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A Tale of Two Hitters

It was the worst of times, now it's the best of times. I hope they're here for a while longer. It's a given that batters are going to go through peaks and valleys for no reason or any reason. Hitting a baseball is just too darned hard to expect mere mortal to constantly excel at their charge. The idea here is to look at a couple of the Rays longest tenured batters to compare and contrast their results and maybe see how they got to that point.  With that in mind, let's take a look at B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist's wOBA numbers over their careers:





Above we have a 100-Plate Appearance moving average for each of our players from the Play Index database at B-Ref through April 28th. The first thing that will probably stand out is just how good their best seasons were. Over 100+ Plate Appearances Ben Zobrist was averaging close to a .550 wOBA in 2009. Meanwhile, Beej had two periods in 2007 of close to a .475 wOBA. Those are incredibly toasty periods, but you can also see some of the tough times both when they first came up. Initial trials are not the only time they displayed periods of poor production, expecially for Beej who has had similar bad stretches in the last two seasons. Zobie hasn't seen quite that bad of a stretch, but you can still notice that he's had some bad runs toward the end of 2010 and continuing into the start of this year.  

The important thing to take away is to see where these guys are generally hanging out. Since mid-2008 Beej has lived mostly between .300 and .400 with the occasional stretch higher or lower. Zobie is similar, though his peaks and valleys seem to be a bit more extended, meaning his streaks tend to stick around a little longer. Now that we've seen the results, let's see if we can glean anything from the process-side. Here's a look at the percentage of swings vs. takes from 2008 - 4/28/11. This data comes from Joe Lefkowitz's database that is an invaluable tool:





To be clear, these charts show a 300-pitch moving average of the likelihood that a guy was to swing or to take. I find it interesting that Beej is usually thought of as a patient guy due to all the called strike threes that seem worse than they really are. In 2008 and the early part of 2009 he was that guy universally swinging at less than half the pitches he saw. You can see that he started to ramp up that swing percentage throughout 2009 and early 2010 before going through a stretch of being more selective, reverting back to being a hacker, and then seeming to be more passive to start this season.  

Zobrist, on the other hand, has never swung at 50% of the pitches he saw and has shown long stretches where he's much more patient than that.  Early in 2009 and in the middle of 2010 Ben had periods where he was taking over 70% of the pitches. The results can be thought of as mixed as we saw Zobrist got off to a tremendous start in 2009. Most likely it was a combination of pitchers being scared to throw him a good pitch and him sitting on something that he could crush. The spike in 2010 seems to coincide with Zobie's downturn due to the neck issue. In this instance it was much more likely that he was just trying to make pitchers work as much as possible since he figured he couldn't do much unless it was a meatball. Let's break this down another notch and see the likelihood of whether the pitch was a ball, called strike, foul, in play, or a swinging strike:





You can see that Beej has progressively gotten less balls over the years, while seeing a corresponding increase to his swing strike rate.  It's interesting how foul% and in play% seem to track negatively. This may point to when a guy is really seeing the ball well and is able to translate his swings into balls in play instead of just getting a piece. This is kind of convoluted, but it's interesting to see just how much these rates shift over these 300-pitch samples.  

For Zobrist, I find it interesting how his called strike and swing strike seem to work together to keep his overall strike rate pretty constant. As one starts to decrease the other seems to pick up showing the game theory between a pitcher and batter as both strive to reach an equilibrium between being too aggressive and too passive in the zone. Again, there's a lot going on in these and I think they're more fun to look at than to derive information, but it is interesting to see he mental battle between pitchers and batters. One last chart I've put together shows in play% and swing strike% per swing. Previously, we've looked at these and more per pitch. By only looking at per pitch we're leaving a lot of noise in, but when we look at these rates per swing we get a much clearer look at the relationship between putting a ball in play and missing it completely:





Starting off with Beej, recall that we saw him swinging more through the end of 2009 and this initially led to him putting more balls in play. However, pitchers must have adapted as we can clearly see that early 2010 had him whiffing quite a bit more. He shows a similar uptick in swing strikes at the end of 2010 into the early part of this year.  For B.J. patience may be an important part of his skillset as his over-aggressiveness seems to only lead to more whiffs.

Contrasting to B.J. wild and wacky ways stands Zobrist's wide spread between ball in play per swing rate and whiffs per swing. B.J. almost never went above 50% ball in play per swing, yet Zobrist is routinely beween 40 and 50% and occasionally approaching 60%. Likewise, Zobrist is routinely between 10 and 20% on his swing strike rate with the occasional spike approaching 30%.  Beej on the other hand lives between 20 and 30% since 2009 with peaks approaching 35%. Clearly, these are two different types of batters and you can see the difference in their approach most likely dictated by their ability to make contact. Zobrist can afford to be more patient since he's a higher contact batter. Upton needs to walk a finer line between being too passive and too aggressive because he really needs to swing at pitches that he can hit hard. It will be interesting to track this as the year goes on and see how these batters and others evolve over the course of the season.