What Makes a Good Plate Appearance
It has been mentioned here and other places that discuss Washington Nationals baseball that the Nationals are 29th in baseball in OBP, 26th in line drive rate, and third in first pitch strikes taken. All of this though is a symptom of a poor approach. The hit tool is often thought of as an individual tool that is part of the five tools (hit for average, hit for power, speed, throwing arm, and defense) that scouts use to evaluate players, but the hit tool is made up of its own separate tools. A good hitter has plate discipline, the ability to recognize pitches knowing which ones to lay off of and which one to swing at, plate coverage, the ability to cover both sides of the plate being able to reach pitches on both corners of the plate, bat speed, the actual ability to have a fast enough bat to catch up to major league pitching, and bat control, this final tool is the one that allows the batter to slow down or speed up his bat to take outside pitches the other way and pull pitches inside. Those four separate tools all go in to making someone a good hitter, and the best hitters in baseball have all of them.
Watch any Nationals game and it is easy to see that they are not having good plate appearances. The Nationals don't walk enough nor do they put the ball in play with hard contact enough. This is what has led to the Nationals poor line drive rate and OBP but these are both symptoms of poor pitch recognition. The Nationals are letting too many hittable pitches go by and swinging at too many pitchers pitches. When ahead in the count the Nationals have an .858 OPS which looks good, but all stats are relative and the MLB average for that situation is .957. Being .099 points below MLB average in any statistical category is not good, and the Nationals are not good at hitting when they have count leverage. This is again part of pitch recognition. The Washington Nationals are letting too many hittable pitches go by and letting the count dictate when they swing or when they don't. Think back to Werth swinging 3-0 against the Mets. The issue wasn't that he swung it was the pitch he choose to swing at.
This finally brings me to the point I wish to make. What makes a good plate appearance? Is it the results (i.e. hit, walk, run) or is it something else? My argument is that good results follow a good approach, but that a good approach won't always lead to good results. Think of a batter at the plate with the bases empty. He works the count full fowling off pitch after pitch eventually forcing the pitcher to throw 10, 11, 12 pitches to get him out, and then on the 13th pitch of the at bat he gets the pitch he is looking for and drives it deep towards the gap. As the ball is dropping the center fielder makes a last ditch effort all out dive, and the ball is caught. It is an out, but it was a 13 pitch at bat that ended in hard contact. It is tough to say the batter did anything wrong. Now imagine a different situation where a batter walks to the plate and swings at the first pitch that is up and out of the zone. The ball hits the handle of the bat and pops up just over the first baseman's head down the right field line. It is too deep for an infielder to reach and too shallow for an outfielder. The ball drops in for a hit.
One batter ended up with a hit and the other made an out, but the one with the good approach is the one that made out. If the first player then sees the second player get a hit and changes his approach to match his he won't have nearly the success he would have had he stuck with his better approach. Now imagine that instead of driving the baseball somewhere on the 13th pitch the first batter took a curve ball that just nipped the outside corner of the plate. He didn't think it was a pitch he could handle and felt that it most likely would end up a ball, but the pitcher made a fantastic pitch and struck him out. Again it has to be asked if the batter did anything wrong? He felt that if he swung at the pitch it would have been nothing more than a slow roller and an out, but that if he laid off of it there was a good chance it would be a ball unless it broke perfectly. He had already seen 12 pitches in the at bat and the goal in any game should be to make a pitcher throw at least 15 pitches an inning. He had seen almost three batters worth of pitches on his own. It is hard to see an issue with this approach or to say that this batter had a bad at bat.
Now if we return to swinging at the first pitch it should first be noted that all of baseball is hitting .335/.339/.549 on the first pitch. This is because the first pitch is often a strike. Remember that batters have an .957 OPS when ahead in the count and when behind it falls all the way to .509. That is a significant swing and letting the pitcher get ahead is not something that a batter wants to do. Swinging at the first pitch every so often is important to keep a pitcher honest and make sure they aren't getting to just lay a pitch in there to get ahead in the count, but again this is about pitch recognition. Taking or swinging at the first pitch shouldn't be done simply because it is the first pitch. This is all about pitch recognition and if the pitcher is going to groove a pitch on the first pitch to get ahead then the batter better be ready to swing, because if they let that pitcher get ahead they may not see another hittable pitch for the entire at bat. Swinging at the first pitch should be judged much the same as swinging at any other pitch. If a batter swings and pops up or hits a slow roller than it was not a good at bat, but if solid and hard contact is made then it is a good at bat no matter the results.
How many times have we watched the Nationals this season and seen them do nothing but take pitches to take pitches and end up in an 0-2 count? Taking pitches for the sake of taking pitches is not a good approach. The best way for a team to make a pitcher throw more pitches is to not make outs. It is a lot easier to make a pitcher cross the threshold of 15 pitches with four or five batters than it is with three, and getting men on base and not making outs is ultimately how runs are scored in baseball and it is easier to reach base when batters are looking for pitches to drive and driving them somewhere, and if they never get that pitch to drive and the pitcher is working outside the zone then take the walk that is given.
Baseball is all about taking what the other team is willing to give and making them work as hard as possible for every out. Spoiler alert: three outs are going to be made in every inning of the game with the only possible exception being the bottom of any inning after the eighth. The only eventuality in baseball is failure. Teams get three outs an inning to work with and the goal should be to make it as tough as possible for the other team to earn those outs. That is achieved by recognizing which pitches should be swung at and which should not. If a batter can do that and be consistent with that approach then good results will follow. The Nationals have not done that this season and that is why they are near the bottom of the league in most significant offensive categories. If they can start having better pitch recognition and a good approach at the plate then positive results will follow. A good at bat isn't one that ends with a runner on base it is one that ends in hard contact or the pitcher being forced to throw a lot of pitches. In other words the Nats need to stop making it easy on the other team to get them out and make every out count, and if they can do that then it will take longer for them to make those outs, and more runs will be scored.