In his 1988 Baseball Abstract, Bill James wrote that “The strike zone is the very heart of a baseball game. An inch in the strike zone means far more than ten yards in the outfield.” It seems to be such a simple concept, but few seem to grasp just how important the strike zone really is. It’s a 17 x 30-inch vertical space on a baseball field, and occupies only 510 square inches, but its magnitude of importance generally determines who wins and who doesn’t. For hitters, those guys who control the strike zone better than their peers – hitters who have what is known as plate discipline – are much better at setting them up in situations that allows them to tear the cover off the ball.

Most people seem to place a sort of loose definition on plate discipline as it pertains to walks. Hitters who walk often get the label of having good plate discipline while hitters who do not walk get tagged as having poor plate discipline. For starters, this is a decent quick’n dirty way to analyze plate discipline, but if we want to really find out which hitters are more disciplined than others we need to take a look at other factors, primarily the following:
  • Hitters being able to work the count into a hitter’s count.
  • Hitters being able to avoid allowing the pitcher working the count into a pitcher’s count.
  • Hitters being able to avoid getting stuck in a two-strike count.

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Let’s first analyze hitters’ counts by looking at team and league totals for the 2005 season. The acronym HCPA stands for Hitters’ Counts Plate Appearances and HCPA% is the percentage of all plate appearances that ended in a hitters’ count.

Code:

Teams             HCPA     OPS    Total PA    HCPA %

San Diego         2405    .920      6271     38.351%
New York (A)      2455   1.020      6406     38.323%
Philadelphia      2426    .966      6345     38.235%
Boston            2403   1.023      6403     37.529%
Cincinnati        2344   1.055      6321     37.083%
Arizona           2335   1.009      6327     36.905%
Los Angeles (N)   2233    .913      6134     36.404%
Texas             2277   1.054      6301     36.137%
Oakland           2247    .960      6275     35.809%
Toronto           2224    .963      6233     35.681%
Atlanta           2207   1.060      6186     35.677%
Cleveland         2225   1.032      6255     35.572%
Seattle           2162    .954      6095     35.472%
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Milwaukee         2143   1.017      6156     34.812%
Los Angeles (A)   2126    .952      6186     34.368%
Minnesota         2120    .953      6192     34.238%
Baltimore         2090    .993      6134     34.072%
New York (N)      2087   1.006      6146     33.957%
St. Louis         2115    .999      6246     33.862%
Colorado          2110   1.011      6238     33.825%
Washington        2073    .946      6142     33.751%
San Francisco     2020    .917      6077     33.240%
Chicago (N)       2031    .982      6161     32.965%
Tampa Bay         2016    .937      6120     32.941%
Pittsburgh        2049    .979      6221     32.937%
Florida           2041    .928      6214     32.845%
Houston           2005    .982      6139     32.660%
Chicago (A)       2006    .930      6146     32.639%
Detroit           1970    .962      6136     32.106%
Kansas City       1948    .931      6086     32.008%
			
League           64893    .979    186292     34.834%
Check out the league average OPS for all plate appearances that ended in a hitter’s count, an amazing .979. In fact, the line as a whole is .305/.470/.509, which is quite literally a Hall of Fame caliber offensive machine.

Another key column in the above chart, and one I’d like to concentrate on, is HCPA%, or the percentage of all plate appearances that ended in a hitter’s counts. Consider that if the average hitter is able to put up a .979 OPS while in a hitter’s counts, then it makes sense that individual hitters (and teams) who work themselves into more hitting counts than their peers will enjoy a significant offensive advantage.

The league average percentage in 2005 for plate appearances that ended in a hitter’s count is 34.834 percent. Teams such as the San Diego Padres, New York Yankees and Philadephia Phillies enjoyed the most plate appearances ending in hitter’s counts, with each team crossing over the 38 percent barrier. The Cincinnati Reds were fifth in the majors at 37.083 percent. Another way to look at it: if the Kansas City Royals enjoyed the same percentage of plate appearances in hitting counts as the San Diego Padres, they would have had 386 more plate appearances in a hitting count than they actually had. That would have been an additional 386 plate appearances where they would have enjoyed offense at well over a .900 OPS clip instead of offense at an average (or worse) OPS. In short, they would have scored quite a few more runs – and won quite a few more games – if their hitters simply worked the count better.

