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Much has been made about the Rays and their new aggressive approach at the plate, something that began last year and has reached a new level this season. So it was interesting to listen to the Cubs radio broadcast on Friday afternoon about the patience of Cubs hitters and how it seems to be the influence of our old friend, Ben Zobrist.

Here is the discussion between Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer:

Hughes: [Zobrist’s] patience at the plate, obviously it helps him do his job, but I think there is an influence factor that spreads throughout the team. And I’m not giving all the credit to Ben Zobrist for that, but some … I feel like watching this team, that his influence has been a very positive one regarding his teammates and the way they take pitches early in their plate appearances.

Coomer: Well, you never just see him have one of those quick at bats, swing at the first pitch, and hit the little 15-hopper to short or second. There’s always a plan in place for his at bats. Now, I have seen him swing at the first pitch on occasion, with runners in scoring position, where maybe you have taken a bunch throughout the day and now you are setting the pitcher up to try and hit one in a big moment in the ball game … His patience has definitely rubbed off on the Addison Russells and some of those young guys.

Listening to those comments and comparing them to what we know about the Rays, the first thing that stands out is the obvious: the Cubs are a very good at hitting the baseball and the Rays are not. But it goes a little deeper than that. Let’s compare where the Cubs and Rays rank in several offensive categories that are related to patience (MLB rank in parentheses):

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Here are a few notes on that table:

  • Swing% (how often the batters swing at a pitch) — Only 3 teams swing at pitches more often than the Rays, the Braves, Phillies, and Reds. Ignoring the Phillies’ surprise start to the season, those are arguably 3 of the 5 worst teams in baseball.
  • Swinging Strike% (how often batters swing and miss) — Being aggressive is fine if you are actually, you know, hitting the baseball. No team comes up empty more than the Rays.
  • Strikeout% (how often the batters strikeout) — The Rays lead MLB with 26% of their plate appearances ending in strikeouts, more than one out of every four trips to the plate.
  • Walk% (how often the batters walk) — The obvious problem with being more aggressive is that is means less chance of drawing walks. The Rays are near the bottom. The Cubs are tops in baseball. Oh yeah, the Cubs are also on pace to win 126 games.
  • Line drive% (how often balls hit fair are line drives) — This is a sign of how hard the ball is being hit. If the Rays are getting good looks at pitches, they should be hitting more live drives. The Rays do not. The patient Cubs hit lots of line drives.
  • Zone% (how often pitches are thrown in the strike zone) — A big reason for being more aggressive at the plate is that pitchers are no longer nibbling at the corners the way they did 20 years ago. Everybody throws 95 and they think they can just overpower hitters. So why wait for the third fastball down the middle if the first one is nice and meaty? But one huge flaw in that logic is that if a team gets a reputation for swinging a lot, pitchers will just stop throwing pitches in the strike zone. That seems to be happening already with the Rays as only two teams see fewer strikes, the Blue Jays and Rangers. Those two teams have something in common, they have sluggers in the lineup and pitchers are just afraid to throw it in the zone. That’s not happening with the Rays.

At some point it comes down to talent, and the Cubs just have more. But this was supposed to be a better-hitting Rays team this year and you have to wonder, is being aggressive something that should be limited to certain situations (e.g. later in games)? And, is bring aggressive a detriment to younger hitters, something the Rays always have a lot of?

Maybe there are advantages to being more aggressive. But this may be a case where the Rays are trying to shove a square peg in a round hole and they are taking a sound strategy but implementing it with the wrong type of personnel or just implementing it too often.

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8 Comments

  1. Rob says:

    I don't think Rays should be taking an either/or approach. It seems to me they develop a game plan or overall strategy and stick with it no matter how it is playing out, trusting that the metrics will regress at some point. I'd like to see them make in-game adjustments more often. If a pitcher is pounding the zone early, be aggressive. If he's nibbling, be patient. If that changes, then you change with it accordingly. They seemingly refuse to trust their own eyes and rely exclusively on the data in their hands.

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    • Ken says:

      Totally agree Rob. I wonder how the metric info is fed to our line up? Most of these guys, like the rest of MLB players, have been playing ball since they were very young. I doubt very much that any of them got here due to LL, HS, and college coaches feeding them data driven advice. Seems to me that what's missing in the analysis of the hitting surge late last year is who were they facing, how much pressure were these guys under and how meaningful were the games they were playing after being declared all but out of contention. I've got to believe that it's much easier to hit against a Sept. call up from another out of the race squad than against a contender vying for a playoff spot.
      While not denying the value of "metrics", the age old adage of "see the ball, hit the ball" carries more weight.

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  2. Jason says:

    So the rays have used both approaches with miserable results. It seems too me the rays just employ sub par hitters.

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    • Rob says:

      Maybe, but they have 5 guys batting below .200. There seems to be more at play than just subpar hitters.

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  3. Drsesq says:

    There is only one constant over the past few years of crappy hitting for this team. Derek Shelton

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  4. Berdj Rassam says:

    The Rays team batting average of .228 is horrific. The help cannot come fast enough.

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  5. doug says:

    It would be interesting to know if the high swing/miss% is related to head movement...are the hitters keeping their eye on the ball?. even a slight turn in the head prematurely will result in an increases of missed swings...that is a fixable problem... if it is not that then it is lack of God given ability...and....

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  6. Paul says:

    Dont the Rays lead the league in Hr's?

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