Plate discipline was the crux of Moneyball. While Billy Beane’s now famous front office targeted players who could control the strike zone, Beane lamented how difficult it was for major leaguers to develop plate discipline. The A’s thought that players developed their strike zone recognition early in life, perhaps as young as high school. Due to this, it was difficult to adjust a major league player’s approach once they hit the minor leagues.

Front offices play a large role in shaping the types of players that make it to the big leagues. If players are rewarded in the minor leagues for strong on base skills then we should eventually see this shift in the major league product. There has been speculation that the Reds are attempting to patrol the zone with greater efficiency this year. This raises the following question: compared to previous seasons, have the Reds improved their plate discipline?

Here are the numbers we should be looking at:

BB%: This will tell us the percentage of plate appearances result in a walk. For 2015, the NL Average is 7.4%. Joe Morgan, because he refused to take the bat off his shoulder, had a career walk percentage of 16.5% (he walked in 20.7% of his plate appearances in 1975 and was punished with the NL MVP award).

O-Swing%: This tells us the rate at which a batter swings at a ball outside the strike zone. This is loosely the “getting fooled” stat.

Z-Swing%: This is the rate at which a player swings at a pitch inside the strike zone. Higher is not always better here since hitters will want to be selective regarding which parts of the zone they attack. For example, Mike Trout, who is only on pace to put up around 12 WAR this year, swings at 59.6% of pitches throw in the strike zone.

Swing%: This is the percentage of pitches at which a hitter swings.

SwStr%: This is the percentage of swings that result in a whiff. Lower is better (although hitters do take big cuts at some pitches in order to generate power, so 0% would result in very low power numbers).

You might be wondering why K% is not on this list. This metric is not very revealing because hitters can drive down their K% by swinging at pitches early in the count and putting the ball in play. This may not be quality contact, but hitters can drive down their K% by settling for swinging early and often.

Reds BB% O-Swing Z-Swing Swing% SwStr%
2012 7.90% 31.0% 67.8% 47.5% 9.8%
2013 9.3% 30.0% 69.0% 47.4% 10.2%
2014 6.9% 32.6% 67.3% 48.1% 10.4%
2015 8.0% 31.7% 70.5% 48.9% 9.7%

Minimum: 0 PA. From Fangraphs.

Readers of the Nation know that baseball’s offensive environment has been changing over the past few years for a variety of reasons. Here is the NL average for 2012-2015:

NL Avg BB% O-Swing Z-Swing Swing% SwStr%
2012 8.0% 31.1% 65.0% 46.2% 9.4%
2013 7.7% 31.5% 66.3% 47.1% 9.6%
2014 7.6% 31.9% 66.2% 47.2% 9.9%
2015 7.4% 31.5% 67.6% 47.9% 10.0%

Minimum PA:0. From Fangraphs

Even if we are only looking at players with greater than 40 plate appearances, the Reds are still a free-swinging group:

Reds BB% O-Swing Z-Swing Swing% SwStr%
2012 6.25% 32.02% 67.56% 48.45% 10.14%
2013 7.52% 32.28% 69.8% 49.36% 11.28%
2014 6.63% 33.28% 57.9% 49.5% 11.25%
2015 7.22% 32.41% 69.93% 49.4% 10.4%

Minimum 40 PA; All stats from Fangraphs.

Given that thousands of plate appearances that go into these percentages, small changes from year-to-year still represent meaningful changes in players’ plate approach. From these numbers it is easy to conclude that the Reds swing at more pitches than the average NL team, but it is not easy to understand why. One possible explanation is that Reds are poor hitters and therefore pitchers are not afraid to challenge them with pitches in the zone. This would explain the high swinging strike percentage and an above average Swing%.

It could also be that the Reds have a hitting philosophy that stresses an aggressive hack-and-slash approach to offense. This would emphasize the below average BB% and higher than average Swing%.

Different team members may also have different offensive philosophies. For example, Joey Votto, despite only accounting for 11% of the Reds total plate appearances, is responsible for 25% of the Reds walks this year.  If you remove the Joey Votto’s BB% from the Reds overall walk rate, the 2015 Reds BB% tumbles from 8.0% to 6.75 BB%. This number is eerily similar to the Reds’ 2014 BB%, 6.63%, when the Reds played half a year without Votto. In 2015, the Reds are 8th in the league in BB%, yet if you remove Joey Votto, the Reds fall to 28th. Pay no attention to the man wearing #19, though: he’s no longer elite. It’s a fact.

Given that we have slotted two players in the leadoff position that walk well below the league average (Brandon Phillips, 41% below league average and Billy Hamilton, 25.6% below league average), it suggests the Reds have not fully subscribed to the importance of creating baserunners by controlling the strike zone. Throw in a comment or two about clogging the bases, the need to “talk to” Joey Votto about his place approach, and we start to get an idea that the Reds value contact over control. In the Reds’ defense, keeping up with the latest “trends” in baseball can be tough: Moneyball, after all, was published in 2003.

You know, the same year Apple released iTunes.