“And he takes that pitch for a called strike three.”
I’ve heard it a lot, you’ve heard it a lot, everybody who has been following the Yankees has heard it a lot this past month. It seems like, at least once a game, the Yankees have some sort of rally going, and one of their big hitters—be it Aaron Judge, Luke Voit, or somebody else—gets up to the plate and watches a hittable pitch go by him for strike three.
The Yankees are praised for their patience at the plate, and while one cannot argue with the success of a team second in the AL in runs per game, it does stand to wonder: are the Yankees being too patient at the plate?
Of course, to begin to answer that question, we have to ask, “How exactly can we measure patience?” In baseball, patience is treated as the ability to work deep into a count, raising a pitcher’s pitch count, and continuing an at-bat until the hitter finally gets a pitch that he thinks he can drive. Based off of this definition, there are a few things we can look at to judge how patient Yankees hitters are. For example, how many pitches do they see per at bat, and how does their performance change the deeper into an at-bat they go?
The first thing worth looking at is whether there is any correlation between how many pitches a team sees per plate appearance and its offensive performance, represented on this graph via OPS+.
With a minuscule R-squared, there exists only a small correlation between OPS+ and pitches per plate appearance. Although the worst offenses in the league tend to gravitate towards the lower end of the spectrum, we can find equally-potent offenses throughout. The Yankees, for example, rank among the highest in both categories, with a 4.06 P/PA and 116 OPS+, while the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, and Minnesota Twins— with OPS+ values of 111, 117, and 119, respectively—all are bottom 10 in the league in P/PA. Success can be found both through patience and aggression at the plate.
With this in mind, would the Yankees be well-served to take a more aggressive approach at the plate? Theoretically, yes. The team as a whole posts a 1.122 OPS on the first pitch of the at-bat, including a .403 batting average; this is actually better than Minnesota’s 1.037 and Boston’s 1.072 OPS in the same situation. Yankees hitters, however, have swung at fewer first pitches than other teams, swinging only 29.8% of the time, compared to Boston’s 31.1% and Minnesota’s 33.3%. This number seems low, but over 4200 plate appearances, that amounts to 55 to 147 swings.
Of course, this ends up in a chicken-and-egg scenario. Are the Yankees’ stats in these situations better because they are more selective on the first pitch? Or would the team benefit from being more aggressive on the first pitch? It is impossible to know completely for sure, but I personally would prefer the team to jump out on more first pitches.
What about the other side of the at-bat, though, when Yankees batters face two strikes? It seems that, lately, Yankees hitters have been striking out looking a lot in the month of July, which is actually what got me started looking into the team’s patience in the first place. The chart below includes a list of all the two-strike pitches that Yankees hitters have taken in the month of July.
From July 1 to July 29, Yankees hitters took 460 two-strike pitches, 44 of which (or 9.5%) ended up as called strike threes. Although good chunk of those strike calls have been borderline, and thus were not necessarily terrible takes, more than a few were definite strikes.
It is almost impossible to say for certain how much of this has been circumstance and how much of it has been organizational philosophy. On the whole, however, it looks like the Yankees would benefit from being slightly more aggressive, both early in counts and in two-strike situations.