When we dig deeper into the numbers on an individual basis, it gets even more interesting. I’ll simply use the 2005 league average mark as an overall league average mark for all comparisons. The figure likely fluctuates slightly season by season, but it should resemble a stable enough mark to use in all comparisons.

First, here is what I will call the Fab Five, five of the best hitters from this generation and how they’ve fared in setting up their plate appearances in hitting counts:

Code:

Player            HCPA     OPS    Total PA    HCPA %  HCPA+

Barry Bonds       5276   1.287     10519     50.157%   144
Frank Thomas      4304   1.198      8602     50.035%   144
Jeff Bagwell      4161   1.174      9428     44.134%   127
Albert Pujols     1404   1.283      3427     40.969%   118
Alex Rodriguez    2718   1.200      7084     38.368%   110
For HCPA+, think of it like OPS+ as I’m merely comparing each hitters’ HCPA% to the league average mark of 34.834 percent. A 100 mark for HCPA+ is league average, above 100 is above average and below 100 is below average.

Those are career figures for all five guys, and check out those career OPS marks for each of them when they’ve been ahead in the count. Great hitters who hit in hitting counts will hit greater than – or sometimes better than – Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. The more often you place yourself in a hitting count, the more often you will enjoy the advantage to hit like legends.

Barry Bonds during his run from 2001-2004 hit in a hitting count nearly 60 percent of the time. For his career as a total, his mark of hitting in a hitting count is still amazingly more than half of his total plate appearances. Frank Thomas has nearly matched him, and others such as Pujols, Rodriguez and Bagwell have been well above the league average at getting into hitting counts.

The key question for Reds fans is how to our current (and notable past) Reds hitters shape up?

Code:

Player            HCPA     OPS    Total PA    HCPA %  HCPA+

Adam Dunn         1244   1.186      2782     44.716%   128
Scott Hatteberg   1674   1.003      3847     43.514%   125
Austin Kearns      609   1.061      1467     41.513%   119
Edwin Encarnacion   95   1.034       234     40.598%   117
Ken Griffey, Jr   3573   1.132      9053     39.468%   113
Ryan Freel         446    .882      1187     37.574%   108
Rich Aurilia*      173    .991       467     37.045%   106
Sean Casey        1627   1.030      4490     36.236%   104
Felipe Lopez       588   1.065      1663     35.358%   102
Javier Valentin    364    .961      1049     34.700%   100
Jason LaRue        729    .961      2303     31.654%    91
Wily Mo Pena       268    .942       897     29.877%    86
Tony Womack       1556    .881      5256     29.604%    85

* Due to site errors, I only had access to Aurilia's 2005 splits
Taking a glance at these figures, is this what you would expect? Adam Dunn is the leader in getting himself into more hitting counts, with the Pickin’ Machine right behind him. Kearns has fared very well, and in Encarnacion’s small sample thus far he has also done very well at getting himself into a hitting count.

How about Sean Casey, however? For all the hoopla over Casey being a supposed situational hitter, not striking out and making contact, he’s been essentially a league average hitter when it comes to actually getting himself in a hitting count. Not only that, but while he’s a good hitter once he is in a hitting count, he still trails Adam Dunn by over 150 points in OPS as a hitter in a hitting count. Also to note, not surprisingly, Wily Mo Pena and Tony Womack are the trailers as they each really have no clue how to work the strike zone.

