Over the winter one common theme we have heard and are going to continue to hear is that in order for Lonnie Chisenhall to thrive as a big league hitter he will need to develop better plate discipline.
Plate discipline is a phrase coaches and scouts throw around a lot. The general idea is for a hitter to lay off of the pitches that he can’t do much with and to make the pitcher give a pitch to drive. If the pitcher doesn’t comply then take the walk.
A good first step in identifying players with poor plate discipline is to look at on-base percentage and walk/strikeout ratios. In 2011, the American League average OBP was .321, the average walk rate was 8.1 percent, and the average strikeout rate was 18.0 percent. The average BB/K ratio was therefore 0.45.
Compare those numbers to Chisenhall’s 2011 numbers and you’ll see a problem: in 223 plate appearances he had an OBP of .284, a 3.6-percent walk rate, a 22-percent strikeout rate, and BB/K ratio of 0.16. A hitter with those numbers is often referred to as a hack.
Further evidence of poor plate discipline was provided by David Golebiewski in his FanGraphs article, Moustakas, Chisenhall, and Hacking. In his piece Golebiewski notes that Chisenhall’s BB/K ratio ranks as one of the 10 worst for rookies with a minimum of 200 plate appearances in the last decade.
Why did Chisenhall struggle so much with his plate discipline? Was he swinging at too many bad pitches out of the zone? Was he impatient at the plate? Does he swing and miss too often? To answer these questions let’s take a look at a few plate discipline statistics that FanGraphs provides.
- O-Swing% = how often a batter swings at pitches that are outside the strike zone.
- Z-Swing% = how often a batter takes pitches that are inside the strike zone.
- Swing% = how often a batter swings at pitches.
- O-Contact% = how often a batter makes contact when swinging at a pitch thrown outside the strike zone.
- Z-Contact% = how often a batter makes contact when swinging at a pitch thrown inside the strike zone.
- Contact % = how often a batter contact when he swings.
- Zone% = how often a batter sees pitches inside the strike zone.
- SwgStr%: percentage of pitches at which a batter swings and misses.
- F-Strike% = percentage of first-pitch strikes a batter gets.
From the table below we can see that Chisenhall chases a large proportion of balls out of the strike zone:
Only six players with over 200 plate appearances attempted to swing at a higher percentage of balls out of the strike zone than Chisenhall: Vladimir Guerrero, Chris Davis, Miguel Olivo, Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, and A.J. Pierzynski—none of whom are known for their plate discipline. Right below Chisenhall are is Robinson Cano, Jeff Francouer, Delmon Young, Josh Hamilton, and Reid Brignac. Looking at the list of players it’s clear that it is possible to survive in Major League Baseball and chase balls out of the strike zone, but the memorable names on this list also have other things going for them.
Does a player perform better when putting the ball in play if he swings at strikes rather then swinging at balls? In 2007, John Walsh of the Hardball Times did a feature story titled Squaring It Up in which he looked at Pitch f/x data to answer the question. He found that a hitter picked up 50 points in batting average and 100 points in slugging percentage when swinging at balls in the strike zone opposed to chasing outside the zone.
Could Chisenhall be an effective player if he continues to chase balls outside the strike zone at such a high rate? Certainly. Could he be a much better player with better plate discipline? I believe s0.
The question the Indians have to ask themselves is if more time in Triple-A will help him with his plate discipline. Chisenhall has been slightly below average at drawing walks and striking out at each level through the minors. My guess is that the Indians will take advantage of Jack Hannahan‘s stellar defense at third base to open the season while Chisenhall gets plate appearances in Columbus to work on improving his plate discipline. But if the Indians are having trouble scoring runs and Chisenhall is performing well in Columbus, he will be the first guy to get called up.