Baseball, just like most of the world, is a results-oriented business. A hitter’s batting average, home runs, and runs batted in flash across the bottom of the screen as he steps to the plate. Announcers recite a pitcher’s won-loss record and earned run average as he toes the rubber. Aside from the fact that these particular stats don’t measure individual player value properly, they also fail to dig down into more granular data of what the player is doing to achieve the results.
For instance, a player is hitting .320 on the year. That sounds good, but is it the result of never striking out, hitting lots of line drives, digging out infield/bunt singles, hitting the ball out of the park, or some combination thereof? The process is just as, if not more, important than the results because the player has more control over it and less chance is involved.
In fact, the underlying process can predict future results better than the present results themselves, in some cases (FIP vs ERA). Two specific New York Yankees have seen underlying process changes drive their success so far this season.
Brian McCann is having a really nice year at the plate so far this year. The .255/.321/.473 line translates to 18% better than league average which is very valuable from a catcher. The OBP is lower than his career norm (likely a product of the ever-decreasing run scoring environment), but the power is driving his excellent production.
The underlying numbers show one important, positive change in his process. The change, as Eno Sarris notes, is that McCann is rarely hitting popups anymore (just 0.8% of the time). Popups are as close to automatic outs as possible as they rarely ever go for hits or ROEs. The ability to refrain from hitting popups gives McCann a better chance to get more hits in general, and reach his above-average power specifically.
Mark Teixeira is partying like it’s 2009. He sits at .237/.348/.565, 47% better than league average and a far cry from the exactly league average performance at the plate he had last year across 508 plate appearances. The plate discipline numbers provide clues to this turnaround.
Good hitting, in its most basic form, can be boiled down to “swing at strikes” and “don’t swing at balls”. That is why strikeout and walk rates are a great, quick way to glean the quality of a hitter or pitcher. Teixeira is showing these skills so far this season after getting away from them somewhat last year. His out of strike zone swing percentage is down to 23.3% from 28.0% last year while his in strike zone swing percentage is up to 64.2% compared to 58.7% last year.
This combination of sound strike zone recognition has allowed him to walk (32) as many times as he has struck out (32) which is unheard of in present day MLB. Swinging at pitches in the strike zone and watching pitches out of the strike zone has allowed Teixeira to walk a lot, seldom strike out, and hit for tremendous power when contact is made. He is having a highly productive season despite the low batting average.
McCann and Teixeira have experienced (purposeful or not) process changes that are driving quality results while portending well for the rest of the season.
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