Baseball by the Numbers: It’s good to own the (strike) zone

It should come as no surprise that since pitch-tracking data became available in 2002, Chicago’s king of strike-zone judgment has been White Sox Hall of Famer Frank Thomas.

In his final Sox years from 2002 to 2005, Thomas swung at 12.5% of balls outside the strike zone. By contrast, Sox shortstop Tim Anderson has swung at 38.5% of pitches outside the zone in his career. Former Cubs-turned-Tigers shortstop Javy Baez has chased 44.2% of non-strikes.

Anderson and Baez have been offensive contributors, but the more patient Thomas was special. With 521 home runs and a .974 OPS built on .301/.419/.555 hitting, Thomas drew 1,667 walks. That’s 10th on MLB’s career list behind, in order, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe Morgan, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Thome, Mickey Mantle and Mel Ott.

Patient hitters don’t go to the plate looking for walks. Walks are a welcome byproduct of what the Cubs in the Joe Maddon era called ”selective aggression.” That includes not only taking pitches out of the zone but taking strikes early in the count unless it’s a pitch the hitter can drive.

Thomas, whose career 159 weighted runs created plus tops players with at least 2,000 plate appearances for a Chicago team, took 37% of pitches in the strike zone in 2002-05. His overall swing percentage of 37.5% was the 12th-lowest in the majors.

How patient have Chicago players been in the first month of 2022? It’s early, so keep in mind numbers can — and will — shift dramatically.

Among Sox players with at least 50 plate appearances, Yasmani Grandal has swung at 22.9% of pitches outside the zone and has taken 40.7% of pitches in the zone. Grandal’s 38.9% overall swing percentage is the lowest on the Sox. Eight walks have been Grandal’s main offensive contribution while hitting .161/.254/.242.

Anderson has kept his usual pattern, swinging at 50.8% of pitches outside the zone, and Luis Robert has swung at 56.6% of such pitches. Anderson demonstrates patience itself isn’t the full story, given that he has walked only once but has been productive at .333/.351/.528.

On the North Side, Seiya Suzuki has swung at 19.2% of pitches outside the zone — a rise from 8% in the first eight games of the season but still tops among Cubs with at least 50 plate appearances. He also has taken 41.5% of pitches in the zone. That disciplined approach has him leading the team with a .926 OPS and 162 wRC+.

Right behind Suzuki is Ian Happ, who has an .859 OPS and 151 wRC+. Happ has gone about it differently, swinging at 30.4% of pitches outside the zone and 71.7% of pitches in the zone. He has improved his contact percentage when he swings, connecting on 77%, compared with 68% for his career.

We’ll never know how this compares to past Chicago hitters such as Billy Williams or Dick Allen. The data just isn’t there. But ballclubs always have an eye out for disciplined hitters, and there’s a by-the-numbers tool to help out.

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