It’s February, and New Year’s resolutions seem like eons ago. Dry January is in the rearview mirror. You probably don’t have to wait for the aerobic equipment at the gym anymore (if you’re still going). Desserts are back on the menu, and your brother-in-law, well, you tried to get along with him, really you did, but he’s still annoying. So it’s time to draw this series on New Year’s resolutions to a close as well.
But before I do, I want to show you my favorite finding of this whole series. I think it’s pretty interesting. But first, let’s get the less interesting stuff out of the way.
In this series, I’ve been looking at players whose approach at the plate or on the mound changed significantly in 2016—pulling the ball more or less, hitting balls on the ground or in the air more, and improving or declining plate discipline. The conclusion, in general, is that change is hard—most players exhibited very limited change from 2015 to 2016—but that at the extremes, change appears to drive better/worse performance in some cases (notably, for batters, plate discipline) but not in others (notably pulling more or less).
Now I’m going to consider team performance. And as I said in the last post, about team pitching, it’s pretty hard (and arguably fanciful) to discern a change in approach from a change in personnel. An offense that becomes more pull-happy may do so by adding players who pull the ball more and removing some who go the other way more. That’s not like a team-wide New Year’s resolution (not that I think those occur anyway). But let’s look at the data and see what it suggests.
Here’s a graph listing all 30 teams ranked from lowest to highest in their 2016 change in net pull percentage, i.e. the percentage of batted balls pulled minus the percentage hit to the opposite field. A negative number indicates a team that pulled less, a positive number indicates a team that pulled more.
The Yankees, Dodgers, and Braves went the other way more. The Cardinals, Cubs, and Red Sox pulled more. This should further weaken the argument that all modern players need to do to counter the shift is pull the ball less. The pull-happy Cardinals, Cubs, and Red Sox were fifth, third, and first in scoring, respectively, in 2016. The hit-it-the-other-way Yankees, Dodgers, and Braves were 22nd, 14th, and 28th, respectively.
More significantly, the figures on this chart aren’t all that large. The Yankees’ change away from pulling the ball is only the 30th-highest since 2003. The Cardinals’ change toward pulling is only 13th-highest. Nobody in 2016 was an outlier. So nobody, presumably, made (or stuck to) a New Year’s resolution.
How about ground balls vs. fly balls? Here are the teams ranked by change in ground-ball percentage:
As with the data for pitchers, this graph illustrates how much players tried to hit balls in the air (and over the fence) in 2016. But on the grand scale of things, these weren’t big changes. The Astros hit 3.1 percent more balls on the ground in 2016 than in 2015. That barely makes the top 25 since 2003. And even in a year in which seemingly everybody was trying to get under the ball, the Nationals’ 3.8 percent decrease in ground-ball percentage ranks only 29th in the 420 team seasons since 2003. It doesn’t stand out.
So maybe no teams resolved to make a dramatic change last year. Here’s our last category, Discipline Index, which I’ve defined as the percentage of swings on pitches in the strike zone minus the percentage of swings on pitches outside the zone. Here’s the graph, from biggest increase in discipline to the smallest:
Nothing on the low end seems amiss, and it isn’t. The Rays, Yankees, and Nationals all had a reduction in Discipline Index from 2015 to 2016 of 2.3 percent or more. Since 2009, there have been 18 teams with a decline in excess of 2.4 percent. So that’s unremarkable. But the Brewers … the Brewers improved their Discipline Index a lot. Their 4.5 percent increase trails only the 2014 Astros (the team that improved by 19 games, from 51 wins in 2013 to 70 in 2014) and the 2015 Cubs (improved by 24 games, from 73 wins to 97) for the third-highest in the past eight seasons. That’s a lot.
How did they get there? Well, you can improve your Discipline Index by swinging at more pitches in the zone or fewer pitches out of it. For the Brewers, it definitely wasn’t a case of swinging at more pitches in the strike zone. They swung at 62.8 percent of pitches in the zone in 2016, 2.3 percent fewer than in 2015. But pitches outside the zone?
If the Brewers’ 6.8 percent decline in swings outside the strike zone seems like a lot, it’s because it is. That’s the greatest decline since we began tracking swing rates in 2008, nearly double that of the second-greatest decline, a 3.8 percent reduction for the 2014 Astros.
Combined with a decline in swinging on pitches in the strike zone, the Brewers also set a record for largest reduction in swing percentage:
But is this a change in philosophy or personnel? That’s a fair question. There were 13 Brewers with 200 or more plate appearances in 2015. Only four of them—Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, Scooter Gennett, and Hernan Perez—had 200 or more plate appearances for the team in 2016 as well. Braun’s swing rate increased slightly, from 50.5 percent in 2015 to 51.7 percent in 2016. But Lucroy declined from 43.3 percent to 43.2 percent, Gennett from 56.1 percent to 50.6 percent, and Perez from 57.1 percent to 53.5 percent.
So other than Braun, who in terms of a company’s New Year’s resolutions is the high-ranking executive who chooses to ignore all initiatives for the new year (and gets away with it), the incumbent Brewers swung less. And the team added players who were more patient as well.
This isn’t exactly new news. I wrote about the Brewers swinging less frequently in May, picking up on research that Travis Sarandos wrote at BP Milwaukee in April. But that was months ago, and obviously it continued. And it probably needed to occur. The Brewers essay in last year’s Baseball Prospectus Annual quoted former center fielder Carlos Gomez, who said: “It has be, like, wayyy a ball for us not to swing.” That, apparently, has changed.
Did it work? Well, the Brewers scored 4.14 runs per game in 2016, the sixth-lowest total in the majors, compared to 4.04 in 2015, the ninth-lowest. No typos there. There were 4.25 runs per game in 2015 and 4.48 in 2016, so while the Brewers scored more, they didn’t keep pace.
But that doesn’t mean they’re being dumb. This is a team, after all, that we ranked as having the 29th-best farm system in 2014 and the 26th in 2015, zooming up to 10th in 2016 and one of the best heading into 2017. You probably didn’t notice, given that they finished 30.5 games out of first place, but they improved by five games in 2016 despite dealing most of their tradable veterans for prospects.
In December, they non-tendered a first baseman who co-led the National League in home runs last year, effectively replacing him with one who played in Korea last year, earning brickbats in some quarters but praise elsewhere. Their front office employs four BP alumni (James Fisher, Adam Hayes, Matt Kleine, and Dan Turkenkopf), so we like to think that they’re smart! This is a team that seems to be moving in the right direction.
Can I fully explain the rationale of taking more pitches, both in and outside the zone? No, I can’t, any more than I can fully explain the partially resultant highest strikeout rate in the majors, or leading the majors in stolen bases (by 30 percent more than the second place team, with debatable outcomes). Maybe none of these were goals, just the results of the team on the field.
I’m not sure. I’m not as smart as the Brewers. But we can say that the change in the team’s swing rates and Discipline Index that we saw in 2016 were definitely New Year’s resolution-caliber.