David Wright experienced a resurgence of sorts in 2012. After four straight outstanding offense seasons, Wright’s offensive production dipped significantly in 2009 — from a 141 wRC+ to 125. In 2011, Wright’s wRC+ declined all the way to 116.
But this year, the old David Wright reappeared and the 29-year-old third basemen posted a 140 wRC+. The Mets, encouraged by Wright’s year at the plate, have not only picked up his 2013 option (which was predictable), but have also continued discussions for a long-term contract extension.
Regardless, one thing was clear: Wright was making better decisions at the plate in 2012. And while his plate discipline numbers were positive (e.g. -2.1% O-Swing), the overall change didn’t seem to capture how well Wright’s plate approach improved.
In an effort to tease this out beyond the basic plate discipline metrics, R. J. Anderson used Mike Fast’s “correct” decision-making approach to look at how Wright’s decision-making improved in the past three season. Anderson calculated the percentage of “correct” pitches Wright swung at in 2012, compared to the two previous seasons. He found Wright had improved his decision-making by 7%.
I decided to take an even narrower view than Anderson and focused only on the location of balls Wright swung at that were just off of the plate, or that were off the black.
Using PITCHf/x data, I calculated the average distance off the black (both on the inside and outside of the strike zone) of the pitches that hitters swung at. I purposefully excluded pitches thrown in two-strike counts, as hitters are apt to expand their zones and swing defensively in those counts. To make it easier to walk through, I am calling this metric wDOTB — or weighted distance off the black. (I am using “weighted” here to denote that the measure is the weighted average of the inside and outside distances.)
Here are the league averages for 2012, broken down by batter handedness:
The difference between left-handed and right-handed hitters is pretty small. Right-handers tend to swing at pitchers farther inside off the black, whereas the opposite is true of left-handers. This is probably due to the fact that there are more right-handed pitchers in the league, and, therefore, hitters will see more or fewer pitches on each side of the plate based on who is throwing the ball.
In terms of the leaders and laggers from each side of the plate, here are two graphics.
First, right-handed hitters with at least 600 plate appearances:
And, left-handed hitters with at least 600 plate appearances:
Generally speaking, the best everyday hitters when it comes to swinging at pitches close to the black are about twice as good as the worst from each side of the plate.
Now, let’s get back to Wright.
Here’s Wright’s wDOTB going back to 2008:
To more easily visualize the difference, I plotted the actual pitches Wright swung at and then bucketed them into 2009 to 2011 and 2008 and 2012:
Visually, we can see the biggest difference seems to be on the inside. In 2008 and 2012, Wright’s wDOTB for inside pitches was just .16, compared to .22 from 2009 to 2011. When it came to outside pitches, Wright’s wDOTB was almost identical (.20 vs. .19). When Wright swings at inside pitches, he’s picking the ones that are more easily driven — versus weakly hit (or missed) ones.
Compared to other right-handed hitters this past year, Wright’s .17 wDOTB ranked third overall. So, yes, Wright wasn’t just hitting the ball better this past season. He was much more selective when he chose to swing, specifically on balls on the inside of the plate.
As far as the metric overall, I can’t say with any degree of certainty what the relationship is between wDOTB and overall productivity. At a minimum, wDOTB gives us a better picture of how hitters differ when it comes to swinging at balls out of the zone. Whether or not this metric matters from an inferential standpoint will require more testing. My initial hunch is that the absolute value matters less than individual hitter changes, year-to-year. I’ll report back with any new developments.
Bill leads Predictive Modeling and Data Science consulting at Gallup. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, has consulted for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. He is also the creator of the baseballr package for the R programming language. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @BillPetti.