Finding Professional At Bats

The Phillies are a bad offensive team. They have their moments, where the hits seem to fall in bunches, but as is often the case with bad offenses, reality brings them crashing back to earth. And when the offense goes into an especially brutal stretch of ineptitude, we often hear Pete Mackanin say he’s looking for more “professional at-bats”. It seems like a low bar to set for a major league team, but in the absence of actual hitting talent, it’s probably a good place to start. But what constitutes a professional at-bat? Well, according to Pete Mackanin:

“We just need to get to that point. We need to work the count, we don’t walk a lot. For me, we take too many fastballs for strikes and we swing at too many – we expand the strike zone too often. Right now there’s nobody there that’s risen to the challenge. We’re looking for that guy.”

As it turns out, Mackanin is dead on with his assessment. The offense certainly does expand the strike zone too often. On the year, the Phillies have swung at 33.2% of pitches outside of the strike zone, which is the second highest rate in the league. On an individual level, this is how it breaks down under the current iteration of the roster.

Player O-Swing%
Jimmy Paredes 49.3%
Andres Blanco 39.4%
Ryan Howard 37.6%
Peter Bourjos 37.0%
Freddy Galvis 36.8%
Tommy Joseph 35.8%
Odubel Herrera 34.4%
Maikel Franco 31.7%
League Average 30.4%
Cameron Rupp 29.2%
Cesar Hernandez 28.6%
Cody Asche 27.2%
Tyler Goeddel 23.9%
Carlos Ruiz 20.8%

The two most disciplined hitters on the team are a part time catcher in the twilight of his career and a Rule 5 pick who spends more time on the bench than he does in the batter’s box. A good majority of the remaining roster is a group of free swingers who would certainly benefit from a better approach at the plate. But while it is possible to make improvements in plate discipline, it’s usually the exception rather than the norm. By and large, a player’s approach is ingrained a few years into their professional career, for better or worse. So if Mackanin is looking for large scale changes from the current lineup, history shows it’s unlikely to happen. A better approach at the plate is more likely to be found from a player not currently on the roster.

Enter Aaron Altherr.

In 161 plate appearances at the major league level last year, Altherr put together a .241/.338/.489 slash line worthy of a 124 wRC+. The success can be largely attributed to his plate discipline, of which he had this to say prior to his call-up:

“I’m trying not to swing at pitches that I haven’t been looking for. It’s been [focus] in on one zone and don’t look at anything else. I’m getting better at that and I still have to get better, but I’m making good progress.”

Good progress indeed. Last year, Altherr swung at only 25% of the pitches he saw outside of the strike zone, leading to an impressive 9.9% walk rate. The discerning approach is a solid offensive foundation to work from, as it not only leads to more walks, but better contact quality as well. Take this table, for example, depicting league average BABIP on pitches inside and outside the strike zone during the period between 2008 and 2013.

Season Out-of-Zone BABIP In-Zone BABIP
2008 .264 .307
2009 .270 .306
2010 .263 .301
2011 .268 .300
2012 .267 .301
2013 .271 .299
Total .267 .302

But his selectivity doesn’t end at the borders of the strike zone. Altherr is looking for a specific pitch to hit inside the zone – a pitch middle to middle-in, preferably up in the zone – and has no issue taking a strike if it’s outside of his liking. Take the following heatmaps, the first one depicting how Altherr was pitched to last year.

Altherr Zone

A majority of the pitches Altherr saw last year were located away, and mostly down in the zone. Now look at this second heatmap, showing the location of Altherr’s swings.

Altherr Swing%

Altherr is taking those strikes on the outside corner, knowing he can’t do much with those pitches if he does make contact. His plan is to hunt for pitches he can drive, and to that, Altherr has succeeded. This third heatmap shows how Altherr fared in the various areas of the strike zone, by SLG%.

Altherr SLG%

Altherr appears to have a clear understanding of his strengths as a hitter. And because of his disciplined approach, he’s likely going to get the most out of those strengths. He already brings an impressive package of speed and defense to the table, which gives him a solid floor as a major league regular. But his ultimate ceiling will be decided by his work at the plate, which, at its best, brings a lot of walks and extra base hits to the lineup. And at the very least, Altherr will give you a professional at bat.

* Pieces of this article were taken from a previous fanpost of mine at thegoodphight.com

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8 comments

  1. Romus

    July 26, 2016 04:10 PM

    Fortunately…other than Herrera, Franco and maybe Rupp……the remaining offensive ‘juggernauts’ will probably be somewhere else after mid-2017
    Mack is looking for that guy to ‘rise to the challenge’…..JPC, Nick Williams, maybe Knapp/Alfaro, Hoskins and/or Cozens.

  2. JustBob

    July 26, 2016 04:27 PM

    Going to need just more than Altherr and it is more than just about chasing pitches out of the zone.

    Crawford should notably help too next year even if he struggles to hit above .250-.260. Williams won’t much though and neither will Alfaro. Have to hope they hit for a high average.

    Their going to have to find another bat or two over the next 1-2 years to add to this lineup who can hit for a decent average but work counts/walks.

  3. Dube

    July 26, 2016 09:08 PM

    So bring back Michael Young?

  4. Finn

    July 27, 2016 10:16 AM

    Nice write up about what a “good at bat” is, a term that’s thrown around a lot without much thought.

  5. Carmine

    July 27, 2016 11:59 AM

    Good article, and what needs to happen is for the organization to instill plate discipline in their young players BEFORE they reach the big leagues.

  6. David

    July 27, 2016 01:21 PM

    Here’s the list of NL teams by total # of walks:

    # of Walks – NL Club
    413 – Cubs
    366 – Brewers
    357 – Giants
    351 – Nats
    339 – Cardinals
    339 – Dodgers
    317 – Pirates
    316 – Rockies
    310 – NYM
    284 – Braves
    282 – Marlins
    278 – Arizona
    274 – Reds
    272 – Padres
    237 – Phillies (35 walks less than the next lowest NL team)

    Per the article, the Phillies batters are demonstrating a fundamental lack of plate discipline. I haven’t checked, but they may also be challenged more regularly by opposing pitchers (thereby seeing a higher ratio of strikes to balls). No matter what, it doesn’t speak well of the current state of the lineup. Perhaps Altherr (and some others) can help as we look ahead to 2017.

    Also — on the plus side — Phils pitchers currently rank 3rd in terms of fewest walks allowed with 268, following the Mets (248) and the Giants (257), so that’s at least something positive to hang our hats on moving forward.

    Stats are Per the following link: espn.go.com/mlb/beanecount

    • Tim Guenther

      July 28, 2016 02:17 PM

      Phillies’ Zone% is 47.4%, which is the 25th lowest among all teams. If you’re known to chase pitches outside of the strike zone, that’s what pitchers are going to throw to you.

      • David

        July 28, 2016 05:59 PM

        Yep. Thanks Tim!

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