Maybe Hitters Should Just Stop Swinging

It’s difficult to be a major league hitter right now, maybe more than ever. For one, pitchers are filthier than ever, with mere relievers averaging velocities that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Teams have also become crafty with how they configure not only their infields, but also outfields, to great effect: League-wide BABIP on grounders and line drives has declined steadily over the years. It’s no wonder some hitters are left frustrated.

But that doesn’t mean hitters are without options. “They may take away our base hits, but they’ll never take away our plate discipline!” Joey Gallo might cry, if Braveheart is ever remade as an epic battle between a small nation of sluggers and a tyrannical pitcher-state. That really is motivating, though, because if you think about it, a hitter has complete control over when to swing. He may be influenced by the opposing pitcher’s sequencing, deception, and so on, but the decision itself can be traced back to his synapses firing off commands or staying put, all in a matter of milliseconds.

With that in mind, I want to direct your attention to another way pitchers have remained a step ahead. At FanGraphs, we have plate discipline metrics dating back to 2002. Back then, pitchers located inside the zone 54% of the time. Fast forward to 2021, and that rate is down to 41.9. Over time, pitchers realized they didn’t have to throw as many strikes; they could bury a curveball in the dirt, and hitters would still chase after them, especially if said curveball possessed good movement, or throw a powerful fastball high above the zone and induce whiffs. Reflecting this change in thought, here’s how the league-wide zone rate has evolved from 2002 to the present:

There are a few fluctuations here and there, but the overall decline has been consistent. Once it became viable to challenge the traditional tenets of pitching, the league didn’t look back. But while it’s true that pitchers adopted a seemingly foolproof strategy and ran with it, it’s also true that hitters haven’t been keen to find a countermeasure. They’ve seen a rise in pitches outside the zone, so it makes sense to anticipate them and respond with patience. But hitters today aren’t so different compared to their predecessors; the league-wide swing rate has remained virtually stagnant since 2002. As a consequence, hitters are chasing after pitches outside the zone at an alarming rate:

In defense of hitters, it is, again, difficult to hit a baseball in this day and age. It’s much easier to tee off a breaking ball when it hasn’t been optimized to mirror a pitcher’s fastball, or when it’s located at merely the bottom of the zone rather than beneath. But the fact that pitchers as a whole have made such an eye-raising adjustment while hitters have stayed put illustrates a rapidly widening gap. This is simply an environment geared toward pitchers. To wit, while most FanGraphs readers are aware of concepts like spin efficiency and vertical approach angle, what percentage of them are knowledgeable about a hitter’s rotational speed? I sure am not.

The solution may not be so convoluted, though. What if hitters just — wait for it — stop swinging this much? They wouldn’t necessarily need to discern the quality of incoming pitches: With such a disparity between the league-average swing rate and zone rate, swinging less often would grant even an average player access to hitter-friendly counts. A’s second baseman Tony Kemp, whom Ben Clemens wrote about last week, is an example of what’s possible. Not particularly known for his results on contact, Kemp nevertheless recorded a career-high wRC+ last season by “leaving the bat on his shoulders more frequently.” If he can do it, well, so can you!

Besides, the abundance of out-of-zone pitches has led to a subtle yet relevant phenomenon. The correlation between a hitter’s chase rate and walk rate has become stronger over time, with last season producing an all-time mark. Here’s the proof:

Two decades ago, how hitters dealt with pitches inside the zone mattered almost as much as how they dealt with pitches outside it. It makes sense; when more than half of all pitches are strikes, it isn’t enough to lay off the balls. But when pitchers are more willing to venture outside the zone, a hitter’s chase rate has emerged as an extremely reliable descriptor of his walk rate. To give that a positive spin, this is an opportune moment to cut down on bad swings. It’s more likely than ever that doing so will lead to a greater share of walks.

That doesn’t make the process any easier. Anyone who’s made a New Year’s resolution understands the difference between formulating a plan and putting it in action. There’s also the matter of timing. The math tells us that while swinging when behind in the count is bad, it’s a far better alternative to taking a potential third strike. On the flip side, swinging when ahead in the count squanders a solid chance to draw a walk. Hitters with a knack for swing decisions can figure this out, but others aren’t as adept. When instructed to swing less, the latter group could do so indiscriminately, leading to worse results than before.

So yes, “not swinging” isn’t the most plausible or nuanced strategy, but let’s imagine that it works. How would the league progress if its participants drastically cut down their swing rates? Initially, we should expect an uptick in walks. Hitters aren’t swinging like they used to, and pitchers are still sticking to a familiar blueprint. Once pitchers figure out what’s happening, though, they’ll probably counter with a barrage of strikes. This would temporarily give them the upper hand before hitters re-up their aggression. The final result is a return to an offensive environment featuring fewer strikeouts and more balls in play — in theory, at least. But it’s interesting to consider. A reluctance to swing could become a catalyst for resolving major league baseball’s supposed pace of play crisis.

Still, I should emphasize that pitchers seem to be the driving force. At some point, I do think we should either lower the mound or increase its distance from home plate. But what about a solution that isn’t disruptive? By swinging less, hitters would, in the short term, receive a jolt to their offensive numbers. In the long run, the league’s current high-whiff, low-contact environment could dissipate. As Tom Tango laid out, few hitters accumulate positive run values with their swings. What matters, fundamentally, is a penchant for taking pitches and working towards advantageous counts. It’s something even the most diabolical pitchers can’t take away. Maybe this is how the hitters fight back.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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2 years ago

You know how to make pitchers throw more strikes and improve the product? REDUCE THE NUMBER OF PITCHERS. How much you wanna bet that Zone% would increase if the number of pitchers on a roster went from 14 to 11/12?

2 years ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

I would think that would just lead to even more roster churn, since every team would be shuttling pitchers between the majors and AAA to keep arms fresh like the Rays have been doing.

Domingo Ayala
2 years ago
Reply to  raregokus

You could limit that too.

2 years ago
Reply to  raregokus

Yeah well, of course, you’d also have to limit the amount of times players can be optioned in a season. Do that, and guys will start throwing more strikes, we’ll see more balls in play, more ABs ending early in the count, and the pace will be much better. Not to mention the starting pitcher would have to rise from the ashes.

2 years ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

For real though. It’s such an easy way to fix things. Of course, the PA would never allow that.

1 year ago
Reply to  markakis21

And yet, now it is so.