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Next, let’s use the same process to track how well teams and hitters are able to avoid getting caught in a pitcher’s count, with PCPA being pitchers' count PA:

Code:

Team              PCPA     OPS    Total PA    PCPA %

New York (A)      1802    .616      6406     28.130%
Boston            1832    .594      6403     28.612%
San Diego         1826    .527      6271     29.118%
Cleveland         1844    .586      6255     29.480%
Atlanta           1828    .511      6186     29.551%
Cincinnati        1882    .537      6321     29.774%
Philadelphia      1902    .561      6345     29.976%
Texas Rangers     1894    .564      6301     30.059%
Arizona           1909    .514      6327     30.172%
Los Angeles (N)   1851    .511      6134     30.176%
San Francisco     1851    .490      6077     30.459%
Oakland           1917    .548      6275     30.550%
Seattle           1877    .518      6095     30.796%
Los Angeles (A)   1914    .547      6186     30.941%
----------------------------------------------------
Milwaukee         1914    .515      6156     31.092%
Houston           1910    .517      6139     31.113%
St. Louis         1949    .580      6246     31.204%
Toronto           1950    .569      6233     31.285%
Chicago (N)       1933    .573      6161     31.375%
Baltimore         1938    .575      6134     31.594%
Colorado          1978    .527      6238     31.709%
Minnesota         1969    .564      6192     31.799%
Chicago (A)       1966    .549      6146     31.988%
Washington        1980    .529      6142     32.237%
New York (N)      1987    .512      6146     32.330%
Kansas City       1994    .529      6086     32.764%
Pittsburgh        2039    .522      6221     32.776%
Tampa Bay         2007    .584      6120     32.794%
Florida           2047    .575      6214     32.942%
Detroit           2048    .569      6136     33.377%
			
League           57738    .547    186292     30.993%
Yep, that’s right, when a plate appearances ends with the count in the pitcher’s favor, the average hitter has a whopping .547 OPS. The straight line across is .216/.226/.322. What’s amazing to note is that the league average slugging percentage is nearly 200 points lower when the count ends in a pitchers’ count instead of in a hitters’ count. If you’re at the plate and have two strikes on you, you’re rarely going to get anything worthwhile to hit, and the numbers really bear that out.

Likewise, when teams and individual hitters get stuck in pitchers’ counts more often than their peers, they really struggle at the plate. The Tigers were dead last, getting caught in a pitchers’ count in over 33 percent of their total plate appearances. The New York Yankees led the majors as their total plate appearances ending in a pitcher’s count were just a shade over 28 percent. The Reds again scored well, ranking 6th in the majors at being able to avoid pitching counts.

It’s really rather simple: the more often you avoid the pitcher’s count, the more often you can avoid that .547 OPS.

How about individual hitters, the Fab Five and notable Reds hitters?

Code:

Player            PCPA     OPS    Total PA    PCPA %  PCPA+

Barry Bonds       1839    .703     10519     17.483%   177
Frank Thomas      1653    .694      8602     19.216%   161
Jeff Bagwell      2211    .670      9428     23.451%   132
Albert Pujols      902    .785      3427     26.291%   118
Alex Rodriguez    2078    .738      7084     29.334%   106
Again, Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas have just obliterated everybody else, but Jeff Bagwell and Albert Pujols have also been excellent at being able to avoid getting caught in a pitchers’ count. Alex Rodriguez, surprisingly, is just above average. As can be seen by their OPS figures in a pitching count, if you can get ahead of these guys, they’re still relatively harmless and you have a much better chance at getting them out. Only Albert Pujols has been able to maintain some moderate success when caught behind in the count.

How about notable Reds hitters?

Code:

Player            PCPA     OPS    Total PA    PCPA %  PCPA+

Adam Dunn          661    .481      2782     23.760%   130
Austin Kearns      356    .490      1467     24.267%   128
Ken Griffey, Jr   2292    .692      9053     25.318%   122
Scott Hatteberg    987    .520      3847     25.656%   121
Rich Aurilia*      120    .583       467     25.696%   121
Edwin Encarnacion   62    .468       234     26.496%   117
Ryan Freel         324    .593      1187     27.296%   114
Javier Valentin    298    .406      1049     28.408%   110
Sean Casey        1339    .675      4490     29.822%   104
Jason LaRue        738    .538      2303     32.045%    97
Wily Mo Pena       294    .419       897     32.776%    95
Felipe Lopez       548    .512      1663     32.952%    94
Tony Womack       1961    .502      5256     37.310%    83

* Due to site errors, I only had access to Aurilia's 2005 splits
Just as he led the group in getting himself into hitting counts, Adam Dunn leads the group in avoiding pitching counts. What’s also very encouraging is Austin Kearns and Edwin Encarnacion also fare very well in avoiding pitching counts, just as they fare well in getting themselves in hitting counts. The Pickin’ Machine, Scott Hatteberg, also ranks high on the list.

