our attention on the guys that are better than the median, we see three names come to the forefront. James Loney and Billy Butler are similar hitters in that they really don’t produce a lot of power numbers. Butler has been more prolific in terms of run production in the past, but he is coming off the worst season in his career. I’d consider him a decent bounce back candidate in Oakland. Loney probably shouldn’t be a fantasy factor at this point, but he could do okay for a week or so in a pinch.
The best sleeper here is Teixeira. If he’s healthy, he could surprise people and return to the 30 home run and 100 RBI performer he was before he was hurt. Throw in the healthy walk rate and that translates to starter quality production. The problem is that he has not been healthy in a couple of years, and he isn’t getting any younger. The upside is that waiver wire pickups are cheap and low risk.