In the irresistible baseball movie "A League of Their Own", Geena Davis' character Dottie chastises her younger sister Kit (played by Lori Petty) by saying "Lay off the high ones!" The sister, like thousands of Little League players of the last six decades, responds by saying, "I like the high ones!" If we went through a time portal and the girls were having this conversation in 2015 instead of 1945, Dottie would be a SABR member and her critique of Kit's hitting style would be more like, "You have lousy plate discipline and your chase percentage is much too high."
Last week on the MLB Network, the usual suspects on the panel were discussing the resurgence of Albert Pujols this season at age 35. It was agreed that health was a major factor and that he had more stability in his swing without the impact of plantar fasciitis and a sore knee. Then they flashed some statistics on the screen and indicated another important factor was the reduction in his "chase percentage." Intuitively, fans have figured out by merely watching Pujols since he joined the Angels that his plate discipline was significantly worse than during his Cardinal days. However, with today's advanced metrics, we now have actual evidence of how often any individual hitter swings at a pitch out of the strike zone. Fangraphs.com calls it "O-Swing Percentage" (O representing out of the zone), but we'll use chase percentage because even the most old school fan understands what it means to "chase" a bad pitch.
The Old Duck had the privilege of seeing both Yogi Berra and Vladimir Guerrero play and they were certainly two of the greatest "bad ball" hitters in the history of the game. The real issue, however, is that for every hitter like Yogi or Vlad, there are hundreds who never succeed with that approach. Ted Williams once said, "the only thing dumber than a pitcher is two pitchers" but a genius IQ isn't needed to figure out that if a hitter swings at pitches that aren't strikes, you don't need to throw strikes to get him out. Pitching is dominating the game at the moment and one reason could be today's information age. In the 50's, the adage was that once a hitter got around the league, pitchers would figure out his weakness. Today, video of every at-bat from every MLB game is at the fingertips of pitchers and coaching staffs.
Another interesting factor that improves modern pitching is that teams are much more careful with their investments and the game now embraces pitch counts and innings limits. This also leads to fresher arms being in the game in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Veteran fans point out great hurlers from their youth who pitched every fourth day and accumulated 300 IP in a season, but for every Robin Roberts or Jim Palmer, there are hundreds who had their careers ruined by over-use. Think about these two examples.
In a recent SI piece about the Mets and their staff, Tom Verducci told the story of pitching coach Dan Warthen. He reached the major leagues at age 22 with Gene Mauch's Expos in 1975 and in mid-July with the team already 15 games out of first place, Mauch allowed Warthen to throw 142 pitches in 10 innings. Two days later, Warthen was brought to pitch in relief in a game the Expos were losing. His arm never felt the same. Over the next six weeks, Warthen exceeded 130 pitches four times, including once where he threw 164 pitches in 11 innings. By age 26, he was out of the majors and by age 29, he was out of baseball.
Current MLB staff member John D'Acquisto was the Giants' first-round pick at age 18 in the 1970 draft. In his first full minor league campaign (1971), he compiled 233 IP with 14 complete games in the Midwest League. The following year, it was 209 IP and 17 complete games in the California League and then in '73, 212 IP and 14 complete games in the PCL. 700+ IP by the time he was 21! In his rookie season with the Giants (1974), he made 36 starts and pitched 215 innings and, essentially, was never the same. His lifetime record was 34-51 with 15 Saves. Fortunately for today's young pitchers, the 1970's are just baseball history and not a blueprint for success.
With that as our backdrop, let's look at today's hitters and see which ones have the poorest plate discipline. Or if you're being optimistic, which ones are most aggressive. Through games of July 24th, here's the bottom ten in relation to swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.
1) Adam Jones, Orioles OF - 48.3%
2) Pablo Sandoval, Red Sox 3B - 47.9%
3) Avisail Garcia, White Sox OF - 46.1%
4) Jimmy Paredes, Orioles DH - 43.3%
5) Marlon Byrd, Reds OF - 42.7%
6) Evan Gattis, Astros DH - 42.4%
7) Kevin Pillar, Blue Jays OF - 42.2%
8) Salvador Perez, Royals C - 41.9%
9) Nolan Arenado, Rockies 3B - 41.5%
10) Josh Harrison, Pirates 3B - 41.1%
That group probably includes some players you expected to see and others who are surprises. Another interesting component to this analysis is that all free swingers aren't created equal. It isn't just swinging at bad pitches that matters, it's how often you swing and miss. For example, Sandoval has the best contact rate on bad pitches at 76% while Perez and Pillar come in under 55%.
