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.
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|
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.
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 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 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.