SABR-Toothed Triber: The Whys and Wherefores of an Awful Offense

Last time we demonstrated rather conclusively that the Indians’ offense is largely to blame for our losing ways.  We did this by splitting the team into its three main components—rotation, bullpen, and position players—and looking at a stat called Win Probability Added.  It turned out (and still does, for the record) that the offense is the sole reason we are a sub-.500 team.

But a few of the commentariat suggested that the work we did merely stated the obvious.  Indeed, it would be hard to watch more than a few Tribe games this season without recognizing the rather large, flaccid void in the place where most teams employ a functional lineup.  Today I want to explore why the offense has failed to live up to expectations—expectations that any number of Tribe Scribes hyped in the off-season.

Let’s start by looking at some of the batting statistics posted by our “sluggers” so far:

Austin Kearns0.4470.3550.4200.597
Shin-Soo Choo0.3930.3040.4230.467
Asdrubal Cabrera0.3300.3110.3550.398
Jhonny Peralta0.3280.2280.3440.392
Andy Marte0.3030.1820.3570.318
Russell Branyan0.2930.2400.3210.360
Travis Hafner0.2840.1890.3030.311
Mike Redmond0.2760.2330.2810.333
Grady Sizemore0.2670.2110.2800.311
Luis Valbuena0.2670.1720.2940.310
Lou Marson0.2590.2120.2810.269
Matt LaPorta0.2220.1940.2600.224
Mark Grudzielanek0.2200.2310.2500.231
Michael Brantley0.2000.1560.2290.188

You may remember that wOBA is the best way to evaluate an offensive player’s production, and league average is in the neighborhood of .330.  Great.  We have two above-average batters out of the 14 who’ve had a plate appearance.  (And one of those made the team as a fourth outfielder!)   On-base percentage?  League average is in the .330 to .335 range.  We’re slightly better here, but still only have four regulars with average or above OBPs.  Maybe you’re a fan of batting average: we have exactly three guys batting above .240.  It isn’t pretty.  But most of you knew that already.

In order to understand why the hitters are struggling so much, we’re going to turn to a different set of stats today.  wOBA and OBP and batting average do a good job of telling you what a player did after a certain number of at bats, but none of them do a terrific job of telling you how a player approaches his at bats.  To do that, we’re going to turn to a few simple indicators.

First, let’s do some background work.  This should be obvious and intuitive to most of you guys, but let’s just take a second to demonstrate how much better a batter performs when the count is in his favor.  Here’s how all AL batters have performed by the ball-strike count so far this season (Baseball-Reference doesn’t publish wOBA, so we’ll use the traditional slash-stats for this):


Again, this should come as no surprise, but batters perform best when the count is in their favor.  Look at the performances when a batter has a 3-0 or a 3-1 count compared to 0-2 and 1-2.  The differences are pretty striking: batters with the count in their favor perform two to three times better than those who don’t.

So if we had a metric for determining how much a batter is doing to shift the count in his favor, we might be able to see which Indians (if any) are doing everything they can to put themselves in a position to be successful.

It turns out, there’s a statistic that might help.  It’s called “O-Swing%” and it simply measures what percentage of pitches outside of the strikezone a batter swings at.  Obviously, you’d like this number to be low.  Not only is it more difficult to hit a pitch outside of the strikezone (more on that in a minute), but a batter who’s swinging at balls is essentially turning a ball into a strike, which, according to the chart above, does the pitcher a huge favor.

So here are the current O-Swing% numbers on the Tribe (league average ≈ 25.2%):

Lou Marson17.8%
Andy Marte19.1%
Michael Brantley21.4%
Austin Kearns23.8%
Shin-Soo Choo24.7%
Luis Valbuena26.0%
Jhonny Peralta27.4%
Asdrubal Cabrera27.5%
Travis Hafner29.3%
Mike Redmond31.4%
Grady Sizemore32.0%
Matt LaPorta33.6%
Russell Branyan35.4%
Mark Grudzielanek39.2%

Now we’re getting somewhere.  The first five on that list are better than average at not swinging at balls out of the strikezone.  Let’s break them into subgroups:

  • Lou Marson: the only skill he consistently demonstrated throughout his minor league career was an ability to draw a walk.  It looks like he has maintained his plate discipline in the majors.  On the other hand, he does struggle with those pitches that do cross the plate.  Bummer.
  • Andy Marte & Michael Brantley: sample sizes are way too small (fewer than 70 combined plate appearances), but throughout the minors they too demonstrated an ability to work counts and draw walks (both were high OBP guys).  Unfortunately, like Lou, they seem incapable of hitting major league strikes.
  • Austin Kearns & ShinSoo Choo: The best hitters on the Indians.  Not a coincidence.

