Has the Pirates’ plate discipline improved?

Early in the season, many people praised Pirate hitters for utilizing a more patient approach at the plate. The most cited evidence of this improvement was the number of times a player took the first pitch he saw. John Russell and his staff were commended for coaxing this team of free swingers into taking some pitches. However, there is a danger in simply taking the first pitch every at-bat. Once opposing pitchers recognize this trend, hitters begin finding themselves behind in the count right off the bat. While being patient and forcing the pitcher to throw additional pitches is an important aspect of hitting, plate discipline is much more valuable. In other words, swinging at pitches in the strike zone and taking pitches that are not. Simple, right?
FanGraphs has some wonderful statistics that quantify a hitterís plate discipline. Using O-Swing% (ďthe percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zoneĒ), we can determine whether certain players are fishing outside the strike zone on a regular basis. In 2005-2007, the average O-Swing% was around 23%. Letís see how the Pirates are doing this year compared with 2007. (Note: pitchers are not included.)
To start, letís take a look at the 2007 Pirates. Jose Castillo (35.11%), Matt Kata (35.11%), Freddy Sanchez (33.43%), and Xavier Nady (30.19%) were all major free-swingers. Castillo and Kata were sent packing after the season, but Sanchez and Nady returned to the starting lineup for 2008. Jack Wilson (26.24%) was slightly above average, while Ryan Doumit (24.96%), Cesar Izturis (24.50%), Adam LaRoche (23.36%), Chris Duffy (23.05%), Jason Bay (22.12%) and Ronny Paulino (21.54%) were all about average. Nate McLouth (18.95%), Josh Phelps (18.95%), Jose Bautista (17.85%) and Rajai Davis (16.82%) were the most disciplined Pirates. Overall, the 2007 Pirates swung at 24.58% of pitches outside the strike zone, just slightly higher than average.
The Pirates made two significant changes to their lineup this season. Doumit began receiving most of the playing time behind the plate over Paulino, who was a slightly more disciplined hitter in 2007. And McLouth was named the everyday center fielder, giving the Pirates a much better batting eye in the lineup. Thus far, Doumit (18.44%) and Bay (17.11%) have been much better than last year. McLouth (17.37%) has continued his smart hitting. Nady (27.02%) is still a free-swinger, but has improved. The addition of Doug Mientkiewicz (14.06%) has also helped. But Sanchez (37.70%) has continued swinging at everything and an overmatched Brian Bixler (33.33%) has received a considerable number of plate appearances due to Wilsonís injury. In addition, Bautista (23.79%) has apparently lost his excellent batting eye. As a team, the Pirates have chased 23.76% of pitches outside the zone.
As you can see, the Pirates have improved their plate discipline, but only by a small margin. Because the improvement has been modest, it is no surprise that the team remains in the bottom half of the league in walks and on-base percentage. Without some improvement in these categories, do not expect the Pirates to continue scoring runs at the impressive rate that they have thus far.
P.S. Is anyone wondering why Freddy Sanchez has struggled so badly this year? Beginning in 2006, his yearly Zone% has been 55.26%, 53.96% and 49.92%. In those same years, his O-Swing% has been 30.45%, 33.43% and 37.70%. In other words, pitchers are throwing him far less strikes, and he is increasingly chasing pitches. That is a recipe for disaster. A disaster we may be witnessing right now.

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