Boston’s Best Tools 2012: Best Batting Eye

The Red Sox make pitchers work. Going through a line up that starts with Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia and centers on some combination of Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz is no pitcher’s idea of a good time. All of these hitters are stacked at the top of the order because they see pitches well, laying off the bad ones and putting a hurt on the good ones. So, who has the best batting eye on the team?

There are a number of ways we can try to answer this question. The obvious starting point is on-base percentage; the end result of a patient plate approach should be getting on base. OBP is more than just batting eye however, it is heavily connected to contact and also power. The team leader last year was Adrian Gonzalez. While A-Gon has a great eye at the plate, he also makes a lot of contact and has intimidating power. He is good candidate for best batting eye, but several other players at the top of the order have persuasive arguments as well.

Dustin Pedroia saw more pitches per plate appearance than any other Red Sox player. In fact, he saw more pitches than all but five other players in the game. Kevin Youkilis swung at fewer pitches out of the zone than any other player on the team (and fewer pitches overall as well). Youk also led the team in BB%, just ahead of David Ortiz, who struck out a full 5.5% less than Youk.

2011 Best Batting Eye Data

Name

PA

Pitches

Pitches/PA

BB%

K%

OBP

O-Swing%

Swing%

Adrian Gonzalez

715

2735

3.83

10.30%

16.60%

0.410

35.50%

49.20%

David Ortiz

605

2437

4.03

12.90%

13.70%

0.398

27.90%

44.50%

Jacoby Ellsbury

732

2818

3.85

7.10%

13.40%

0.376

27.70%

44.30%

Dustin Pedroia

731

3077

4.21

11.80%

11.60%

0.387

28.30%

43.60%

Kevin Youkilis

517

2161

4.18

13.20%

19.30%

0.373

23.60%

38.20%

Despite his led in OBP, Adrian Gonzalez doesn’t fair well in against his teammates in these categories. He holds the second highest strikeout rate and the second lowest walk rate. He swung at far more out-of-the-zone pitches and saw fewer pitches than anyone else here as well. Gonzalez got on base with a strong combination of patience and excellent contact ability. He has a great batting eye, but he didn’t quite control the zone the way Ortiz and Pedroia did last year.

Kevin Youkilis, on the other hand, rates very well by pitches per plate appearance, walk rate and the swing percentage data, but he also has the lowest OBP of the group and he struck out the most by a wide margin. Youk’s excellent batting eye helped him stay productive during an tough season where he had no luck on balls in play and he struck out a bit more than usual. It’s no wonder he gets so angry after a called third strike.

Looking at three years of data gives us a few more insights-

2009-2011 Best Batting Eye Data

Name

PA

Pitches

Pitches/PA

BB%

K%

OBP

O-Swing%

Swing%

Kevin Youkilis

1540

6624

4.30

13.20%

19.00%

0.399

21.30%

38.50%

Adrian Gonzalez

2089

8092

3.87

13.70%

16.40%

0.403

30.30%

47.50%

David Ortiz

1838

7712

4.20

12.70%

19.70%

0.366

25.50%

44.90%

Jacoby Ellsbury

1509

5749

3.81

7.00%

12.00%

0.359

26.20%

42.70%

Dustin Pedroia

1796

7425

4.13

11.00%

9.40%

0.377

25.70%

42.00%

Once again, Gonzalez’s superior contact ability has him leading the pack in OBP by a slim margin, but he also leads in walk rate now as well. Youk and Big Papi take the top slots in pitches per at bat, but Pedroia isn’t far behind. Looking at Jacoby Ellsbury’s numbers, it’s clear that he hasn’t changed his approach radically. He has always seen a good number of pitches and laid off balls outside of the zone. His walk rate isn’t at the same level as the other guys here, though and he will need better contact than the others if he wants to stay in the top five in OBP.

David Ortiz’s 2011 season is an incredible testament to his hitting abilities. At an age where most sluggers are starting to swing and miss more, Ortiz cut his K% down by more than five percent from his career average. He did it without out changing anything else about his approach as well. He still swung at the same number of pitches he had been the past few years, he just made more contact both in the zone at out. He didn’t sacrifice a bit of his walk rate and still saw more than 4 pitches per at bat. No matter how many times I revisit his 2011 season, I am still impressed by it.

It’s worth noting that Ortiz has begun to swing at more pitches out of the zone than he did in his 2003-2007 prime. Back then, he swung at just 18.04% of out-of-zone pitches. His O-swing rate has been creeping up since 2008 and 27.9% is the highest single season rate of his career. However, his ability to hit balls out the zone has been improving right along with it.

Always one to hang quietly in the background, Dustin Pedroia doesn’t jump out from these charts screaming best batting eye. That’s the curse of doing everything really well. Pedey is up there in every category but he doesn’t have the best OBP, walk rate or O-swing rate. He does have a definitively lead in strikeout rate though. Combine that with his high rankings in pitches per plate appearance and you get the toughest out in baseball. Seriously. Think about all the work it takes to get Dustin Pedroia out. He is going to make the pitcher throw a ton of pitches and there is little chance that he will strikeout in the process. He is willing to take a walk if you don’t throw him strikes and if you do, if there is an almost 90% chance it will be hit, with only around a 20% chance that it will be an easy fly ball. You have to work hard to get Pedey out.

Marc Normandin has this one tied between Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz, while Ben Buchanan is sticking with Youk. Our newest scribe, Brendan O’Toole, is picking Papi for this one. While I think Ortiz showed a tremendous eye for the ball with his improved contact, he takes second for me, behind Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia owns the strike zone like no one else. Youk, who took this award last season, is still a good pick, but I feel that like a latter day J.D. Drew, Youk takes pitches at an extreme rate, whether they are out of the zone or not. He strikeouts out far more than Pedey as a result and that will make it harder and harder for him to match OBP with Gonzalez, Pedroia and Ortiz.

So who will it be?

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