And look down to the bottom half of the list.  You’ll see some names that were supposed to be major cogs in the lineup this season:

  • Asdrubal Cabrera: swings at far too many balls to be a leadoff man.  You can’t swing at nearly 28% of the bad pitches you see, and still maintain the walk rate needed to get on base.
  • Travis Hafner: in 2006, Hafner’s O-Swing% was 19.2%.  This year it’s a ridiculous 29.3%.  Say what you will about why he’s fallen off a cliff, but it’s a simple fact that he swings at 50% more balls than he used to.
  • Grady Sizemore: the true outlier on this list.  For his career, Grady has swung at about 19% of the balls he’s seen.  This year it’s 32%!  I don’t know where his plate discipline went, but if we traded it to the Red Sox for a pitching prospect, I’d like it back please.
  • Jhonny Peralta: to be honest, I’m shocked he isn’t the worst on the team at chasing balls out of the strikezone, considering his penchant for sliders down and away.  He’s also got a decent on-base percentage.  I’m going to stop complimenting Jhonny Peralta now, because it doesn’t make me feel good.
  • Russell Branyan: he’s got a career O-Swing of 24%, so you can expect him to control the strikezone a bit better if he can remain healthy, and you know, actually play every now and then.
  • Matt LaPorta: He swings at a third of all pitches out of the strikezone!  This means if you get the first pitch over the plate and then throw three unhittable sliders in the dirt, the count will likely be 2-2.  When the average player has a 2-2 count he bats .180/.187/.265.  We don’t know if LaPorta is even average yet, but he’s killing his chances by swinging at bad pitches.

Long story, short?  The only players who represent an offensive threat who aren’t chasing an abnormally high number of bad pitches are Choo and Kearns.  Did I mention they’re our only two hitters performing at an above average level?  Think there might be a connection?

Before we go, let’s look at two more of these “plate discipline” stats.  O-Contact% is exactly what you’d think: it measures the rate at which a player makes contact (i.e. doesn’t swing and miss) when he swings at a pitch out of the strikezone.  Z-Contact% is the same calculation for pitches in the strikezone.  “Zone” is simple the percent of pitches a batter sees that are in the strikezone.

Michael Brantley89.5%92.3%47.7%
Asdrubal Cabrera79.0%94.2%48.0%
Mark Grudzielanek74.2%97.4%44.8%
Luis Valbuena69.2%88.4%45.5%
Mike Redmond68.8%100.0%51.4%
Jhonny Peralta68.4%85.7%42.9%
Lou Marson66.7%84.6%52.6%
Andy Marte66.7%96.4%45.2%
Matt LaPorta59.1%83.5%47.8%
Travis Hafner54.7%86.0%46.8%
Austin Kearns53.3%88.9%52.6%
Grady Sizemore53.1%84.9%46.4%
Shin-Soo Choo50.9%83.6%45.3%
Russell Branyan47.1%80.0%46.7%

What do I take from this?  Well, a few things.

First, it should be obvious, but here’s the evidence that you’re more likely to hit a pitch in the strikezone than out of it: every batter’s Z-Contact% is higher than his O-Contact%.

Second, Russell Branyan can only be as productive as he is disciplined.  When he swings at balls, he misses more than half the time.  When he swings at strikes, 80% of the time he makes contact.  STOP SWINGING AT BAD PITCHES, RUSTY!  (The same could be said for Sizemore; I just like writing the word “RUSTY”.)

