By Nathan Desai
With a 58-34 record, the Oakland Athletics currently possess the best record in Major League Baseball. With Oakland on pace to finish the season with over 100 wins, the “Moneyball” tactics may have the A’s en route to an American League pennant and a World Series berth. One of the Athletics in particular has been performing well recently: Stanford alum and A’s shortstop, Jed Lowrie ‘11.
On Independence Day, Lowrie had a .217 batting average and found himself hitting eighth in the Athletics’ lineup. However, he has played well since then, with eleven hits in his past six games. This hot streak has ultimately bumped up his batting average by 18 points to a .235 mark.
One of the most common ways for batters to improve their hitting is to improve their plate discipline by being more patient at the plate and being more selective with one’s swings. Rather than swinging at any pitch that seems hittable, a batter with good plate discipline will often let a lot of pitches go by, including some strikes, just to wait for a pitch that he knows he can hit.
Even though Lowrie has still been swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone, his recent improvement in batting average is actually due to better plate discipline. Before his hot streak began on July 5, Lowrie was swinging at 26 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, and at 74 percent of pitches inside the strike zone. However, over the five-game stretch starting on July 5, those numbers changed to 33 percent and 66 percent respectively. While Lowrie’s swinging percentage on balls may have risen, Lowrie’s decreased swinging percentage on strikes has paid off well, as he has made contact with the ball on 92 percent of his swings over that five-game period, compared to 87 percent over the rest of the season.
In turn, in order to understand why a decrease in overall swinging percentage signifies better plate discipline, it is important to understand that the strike zone is not necessarily a batter’s preferred location to hit pitches. While the strike zone is right over home plate and is easily reachable, in some cases, batters can actually hit better when attacking pitches that are outside of the strike zone.
For example, someone with long arms might be better at hitting pitches that are a little bit outside. As such, even though Lowrie is swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone, his plate discipline is actually improving as he is waiting for the most hittable pitch to come his way, regardless of whether it is a ball or a strike.
Across the Bay Bridge from Lowrie’s A’s are the San Francisco Giants, who drafted former Stanford first baseman Brian Ragira ‘14 in the fourth round of the 2013 MLB Draft. Ragira currently plays for the Giants High A Minor League affiliate in San Jose and, much like Lowrie, is on a hot streak. Ragira is currently on a nine-game hitting streak that began on July 1, as the 2011 Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball First Team All-American has thirteen hits in those nine games.
Before this month, Ragira had a .236 batting average and a .371 slugging percentage this season, but his batting average for the month of July (.361) sits over a 100 points higher than his overall batting average, and his July slugging percentage (.583) is over 200 points higher than his overall slugging percentage. Furthermore, Ragira’s power has also significantly increased, as he had a .135 ISO (isolated power) before this month began, but a .222 ISO for the month of July.
However, Ragira’s surge at the plate is not simply due to him suddenly finding his power. It has happened because he is making better contact with the ball. His walk percentage has actually gone from 8 percent over the first three months of the season to three percent in July, and his strikeout percentage has gone from 25 percent to 18 percent. This means that Ragira is swinging at more pitches, and ultimately, making contact with more pitches, with the decrease in walks and strikeouts serving as evidence of this phenomenon.
In my estimation, one of the reasons that Ragira is swinging more often is due to his increased confidence. More specifically, as batters perform better, it becomes apparent to them that swinging the bat is leading to their success. As Ragira’s hitting streak has grown, his confidence has grown too, which gives him more reason to swing rather than take pitches.
Contact Nathan Desai at thegreatnate97 ‘at’ gmail.com.
*Statistics accurate as of July 10