Sean Casey? Barely above league average once again. For all the hoopla with him avoiding strikeouts and putting the ball in play, he sure falls well short of other hitters in the group at being able to avoid giving the pitcher an advantage during a plate appearance. Wily Mo Pena again looks frighteningly bad, Felipe Lopez is also not looking hot and Tony Womack is just a plain bad hitter.

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Finally, let’s track the last bullet about plate discipline, avoiding getting caught in a two-strike count. I do not have detailed team and league figures for two-strike counts as I do for overall hitting and pitching counts, but I was able to dig up enough data to use for a decent analysis.

2005 two-strike BA: .192
2005 two-strike OBP: .262
2005 two-strike SLG: .293
2005 two-strike OPS: .555

~ TPA ending with two-strikes: 86,000
~ Percentage of all TPA that ended with two-strikes: 46.164 percent

I was unable to find exact SF and HBP league figures with two-strikes so the total plate appearances figure may be off by 1 percent or so, but should still be close enough to be able to analyze. In all of 2005, there were 186,292 plate appearances in the major leagues, and approximately 86,000 of those plate appearances ended with the hitter having two strikes – AKA the kiss of death – pinned on them. As can be seen with the league OPS figures, if a hitter is caught with two strikes, their OPS plummets down to .555. In fact, if it weren’t for 3-2 full counts, that OPS figure would be much much lower, perhaps even well under .500. Most, if not all, hitters (even great hitters) turn into your typical hitting pitcher when attempting to hit on counts of 0-2, 1-2 and 2-2.

Here’s the fab five again, with 2SPA being two-strike PA:

Code:

Player            2SPA     OPS    Total PA    2SPA %  2SPA+

Barry Bonds       3953    .775     10519     37.580%   123
Albert Pujols     1457    .812      3427     42.515%   109
Frank Thomas      3807    .732      8602     44.257%   104
Jeff Bagwell      4359    .722      9428     46.235%   100
Alex Rodriguez    3553    .703      7084     50.155%    92
Again, Barry Bonds just seems to dominate the group as he is far ahead of everyone else in being able to avoid getting stuck in a two-strike count. Albert Pujols and Frank Thomas are above average in avoiding two-strike counts, while Jeff Bagwell is average and Alex Rodriguez, surprisingly, is below average in being able to avoid two-strike counts.

Let’s break the two-strike counts down further:

Code:

OPS By Count
Player            0-2    1-2    2-2     3-2

Barry Bonds      .484   .510   .693   1.057
Albert Pujols    .563   .694   .764   1.138
Frank Thomas     .556   .590   .567    .984
Jeff Bagwell     .458   .590   .613    .992
Alex Rodriguez   .568   .610   .632    .953
As can be seen, even the very best hitters in the game are terribly weak when caught in a two-strike count that isn’t a full 3-2 count. Only by working the count back to 3-2 are these hitters able to put themselves in position where they can do damage once again. Albert Pujols is well-known for being a great two-strike hitter, but even at 0-2 and 1-2 he’s like an average light hitting shortstop.

Now for the Reds’ figures:

Code:

Player            2SPA     OPS    Total PA    2SPA %  2SPA+

Sean Casey        1707    .635      4490     38.018%   122
Ken Griffey, Jr   3878    .663      9053     42.837%   108
Javier Valentin    453    .531      1049     43.184%   107
Rich Aurilia*      204    .603       467     43.683%   106
Scott Hatteberg   1780    .570      3847     46.270%   100
Tony Womack       2555    .506      5256     48.611%    95
Austin Kearns      738    .538      1467     50.307%    92
Ryan Freel         605    .598      1187     50.969%    91
Edwin Encarnacion  120    .495       234     51.282%    90
Jason LaRue       1186    .479      2303     51.498%    90
Felipe Lopez       867    .561      1663     52.135%    89
Wily Mo Pena       484    .410       897     53.958%    86
Adam Dunn         1552    .586      2782     55.787%    83

