Swing and a miss? Exploring Tigers discipline at the plate

May 18, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers right fielder Brennan Boesch (26) takes batting practice before the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

I start with a question you probably already have an answer cued up for. How patient are the Tigers batters? Not patient at all, you say. It's the quick and easy response when you consider at bats by Delmon Young or Brennan Boesch -- both of whom swing first and ask questions later.

Whenever "everybody knows" something I decide to inspect it closer. Sometimes that confirms suspicions. Sometimes it goes in the face of popular thought. Talking about the Tigers' patience at the plate is one of those interesting instances that goes both ways.

The Tigers didn't suddenly forget to take a pitch. They're basically the same club as in prior years. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Contrary to the belief in some quarters, players do not suddenly make big changes. Many Tigers have found success by swinging earlier in the count -- and this year's results confirm that it's OK to swing some times. Or, as manager Jim Leyland recently said, he doesn't care if they swing at the first pitch as long as it's a strike.

However, on the whole Tigers batters are swinging at too many pitches out of the zone -- even compared to last season -- and they're suffering from swinging strikes more often, too. Those sound like bad things, but they're not necessarily predictors of success or failure. They're just numbers.

Keep reading if you like numbers and charts and things.

Detroit Tigers pitches per plate appearance, 2012 vs. 2011

Name 2011 Pitches/PA 2012 Pitches/PA Difference
Austin Jackson 3.96 4.16 + 0.20
Andy Dirks 3.31 3.76 + 0.45
Miguel Cabrera 3.71 3.67 - 0.04
Prince Fielder 3.80 3.81 + 0.01
Delmon Young 3.45 3.38 - 0.07
Alex Avila 4.03 4.23 +0.20
Jhonny Peralta 3.82 4.05 +0.23
Brennan Boesch 3.69 3.42 -0.27
Ryan Raburn 3.89 3.85 -0.04
Ramon Santiago 3.54 3.46 -0.08
TEAM 3.78 3.78 0

Source: ESPN.com

So, from the aspect of taking pitches, I don't think you can say the team is just going out there and swinging at the first pitch all the time. They're working pitches more or less the same as normal.

But here's another way of looking at plate discipline. It's not just about how many pitches you see. It's about swinging at the right ones and letting the wrong ones go on by. This is an area the Tigers seem worse this season.

Detroit batters are actually swinging at a lower percentage of pitches this season than last (via Fangraphs): 47.6 percent compared to 47.9 percent in 2011. However, Tigers batters are chasing outside the zone 31.6 percent of the time compared to the 30.7 of the prior year. This likely accounts for the fact the Tigers are creating swinging strikes 9 percent of the time this season compared to 8.5 percent the prior year.

For some context: In 2012, the Tigers chase more batters outside the zone than any other team in the American League. The Rangers are tied for second in that stat, by the way. They also have the highest swinging strike percentage in the AL. Make of that what you will.

One big culprit right now is Prince Fielder (stats). In Milwaukee he was happy to take a walk. His career rate is 13.2 percent of plate appearances resulting in a walk. In each of the prior three seasons, it was at least 15 percent. In Detroit, that rate has fallen to 8.3 percent. He's swinging at more pitches, chasing more out of the zone and, not surprisingly, making more swinging strikes. Playing into the pitchers' hands may be why he's had a sudden power outage.

Conclusion

Talking about the Tigers hacking or not having plate discipline makes good banter. It gave Leyland a story line to feed the media after he was kicked out of a game earlier in the season. But I don't necessarily think it matters when adding up runs at the end of the season. Still, certain batters are suffering worse than others and need to get back to "their" game and see what happens.

I've got a few ideas what may actually be costing the Tigers runs. But it wouldn't be right to introduce them in the conclusion, would it?

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