Through Wednesday, Billy Burns was hitting .318/.354/.420 in 271 plate appearances for the A’s. He had two home runs, as many as he’d hit in his entire minor-league career, which has so far lasted 1,798 PA. The patient speedster drew 211 walks in that minor-league career, better than one every nine trips to the plate. In the majors, he’s drawn 11 free passes, or one every 25 times up. Burns will need to either sustain his terrific .364 BABIP or pad his walk totals in order to find long-term success, but for now, he’s igniting the A’s offense, and he’s doing it despite performing very uncharacteristically, insofar as his minor-league track record reveals his offensive character, anyway.

Jimmy Paredes of the Orioles went into Thursday with 265 PA in 2015, and although he’s not the same type of player Burns is, he’s enjoyed a similar run of success: He’s hitting .299/.328/.482. Paredes is striking out more than five times as often as he walks, and he has a .369 BABIP, so there’s a lot of cause for skepticism. Still, he’s cracked 24 extra-base hits, including 10 homers.

Adam Eaton smacked a walk-off home run for the White Sox Wednesday night. It was his sixth of the season, in 342 plate appearances. (He’d only hit six in 918 PA in his three previous seasons.) After signing a substantial extension this winter, Eaton struggled out of the gate, but he’s now hitting .250/.316/.385, sporting not only a viable on-base percentage (though not a great one for a leadoff guy), but career-best power numbers.

Chris Colabello had 216 plate appearances on the season entering Thursday. He was hitting .328/.366/.505, almost purely on the strength of a .428 BABIP. If that held, it would be the third-highest BABIP ever for a player with at least 200 PA, behind Ty Cobb‘s age-24 season and Shoeless Joe Jackson‘s age-23 campaign, both in 1911. It’s not that no one else has ever had a .428 BABIP over 200-plus PA; it’s just standing out right now because that constitutes Colabello’s entire season at the moment.

These four players have 1,084 combined plate appearances. That’s about the sample one hopes to collect from a single player before making major judgments. None of their performances are real or predictive at this point. It’s a lot of high BABIP and power numbers that could turn from surprisingly impressive to ugly in about a week. Even so, they’ve enjoyed half-seasons of success (a bit less in the latter cases) despite utterly failing to control the strike zone. Specifically, they’re playing well despite a galling lack of walks, mostly by hitting for unexpected (or simply prodigious) power. That’s getting to be a common refrain. Marlon Byrd, Dee Gordon, Adam Jones, Torii Hunter, Nolan Arenado; all of these players have effected either breakouts, revivals, or fascinating metamorphoses in the last few years by hitting for good power (relative to their profiles, at least) despite minute walk rates.

We’ve gotten used to a narrative, recently, whereby getting more aggressive has made players better. Teams, too, have seemed to benefit from taking an aggressive tack early in counts, looking to do capital-D Damage and not worrying about free passes. Indeed, for the first time ever, batters in 2015 are doing equally well when they attack the first pitch of a plate appearance as when they take that pitch.

The league’s collective performance in three-ball counts, relative to its overall production, has never been worse.

Ditto for its collective performance in two-strike counts.

All of these things point toward that aforementioned philosophy: get aggressive. Don’t get into deep counts. Fight like hell to avoid falling behind. Hit the first thing that looks hittable. I’ve written about this a few times, so your eyes are probably about to glaze over with the redundancy of this message.

Wait, though! Don’t go! Stay with me. Because that might not be the whole story.

I looked at the cases of Burns, Paredes, Colabello, and Eaton, and I started to wonder if drawing walks was simply less important, less predictive of overall offensive output, than it used to be. In a league walking 7.5 percent of the time (the lowest rate since at least 1947), maybe taking pitches is just an especially quick way of getting into an untenable hitting situation. To test that, I looked at the correlation between unintentional walk rate (BB-IBB+HBP/PA) and OPS+ for all batters with at least 200 plate appearances for 2015, 2005, 1995, and 1985. If my hypothesis about new-age baseball held up, we would see a sudden drop in the correlation this year.

Here are the actual numbers:

Correlation Between Unintentional Walk Rate and OPS+











So maybe I was thinking about this shifting offensive paradigm backward. And that starts to explain the offensive era we’re in better than any of the hypotheses we’ve come up with in the past, because what it says is that there are simply not enough good hitters left in the league to power the offense we’ve seen in the past. Good hitters are still patient hitters; they’re just harder to find. Couple the rising correlation between strike zone control and overall production with the fact that more aggressive hitters are managing to reach (or exceed) the league-average production level, and the picture comes into focus: There’s a serious talent imbalance between pitchers and hitters right now.

Now, we know the expanding strike zone is a significant factor in all of this. Maybe it’s not so much that batters are losing ground of their own volition as that umpires are taking that ground from them by force. Maybe batters would be better if the zone were smaller, or higher, or just more consistent, called by a smaller rotation of umpires, the way it was until the late 1990s. I’m tempted to call it a talent pool problem, especially because we’ve seen usage patterns change so much in favor of pitchers over the period during which these changes have happened. But maybe that’s a product of my own biases, or maybe I’m still not seeing the whole field here.

In any case, this is worth putting out there. I want to be able to describe the offensive environment we’re in and apportion responsibility for the fact that we’ve landed here to various parties, all in three paragraphs and 400 words. Someday we’ll get there. Right now, this remains a unique run environment (as much in its shape as in the volume of cleats crossing home plate), and the myriad changes we’re observing in so many aspects of the game make it hard to succinctly break it all down. Part of that is that we’re getting better at measuring and identifying changes faster than we’re getting better at valuing and weighing them, one against the others. In time, we’ll catch up on that second front, because there’s really only so much more data we can gather in order to improve our understanding of certain elements of the game. For now, I guess the takeaway is: The apparent rising value of aggressiveness at the plate is purely relative. The reason the league is leaking absolute offensive value is that there aren’t enough hitters capable of getting deep into counts and still making good things happen.

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Interesting stuff. I would wonder though how the same correlation would stack-up if we excluded Plate Appearances versus relief pitchers. I agree that finding good hitters is difficult, but I think that bullpen specialization could also be a significant factor.
I agree. It's not (just?) that pitchers are better but that they're being used better - not to mention defensive shifting.
Very good article. Having watched the game since before Vin Scully's first year in Brooklyn, I am of the opinion that really bad umpiring is the major cause. I have watched the strike zone drop almost a foot since the 50's. It seems that batters are chasing more and more low pitches for fear of being rung up on a yorker.
I agree with old bopper. The strike zone is a) too big, especially down and b) inconsistently called. I've been watching the for about 45 years too!