* Due to site errors, I only had access to Aurilia's 2005 splits
Very interesting. Sean Casey ranks first in this group at being able to avoid two-strike counts while Adam Dunn ranks last. Now before anyone starts railing on Dunn again, it is important to note that 37 percent of Dunn’s plate appearances with two strikes also happen to be 3-2 full counts compared to only 25 percent of Casey’s two-strike plate appearances coming on a full count. Why is this important? Let’s take a look at the group by count with two strikes:

Code:

OPS By Count
Player             0-2    1-2    2-2     3-2

Sean Casey        .596   .581   .534    .839
Ken Griffey, Jr   .512   .535   .614    .921
Javier Valentin   .400   .301   .609    .828
Rich Aurilia*     .667   .293   .600    .936
Scott Hatteberg   .418   .464   .462    .853 
Tony Womack       .426   .427   .483    .803
Austin Kearns     .460   .260   .370    .903
Ryan Freel        .315   .531   .465    .918
Edwin Encarnacion .294   .276   .378    .924
Jason LaRue       .271   .450   .428    .753
Felipe Lopez      .386   .480   .386   1.011
Wily Mo Pena      .204   .314   .507    .605
Adam Dunn         .417   .334   .497    .887

* Due to site errors, I only had access to Aurilia's 2005 splits
Notice the clear pattern: Nobody hits well at 0-2, 1-2 or 2-2. Only by working the count full to 3-2 do the OPS figures start to become decent, unless you’re Wily Mo Pena, of course.

What does the bulk of this information tell us? Basically, common sense still, that by laying off bad pitches and working the count in your favor that you as a hitter are setting yourself up in a situation to be very successful. If you’re constantly swinging at garbage – regardless if you make contact or not – or constantly behind in the count, you’re oftentimes going to fail as a hitter. Aggressive, contact hitters such as Sean Casey get themselves into trouble by flailing away at stuff out of the strike zone. More patient hitters who are willing to work the count will take the pitch as a ball, and work the count in their favor.

Think of it like this: when Sean Casey swings at a bad pitch and makes contact, he usually makes an out. When Adam Dunn swings at a pitch and misses, he’s helping to put himself in position to make an out, but hasn’t yet made the out. This is why such blanket statements as “if he reduces his strikeouts, he will gain hits” fall flat on its face. The people advocating Dunn to reduce his strikeouts argue for him to lose plate discipline by swinging and making contact with more pitches out of the strike zone. In fact, it should be the other way around as everybody should be arguing for Dunn to gain even more plate discipline.

Imagine all the scenarios you see Adam Dunn in a 1-1 count where the next pitch is a ball low and out of the zone. Dunn can either A) take the ball to make the count 2-1, B) swing and miss to make the count 1-2 or C) swing and make contact, likely making an out since the pitch was so poor. Option C is equally as worse as Option B, and there is no benefit to substituting C for B. This is the precise reason why offensive strikeouts have very little bearing on actual run scoring; in place of the strikeouts, hitters usually just swing at bad pitches that result in a high out making efficiency, including double plays.

In the above example, Dunn should resort to Option A, taking the pitch for a ball and getting himself in a hitting count where he can do some serious damage. As shown way above in his rate of reaching hitting counts and avoiding pitching counts, Dunn already does this better than any other current or recent Reds hitter.

This is the virtue and value of plate discipline. Take pitches, lay off swinging at garbage, work the count in your favor and hammer good pitches in the strike zone. Hitters that are able to accomplish those feats at a rate higher than their peers will likely have quite a bit of success, and that never has been a secret to hitting. What may have been a secret to hitting, however, is the rate at which hitters can get into hitting counts, avoid pitching counts and avoid two-strike counts.

For the Reds, Adam Dunn's been better in that regard than everyone else we've had in our lineup.