Deep Thoughts: The Rays and Plate Discipline

BALTIMORE, MD - JUNE 12: Ben Zobrist #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates with manager Joe Maddon #70 after scoring in the second inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on June 12, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

This isn't the normal style of our Deep Thoughts pieces. This one is more formalized, with more of a direct point in mind. The issue of the Rays plate discipline got brought up and Steve and I had different takes on the matter. Enjoy.

Erik: Last week, Steve linked to a piece by Marc Topkin from the St. Pete Times, and the quote he highlighted sparked some discussion between me and Steve. Here's the quote again:

"While Rays hitters have struck out the second most in the American League, they've drawn the second fewest amount of walks, a significant decrease - down nearly 30 percent, from 672 last season to a projected 478 - that is a major reason for their offensive issues. [...] Not coincidentally, the Rays are on pace for a nearly 17 percent drop in runs from last season."

Steve: Topkin correctly notes that the Rays are walking less this season – 8.1% walk rate, as compared with 10.7% rate last season – and it’s hurting their ability to score because they’re getting fewer baserunners. The Rays have long been a team that thrived on walks and aggressive baserunning, and this year those walks have dropped a large amount.

But here’s the big question: is that walk rate likely to stay the same, or is there reason to believe the Rays could walk more it going forward? Like Topkin notes, they have a very different roster this season than last, so maybe the decrease in walks is simply a result of the new players on the team. What do you think, Erik?

Erik: First, the Rays have actually lowered their strikeout rate thus far; currently sitting with a 21.4 K% compared to 23.8% last season. Secondly, yes, their walk rate has dropped two points, but their contact rate has gone up by nearly two percent -- 78.7% to 80.6%. Let's take a look at their plate discipline numbers as compared to last season:

2010

2011

Contact %

78.7

80.6

O-Swing%

27.5

27.9

Swing %

44.2

44.8

Z-Swing%

64

63.7

O-Contact%

65.20%

68.4

SwingStr%

9.1

8.4

 

Those numbers are nearly identical. They're not swinging at more pitches than last season, inside or outside of the strike zone. It  I would argue that the biggest reason for their drop in offensive production is the fact that Reid Brignac has struggled, injuries have forced Felipe Lopez into games for more than 100 PA's, and small sample size rules the day when we're talking about ~1/3 of a season.

There is one other possible explanation. Pitchers are throwing in the zone against the Rays roughly 2% more than they were last season (45.8% to 47.4%). They may be daring this year's lineup of inferior hitters to beat them, rather than worrying about a Carlos Pena or Carl Crawford scorching one.

Seeing as how the Rays' plate discipline numbers are so in line with last year, I wouldn't put too much concern in the lowered walk rate just yet.

The other big question is, how much is this lack of baserunners hurting the Rays? If they're striking out less often and putting the ball in play more often, couldn't that negate some of the harm from their lower walk rate?

Steve: That’s an interesting argument -- fewer walks, but off-setting it with more hits -- but it doesn’t quite hold in this case. The Rays are currently on pace to have around 160 fewer walks than last season, and due to their decrease in strikeouts, they’re on pace to hit 242 more balls in play. If we assume that 31% of those balls in play fall in for hits -- in other words, the Rays post a .310 BABIP, which is a relatively high rate -- then the Rays would end up with 75 more hits than last season. That’s a fairly optimistic scenario, but it still results in a net loss of 85 baserunners for the Rays.

Also, the Rays haven’t posted a .310 BABIP so far this year -- instead, their yearly rate is sitting at .286. That rate can possibly go up as the year goes along, but at their current pace, the Rays are on pace to only accumulate 69 more hits than last season. Unless the majority of those hits were extra base hits, that sort of drop in baserunners would be a big drain on the Rays’ offense.

Erik: That data is also assuming this current crop of players stays intact. That almost certainly will not happen. Desmond Jennings will get playing time. Ruggiano looks like he may stick around for awhile, etc. I can only believe that will have a positive effect.

Steve: Very true. I wouldn't be surprised if the Rays' walk rate increases going forward just through certain players bouncing back -- like Zobrist -- and the Rays improving their roster over the next month. Of course, Jennings might be replacing B.J. Upton in centerfield, and he may not walk more often than Upton, but he will likely strike out less often.

Anyway, what do you all think? Will the Rays finish the year with a similar number of baserunners, or is this drop in walks something to worry about?

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