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Dan Johnson, the Rays, and Plate Discipline

In light of J.C. Mitchell's post last week on the Rays taking too many pitches in the zone and Jason Hanselman's review on the Rays' plate discipline, I find this news from Marc Topkin rather interesting:

[The Rays are] starting to hit earlier in each at-bat.

...Manager Joe Maddon said analysis showed that opposing pitchers were using the patience of the Rays' hitters against them and were pitching extremely well while doing so.

So Maddon and hitting coach Derek Shelton discussed having their hitters be more aggressive earlier in counts, and the results over the past few days have been noticeable.

"We have a reputation of seeing pitches ... and everyone's been trying to get ahead in the count on us, and we've been in a lot of bad counts. So I think our guys finally had enough of that, and we've attacked earlier in the count because we can."

As of right now, the Rays as a team are swinging at 45.8% of pitches, which puts them around dead center overall in major league baseball. However, (as Jason illustrated last week) they have the ninth highest swing percentage on pitches in the zone (66.6%) and they have one of the sixth lowest swing percentage on pitches outside the zone (25.3%). Whatever adjustments the Rays have made seem to be working; even though they're swinging at a higher percentage of pitches than they did last season (44.2% swing rate in 2010), they're still being very selective in what they're offering at.

On an individual basis, I'm interested by how this change in approach has manifested itself with some of the different Rays. Let's take a brief look at Dan Johnson.

Johnson is notoriously a very patient hitter: on his career, he's only swung at 37% of the pitches he's seen, allowing him to draw walks in 13% of his plate appearances.  This season, though, his approach has been quite different:

O-Swing%

Z-Swing%

Swing%

2010

19.1%

59.6%

36.0%

2011

23.3%

71.4%

48.0%

While it's still early in the season, Johnson does have 43 plate appearances at the moment and swing rates normally stabilize at around 50 plate appearances, so it seems likely that Johnson has consciously decided to change his plate approach this season. He's swinging at a much higher overall total of pitches, making his overall swing percentage slightly above league average, but he's still offering almost exclusively at pitches in the zone. Johnson's swing percentage on pitches outside the zone is actually 4% below average, and his swing percentage on pitches in the zone is 7% higher than average.

On this surface, this strategy doesn't seem to be working too well for Johnson; he's been in an early season slump, posting a .172 wOBA while walking only 4.7% of the time. Pitchers are pounding the zone against him, though, throwing first pitch strikes 62.8% of the time (4% above average) and so I can't blame Johnson for being more aggressive and attempting to counteract their attack. He hasn't been making solid contact yet this season, but that may have nothing at all to do with his plate discipline - it may just be something as simple as a slump.

I'll be interested to see if Johnson changes his approach at all in the coming weeks. This is a very different strategy for him at the plate, so he may revert back toward his career swing rates if this doesn't begin to work out for him. However, I don't think his current swing rates are necessarily bad or the cause of his current offensive struggles; he'll likely have a lower walk rate if he continues to be so aggressive, but at the same time, he does need to show pitchers that they can't throw him first pitch strikes all the time. It's simply a matter of finding the balance that works best for him.