As you probably already know, strikeouts are on an upward trend. Since 2005, baseball’s strikeout rate has increased every single year, and here in the first few weeks of 2019, it is up yet again. Hitters are striking out at a 23.3% rate, already representing a percentage point increase over their 2018 mark.
There is one team, though, that appears to be bucking the strikeout trend in a big way. Through 776 plate appearances, the Angels have struck out just 16.0% of the time, the lowest rate of any team in the major leagues. In the same breath, Los Angeles’ hitters are walking at the 14th-highest rate, 9.7%. This excellent combination of limiting strikeouts and drawing walks has resulted in a team-wide 0.60 BB/K ratio, which unsurprisingly leads the league.
Of course, a lot of this might have to do with Mike Trout. In 77 plate appearances, Trout has 18 walks to just nine strikeouts. But even if you were to remove Trout from the Angels’ team-wide stats, their strikeout rate would only “jump” to 16.5%. This would still be 1.9 percentage points better than the next closest team, the Athletics (18.4%).
This unique characteristic that Angels hitters are demonstrating clearly goes beyond Trout. In fact, among the 10 Angels hitters with at least 50 plate appearances, four have more walks than strikeouts. Across the rest of the league, there are only seven non-Angels hitters who have 50 plate appearances and can say the same, and no other team has more than two.
Here’s the list of Angels hitters with 50 or more plate appearances this season, comparing their 2019 strikeout rate with their career (pre-2019, to avoid double-counting) strikeout rate:
|Player||2019 K%||Career K%||Difference|
|Tommy La Stella||6.3%||12.6%||-6.3%|
Of course, there are certainly exceptions, but, generally, we can see that this is a change that hasn’t impacted just one or two hitters; about half of the lineup looks to be striking out at a lower rate this season. Why is this happening? What are the Angels doing differently that has led to these results? Let’s take a look at some of their plate discipline statistics, comparing them to 2018:
This season, the Angels have been a team of extremes. They are swinging at the fewest number of pitches, but they are making contact at rates that are among baseball’s best, with their Z-Contact rate of 90.9% leading the next closest team, the Royals, by 2.9 percentage points. That’s a lot, especially considering that each team has somewhere between 672 and 970 plate appearances.
But what’s more interesting to me is that the ceiling the Angels are currently hitting doesn’t seem like it came out of nowhere. The team still ranked in the bottom-third of the league in both O- and Z-Swing, while ranking in the top-half in both O- and Z-Contact. Seeing these numbers projected in that table makes me think that the Angels always had this potential, but it just hadn’t come to fruition until this season.
Now, the Angels appear to be seeing a ton of fastballs, perhaps making it easier to lay off the bad pitches and swing at the good ones. Their fastballs-seen percentage of 56.4% is tops in the big leagues. What could this mean? Perhaps pitchers aren’t afraid to challenge Angels hitters this season, because, outside of Trout, they don’t have a lot of star power in that lineup. (For what it’s worth, even Trout gets a lot of fastballs.) At least so far, their lineup has done well at combating this with its excellent discipline.
This theory — that pitchers want to challenge Angels hitters — could also explain why the Angels have seen more pitches inside the zone than any other team. Pitchers want to see if they can sneak a strike by their hitters. I’d argue that this is warranted, as the team currently boasts just a .148 ISO, tied with the Rockies for 24th in baseball. And, yes, that’s even with Trout.
On the pitching side of things, this strategy does seem to be working. The Angels have the second-lowest barrel per batted ball event rate on pitches inside the strike zone (5.0%), and it’s even lower on fastballs inside the strike zone (4.2%). So, while the team does do a great job of finding a good pitch to hit, when they do indeed hit one, they haven’t done a lot of damage (.292 xwOBA on pitches in the zone, seventh-lowest in baseball). Really, the Angels might be better off focusing on plate discipline like they already have, as the quality of contact just isn’t there.
But, as we’ve seen, there’s been an extreme shift, even among the Angels’ already-positive discipline numbers in 2018. What has sparked this change from last season to this season? Well, for one, the Angels have a new manager, Brad Ausmus. More importantly, they have two new hitting coaches, Jeremy Reed and Shawn Wooten. And, according to a story from Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register, these two individuals impressed Angels’ GM Billy Eppler with their “modern approach to hitting.”
Wooten, in particular, “spends much of his time during the game inside the clubhouse watching on television, and then analyzing the video in real time to give players feedback between at-bats.” He even has “a library of video” on each Angels hitter, even going as far back as to when they were in high school.
This information, however, does not specifically inform us as to whether these practices instituted by Reed and Wooten are responsible for the Angels’ huge dip in strikeouts. But it does tell us that something significant has changed, perhaps meaning that this is something that can be sustained over the course of this season.
Prior to this year, Reed was the Angels’ minor league hitting coordinator, serving in that role from 2017 to 2018. Before that, he was with the Brewers in the same role. Why is this important? Well, David Laurila talked to Reid Nichols, then the Brewers Director of Player Development, in 2014. At the time, Nichols noted that Reed “has done a great job here. He’s really had an impact on the players, especially on their mental approach.”
That’s something that we can work with. A statistical way to evaluate a change in “mental approach” would be if a hitter (or, in this case, team) improved their plate discipline, doing a better job of determining which pitches to hit. It’s something that I talked about when I wrote about J.D. Davis, and it’s something that I think definitely applies here.
The Angels, as a team, seem to have a greatly improved mental approach. They’re looking for better pitches to hit, and when they get those, they are making contact at an extremely high rate. It hasn’t yet resulted in the Angels becoming a high-flying offense (.303 wOBA this season, ranking 19th), but their underlying numbers (.323 xwOBA) suggest that better results could be coming soon, even if the quality of contact isn’t phenomenal, at least by comparative standards.
With Reed and Wooten, the Angels are doing their own thing, and it has resulted in some of the best plate discipline numbers baseball is currently seeing. For now, the Angels have shown that they have, for the most part, avoided the strikeout surge that has overtaken the league.
Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.