February 18, 2011
Painting the Black
Chris Getz can play. He's a guy who is more in the Minnesota Twins-type mold. You know how I like grinders, and he's a grinder-type guy. He might not have the gaudy numbers, but he's going to help win games.—White Sox GM Kenny Williams on infielder Chris Getz (Chicago Tribune)
Among the many labels an executive or coach can assign to a batter, “grinder” is one of the more honorable. To be a grinder is to make the pitcher work, and the concept exalts physical and tactical effort without statistical incentive, if Williams’ definition is to be trusted. Grinders make the pitcher show his hand in certain situations to the entire lineup, thereby raising the likelihood of a mistake pitch later in the game. Grinding is a job without benefits or prestige, but it is a job nonetheless.
In order to honor these thankless souls, first they must be identified. A few days ago, Rich Lederer of The Baseball Analysts looked at the league’s hitters by plotting their strikeout and walk rates. To achieve a preliminary idea of who grinds it out, one can take Lederer’s presentation idea and tweak the dataset by inserting pitches per plate appearance instead of strikeouts. The resulting graph looks like this, when hitters with 400-plus plate appearances are included:
The graph does a good job in displaying the various segments within the pool. The separating lines are the league average rates in the categories, so a player in the first quadrant has an above-average walk rate despite a below-average P/PA, while a player in the fourth quadrant has a below-average walk rate despite an above-average P/PA and so on.
Since P/PA is a number that does not imply value, Williams should find no fault in calling a player who excels at seeing pitches and little else a grinder. Walks add value through on-base percentage, meaning there is an inverse relationship at work. In this exercise, having a high P/PA and low walk rate is actually more beneficial than having both one way or the other because of the definition at work. As such, players with above-average walk rates are penalized when the analysis is taken one step further and the Z-Scores are broken out. After taking the respective Z-Scores of both statistics, they are then averaged in order to create these results:
The diversity in approaches and skill sets within the lists are intriguing. Casey Blake and Franklin Gutierrez—both former Indians—lead the way as patient hitters, bordering on passive. Their inclusion raises questions about why their walk rates are lower than seemingly everyone else with similar P/PA. Do they take too many pitches for their own good? Are their strike-zone recognition abilities overrated? After all, if a batter can successfully take one pitch before swinging (and missing) at three in between, then he too can boast a P/PA over 4.00.
The third-place finisher exemplifies some of those ideas. Ronny Cedeno lacks a tool usable in punishing pitchers for pummeling him with strikes. As a result, his talent at fouling pitches off is a survival technique and a necessity, in order to avoid embarrassingly short plate appearances. Meanwhile, Brett Gardner saw more pitches per plate appearance than any batter in baseball, yet he walked in 13.9 percent of his trips to the plate. Gardner’s ability to put the bat on the ball meant that he felt comfortable hitting with two strikes, allowing him to take more pitches than a player with questionable contact abilities.
Filling out the other list is a group of renowned sluggers. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are sufferers of intentional walks, as they are the more optimal walk variety—in terms of pitches and effort used—than simply pitching around the batter. In Cabrera’s case, his plate discipline in appearances which do end in a walk are questionable, as manifested in his P/PA. Fielder, though, appears to be genuinely patient at the plate.
Perhaps the most confusing entry amongst those who cannot be described as grinders is Yunel Escobar. Jokes about Escobar’s hustle leaving him on the outside looking in at grinder parties notwithstanding, he generates plenty of walks despite mundane P/PA totals. Escobar is a fan of first-pitch swinging as well, leaving his plate appearances appearing in a binary code—either long and worthwhile or short and vapid.
So, who are these perhaps mythical creatures known as grinders? If Williams’ quote is taken literally (and stretched just a bit) then grinders come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and skill sets. Some are super-disciplined batters with walk rates below their pitch totals while others are simply overmatched and serve little offensive purpose besides running up a pitch count. Whatever the measure, grinders will continue to be a part of the baseball fabric, even if they are occasionally difficult to locate.