On the flip side, let's look at the most disciplined hitters this season.
1) Curtis Granderson, Mets OF - 20.5%
2) Joey Votto, Reds 1B - 20.9%
3) George Springer, Astros OF - 21.3%
4) Matt Carpenter, Cardinals 3B - 21.4%
5) Carlos Santana, Indians 1B - 21.7%
6) Dexter Fowler, Cubs OF -22.0%
7) Alex Gordon, Royals OF - 22.1%
8) Russell Martin, Blue Jays C - 22.5%
9) Paul Goldschmidt, D'Backs 1B - 22.8%
10T) Michael Brantley, Indians OF - 23.0%
10T) Jose Bautista, Blue Jays OF - 23.0%
10T) Brett Gardner, Yankees OF - 23.0%
Your baseball experience would lead you to think that the second list would be made up of leadoff hitters, line-drive hitters and slap hitters. Looking at the list, Carpenter, Fowler and Gardner might fit that criteria but certainly not Springer, Goldschmidt and Bautista. Possibly the most impressive stat from the research is that even when Brantley does occasionally swing at a ball outside the zone, he makes contact 86.1% of the time. No one else on the list is above 72%. When he swings at pitches that are strikes, his contact rate is 97.3%, the best in baseball.
And, how about the leading MVP candidates? Bryce Harper is more disciplined than you think at 29.3% and Mike Trout is even better at 28.0%.
Just to validate that the numbers aren't fluky, Sandoval had the worst number in baseball last year (48.1%) followed closely by Perez at 46.2%. Byrd and Jones were also in the bottom ten for 2014. Last year's best was Carpenter at 19.3% while Santana and Gardner were also in the top ten.
In the modern age, there are no longer any secrets in baseball.
If you've been a baseball fan for decades, there are dozens of mental snapshots available to you at any given time. Some were taken in person and many others have accumulated through watching live games on TV, viewing archival footage or enjoying sports-related docudrama. These collective moments give you a personal history of the game beyond the written word but even the prose of the sport creates images of players you may have never seen. This concept leads each of us to have differing "defining moments" in the game.
Excuse the pun, but everyone has their own definition of a defining moment. If you feel that Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last at-bat or Pete Rose passing Ty Cobb on the all-time hit list or Willie Mays making that catch in the World Series or Derek Jeter hitting a home run for his 3,000th hit were defining moments, you and I are already in disagreement. To me, those players were so great that any one moment can't define their career. It is, however, a very fine line because there will be Hall of Fame players who actually have a defining moment and it might cause an ongoing debate about the term. For the Old Duck, the criteria is simple. When you hear a player's name, is there any doubt about what moment you remember? For example, actor Omar Sharif passed away last week at age 83. In 1965, he starred as the title character in the David Lean classic "Dr. Zhivago" and it is that role he is most remembered for playing. The average person can't name two of his films from the last 50 years.
The specter of an additional pun looms when I say that what is presented here in certainly not a definitive list. It is only one person's reflections from his own snapshots and hopefully, you will add many of your own that we can discuss in the future.
> Fred Merkle (1908) - In the September pennant chase, Giants baserunner Merkle was belatedly called out after failing to touch second base after a teammate crossed home plate with what would have been the winning run. The Cubs ended up taking the pennant when the game was replayed in October. Even though his career lasted until 1926, still to this day, his nickname is "Bonehead."
> Carl Hubbell (1934) - A Hall of Fame pitcher for the Giants, "King Carl" is revered for his performance in the All-Star Game at the Polo Grounds on July 10th. Utilizing his famous screwball, Hubbell struck out five Hall of Fame AL batters in succession...Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin.
> Johnny Vander Meer (1938) - The Reds pitcher no-hit the Dodgers 6-0 after no-hitting the Boston Bees four days earlier. No other major league hurler has ever accomplished this feat.
