With Wednesday night’s 6-3 victory over the White Sox, your Cleveland Indians (12-10) now have sole possession of first place in the division. But the AL Central win column isn’t the only the place where the Tribe is on top in the 2012 leaderboards.
There’s no single factor that can explain the Indians’ success so far. We’ve seen some great pitching. We’ve seen some tremendous hitting. We’ve seen huge comebacks and walk-off wins. But this team’s most distinctive trait can best be described by a Disney villain:
“Patience, Iago. Patience.” Entering Wednesday the Indians led all of baseball with 104 walks despite having played the fewest games in the league. They also topped the charts with a 12.2 percent team walk rate and an 0.70 BB/K ratio. And their 21.2 percent O-Swing rate (the proportion of pitches outside the strike zone that they’ve chased) was by far the lowest in baseball. Say what you want about this lineup, but these guys know how to wait for their pitches.
It’s a far cry from how the Indians ranked last year. Their 8.0-percent 2011 walk rate put them 18th in baseball and they weren’t exactly known for being a patient team. So where are all these extra walks coming from? Here’s a look at Cleveland’s walk rates in 2011 and 2012 by position:
Surprisingly, one of the biggest areas of walk rate improvement is catcher. Carlos Santana has always been a genuine stoic at the plate, so it didn’t seem as though there was much room for growth there. But Santana’s 20.4 percent walk rate is incredible even by his lofty standards, and he’s playing catcher more often this season than he did last year—the more time he gets behind the plate, the less there is for the patient but offensively inferior Lou Marson.
The other huge improvements are in left field and at DH, both of which are partly due to player improvements and partly due to positional stability. In left, Shelley Duncan‘s walk rate has shot up from 7.7 percent last year to 17.3 percent in 2012, and he’s been an almost-everyday player—the 2011 stat is deflated by impatient hitters like Michael Brantley, Travis Buck and Jerad Head. Travis Hafner is being much more selective at the plate as well (19.1 percent walk rate, up from 9.8 percent), and his good health thus far has stopped less patient players (like Duncan last year) from seeing time at DH.
Generally, the rest of the boosts are also combinations of hitters both showing more patience and seeing more playing time. Jack Hannahan‘s walk rate has gone up and he’s no longer splitting time with the free-swinging Lonnie Chisenhall. Brantley and Jason Kipnis have both looked more selective as well, plus they’re more patient than Grady Sizemore and Orlando Cabrera, respectively.
Only one position has seen its walk rate decrease, and even that isn’t really what it looks like. In terms of pitch selectiveness Casey Kotchman (10.0 percent walk rate) has been a huge upgrade over Matt LaPorta (6.0 percent walk rate in 2011), but last year’s number is artificially inflated by the 66 times Santana played first base.
Overall, the Tribe’s strong plate discipline truly seems to be a team-wide phenomenon. It’s a combination both of getting better players and of players getting better. Twenty-two games is but a tiny fraction of the season, and the usual small sample size caveats still apply. But plate discipline numbers tend to stabilize much more quickly than other stats, and after nearly 900 plate appearances you can’t discount the whole lineup’s patient approach at the plate.
It takes more than plate discipline to win ballgames, of course, but the great pitch selectiveness we’ve seen from the Tribe over the first month of the season is a promising sign for this young ballclub’s success down the road.