But most importantly, look at those Zone% figures.  Imagine you are taking the mound to face this lineup.  Based on their collective propensity to swing at bad pitches, why would you bother throwing them strikes?  Sure enough, only two regular players have seen more than 50% of their pitches in the strikezone.  The first is Sweet Lou Marson.  The question for him is why you would bother throwing him balls?  He doesn’t swing at them and it’s not like he’s going to do a lot of damage if you throw him a meat-pitch anyway.  The other is Austin Kearns, who manages the strikezone as well as anybody on the team.  And he produces about half of our offense.  It’s not a coincidence.

The moral of the story?  You get the pitches you deserve.  So long as Branyan, Sizemore, Hafner and Peralta keep swinging at pitches out of the strikezone, pitchers would have tp be crazy to throw them strikes.  If they start approaching their at bats with some selectivity?  Hey, they might just see some pitches to hit.

See you next time!

  • Denny

    Sorry, Jon – I’m sure you wrote some great stuff, but I can’t get beyond where you said “large, flaccid”.

    Just too much giggling.

  • Jon Steiner

    @ Denny – Math nerds like jokes too…

  • Tommy

    Is O-swing% something that usually stays fairly consistent over the course of a career? Does it have the same peaks and declines as most of the other offensive stats relative to age? Is there any reason to suggest Grady and Branyan wouldn’t return to their career norms eventually?

  • Denny

    I would make a flow chart about large flaccid gaps but we certainly can’t allow the families around here to see those.

  • Jon Steiner

    @ Tommy – The short answer is yes, O-Swing is fairly consisitent year-to-year (more so than batting average or ERA). The longer answer lands somewhere near “sorta.”

    Basically, taking a walk IS a skill. Players who have it generally don’t lose it (in fact, they get better at it) until, of course, they lose all their other skills and begin to become “bad baseball players”.

    So your question about Grady and Rusty is more interesting if we translate it like this: “Are those two players finished being productive? Have they lost their skills as hitters?”

    I don’t think we know enough to answer that question yet, and frankly, that’s above my paygrade. But my guesses are that Grady is not done and Rusty could be. Either way, an O-Swing in the mid-30% range is just not good–unless you’re Vlad Guerrero. He’s leading the league with O-Swing of 48%!

    On the other hand, Vlad is sort of a freak of nature. His closest competition is (wait for it) Yuni Betancourt.

  • Lyon

    Man, Mike Piazza’s StrikeZone was one of the worst games ever!

    I remember routinely hitting homeruns that went like 700 ft.

    Remembering that game is more fun that anything involving the Indians right now.

  • Jack

    Grady Sizemore sx.

  • Tommy

    I know data is harder to come by for Minor League action, but do you know what LaPorta’s rate was throughout his minor league career? All I can find is that his walk rate was a bit higher than it is so far in MLB. Its going to be hard for him to succeed if he can’t improve on his selection.

  • Jon Steiner

    You’re not going to have much luck on finding minor league O-Swing rates. The stat relies on pitch/fx data, and those systems aren’t installed in minor league parks yet.

    LaPorta’s OBP throughout the minors was pretty consistent though: at every stop he averaged between .385 and .395. So far in his major league career he’s at .299.

  • Eric

    As always, a solid sabrmetrics article…these are my favorite regular feature on the site!

  • Vengeful Pat

    So in short, get out of your own head Matt LaPorta. I love these articles. My blind faith feeling right now is that a number of the Indians hitters WILL improve, eventually. There’s good reason to believe that Sizemore, Peralta, Valbuena, LaPorta, and Hafner should all get somewhat better (because they can’t get much worse). The worst feeling I have is about Westbrook… I don’t know if he’ll be able to find the strike zone this season.

  • crazycav

    Send these stats to the Tribe’s hitting coach. And while your at it dig up some stats on all the walks the pitching staff has been issueing. Make ya wonder what these coaches are doing.

  • Tony Horton where R U

    What I wonder is which group of players should they have sent to AAA after Spring training? Is this total lack of production an artifact of a heretofore unknown epidemic of steroid use amongst regulars in the Indians lineup? The fall-off of production we call
    PSBA (post steroid batting average) vs. SEBA (steroid enhanced batting average)pretty astounding (lol). The two biggest suspects are our two biggest names and the lack of productivity certainly makes you wonder. Sizemore has become the new Brady Anderson and the Hafner shift can’t fully account for his drop off although it has taken at least 15 points off of is BA in my estimation. Peralta on the other hand simply offers the team little value.