> Lou Gehrig (1939) - Despite having one of the great careers in the history of the game, this defining moment came after his playing days were over. On July 4th at Yankee Stadium, the terminally ill "Iron Horse" told the crowd that "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."
> Mickey Owen (1941) - In the World Series, the Dodgers are leading the fourth game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning when Owen, the catcher, lets a third strike get past him and the Yankees go on to win the game and the Series.
> Joe Nuxhall (1944) - Not yet 16 years old, the Reds left-handed pitcher makes the first appearance of what would be a 16-year career. It was eight years before he pitched in the big leagues again.
> Jackie Robinson (1947) - On April 15th, he starts at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers and becomes the first player of color in the Major Leagues.
> Eddie Gaedel (1951) - The St. Louis Browns sent the 3'7" pinch-hitter to the plate wearing uniform number 1/8. He walked on four pitches and was replaced by a pinch-runner.
> Bobby Thomson (1951) - "The shot heard 'round the world" was a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Giants the NL pennant over the Dodgers.
> Johnny Podres (1955) - Ending decades of frustration for Dodger fans, he shut out the Yankees 2-0 in Game 7 of the World Series.
> Don Larsen (1956) - In Game 5 of the World Series, this Yankee hurler pitched the only perfect game in postseason history when he retired 27 consecutive Dodger batters.
> Harvey Haddix (1959) - This Pirate hurler pitched 12 perfect innings but lost the game to the Braves in the 13th inning.
> Bill Mazeroski (1960) - The Pirates second baseman hits a walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series to defeat the Yankees.
> Roger Maris (1961) - A good, but not great player overcame the intense pressure and the insult of the Commissioner to break Babe Ruth's record with his 61st home run on October 1st. Holy Cow!
> Tony Cloninger (1966) - This Braves pitcher beat the Giants 17-3 on July 3rd. He also hit two grand slams and had nine RBI.
> Al Downing (1974) - He won 123 games in a 17-year career, but on April 8th, he gave up Hank Aaron's 715th home run.
> Carlton Fisk (1975) - Another Hall of Fame player, he will always be remembered for guiding his home run off the foul pole in the 12th inning to beat the Reds in Game 6 of the World Series.
> Len Barker (1981) - This Indians hurler threw 84 of his 103 pitches for strikes and pitched a perfect game against the Blue Jays. He recorded 11 strikeouts and they were all swinging.
> Bill Buckner (1986) - Despite a career in which he had over 2,700 hits, all that is remembered is the error he made in Game 6 of the World Series that doomed the Red Sox and opened the door for the Mets to become world champions.
> Kirk Gibson (1988) - His ninth inning walk-off (or was it limp-off) home run in Game 1 of the World Series propelled the Dodgers to defeat the Athletics in five games. It was his only at-bat in the Series.
> Joe Carter (1993) - The Blue Jays outfielder hit a series-ending three-run homer to beat the Phillies and secure Toronto's second consecutive title.
> Edgar Renteria (1997) - Another walk-off World Series winner, his 11th inning single won Game 7 for the Marlins against the Indians.
> Kerry Wood (1998) - This rookie pitcher for the Cubs struck out 20 Astros while pitching a one-hitter. It was his fifth major league start.
> Luis Gonzalez (2001) - His bloop single over the Yankees drawn-in infield in Game 7 gave the Diamondbacks the World Series title.
> Aaron Boone (2003) - A walk-off home run in the 11th inning of Game 7 gave the Yankees the AL Pennant over the Red Sox.
> Dave Roberts (2004) - As a pinch-runner, he steals second base and eventually scores the tying run for the Red Sox, who go on to beat the Yankees in extra innings in Game 4 of the ALCS and come back from a 3-0 series deficit to win the pennant.
That takes us to about a decade ago and many current players still have their defining moment to come. Which of your memories did we leave out? How about names like Bucky Dent, Ray Fosse, Jack Morris, Fernando Tatis, Rennie Stennett, Vic Wertz, Cookie Lavagetto or Enos Slaughter? I'm guessing some of those snapshots are in your mental camera.
Just for the record, on the Sharif question, if you said "Lawrence of Arabia", it doesn't count. That movie was prior to Zhivago. And it is Peter O'Toole's defining moment.