It is an obscure slice of baseball history, but it belongs to Matt Joyce just the same.
Joyce, the veteran outfielder and A’s newcomer, spent last season as a role player for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He often batted in pinch-hit situations. And in those plate appearances he drew 21 walks, one more than the previous major-league record for a season.
Baseball statistics are often used to craft narratives. Last season, Joyce saw the fourth-most pitches per plate appearance of any major-league hitter with at least 200 at-bats. He drew a walk in 20.1 percent of his plate appearances, the highest rate in the majors. His on-base percentage of .403 was the sixth-highest. It might be tempting to draw a line through those numbers and state simply that Joyce’s patience paid off.
But that, Joyce said, would be an oversimplification. Because while patience can be a virtue, it should also have a purpose.
“I don’t think you can necessarily go up there with the mindset of taking pitches,” Joyce said Saturday. “I think you have to have the mindset of being disciplined in your zone – still being aggressive, but being aggressive on the right pitches.
“You can’t go up looking for a walk. You’ve got to be ready to hit. On-base percentage really comes from staying in your zone, and being very stubborn to that zone.”
This, essentially, is the lesson the A’s have tried to absorb this spring following a 2016 season in which they were the American League’s worst team at putting men on base. The A’s cumulative on-base percentage of .304 was the franchise’s lowest in nearly four decades – and a main reason why they had the lowest-scoring offense in the league.
The three highest-scoring teams in the majors last year – Boston, Colorado and the Chicago Cubs – also had the three highest on-base percentages. Meanwhile the A’s, whose “Moneyball” theories once helped champion the value of on-base percentage, were among the poor looking in.
And so reaching base is again a point of emphasis in Oakland, where the 2017 season begins Monday night at home against the Los Angeles Angels. Only now, the idea of hoarding players who possess what has become a highly valued trait is no longer viable.
The A’s do not return several of their on-base leaders from last season in Josh Reddick, Danny Valencia and Billy Butler. Along with Joyce, offseason additions to the lineup include center fielder Rajai Davis (who has a .314 career on-base percentage) and third baseman Trevor Plouffe (.308). So improvement must come largely from the same group that struggled so mightily last season.
This spring brought some encouraging signs. Cactus League numbers can be a mirage, but the A’s finished the spring ranked sixth in on-base percentage and fourth in walks. Overall, manager Bob Melvin said he was pleased with the quality of his hitters’ at-bats.
“I do like the fact that everybody’s kind of bought into it for the most part,” Melvin said, “understanding that’s what we have to do to be successful and that we can’t be last in on-base percentage again.
“Sometimes it’s just having a couple guys, bringing in a couple guys that would increase it, that kind of rubs off on other guys. Plus (hitting coach) Darren Bush has been on these guys … about trying to get your pitch. And if it’s not there, let it go.”
The 2016 A’s did not follow all of the trends one might expect from a poor offense. They didn’t draw many walks, true. But they struck out at a lower rate than all but two other A.L. teams. They swung at the third-lowest percentage of pitches outside the strike zone, according to Fangraphs. Their hitters faced the second-fewest two-strike counts.
In other words, they weren’t flailing heedlessly at everything in sight. In fact, when they did swing, Oakland’s hitters had a contact rate that ranked in the top 10 in the majors.
But those swings produced a hard-contact rate of only 29.2 percent that, per Fangraphs, was the lowest in the AL. Soft contact parlayed into a team batting average of .246 that ranked second-worst in the league. Couple that with the lack of walks and it explains the A’s on-base woes.
While drawing more walks would help, then so would doing more damage with the pitches the A’s put in play. Thus the emphasis on keying into a certain area of the strike zone early in counts – a selective approach that, ideally, would make seeing more pitches a result rather than a goal in itself.
“I think it’s just shrinking the plate a little bit,” said shortstop Marcus Semien. “Shrink it a little bit so you’re looking for a better pitch to hit, not just a pitch you want to swing at.
“Don’t try and hit the painted fastball right off the corner early in the count. If they make that pitch, tip your cap but try and shrink the plate a little to be more selective and lay off those borderline pitches and those chase pitches.”
Semien actually was one of the league’s more patient hitters last season. He saw a team-high average of 4.16 pitches per plate appearance, ninth-most in the A.L. But he said that even deep in counts he caught himself sometimes swinging out of his zone – especially in 3-2 counts, where he hit .164 with 24 walks and 29 strikeouts.
“That’s a big thing that I’ve noticed in the big leagues – (pitchers) don’t mind throwing 3-2 chase pitches because they know we’re still geared up for a fastball,” Semien said. “I’ve had some success with two strikes with power. But 3-2 counts are going to be big. It’s a big walk count.”
In 63 plate appearances this spring, Semien drew just two walks. He acknowledged that A’s hitters are all trying to make an adjustment.
“We got a lot of talent in this room, but that type of thing doesn’t necessarily take talent – it takes mental strength,” he said. “Some guys have been better than others. You watch a guy like Yonder (Alonso), he’s doing a great job of that, swinging at his pitch.”
Alonso, the A’s first baseman, hit .389 this spring with 12 walks, second most on the team behind Joyce’s 14. He said he believes improving the on-base numbers comes down to preparation.
“You have to make sure you prepare the right way in early work and batting practice, making sure that you’re always working on good habits,” Alonso said.
“I think we’re all at fault at some point in our careers that we swing at bad pitches. Then again, I think we must come to a realization that sometimes it’s not a mechanical thing or anything like that. Sometimes it’s just a simple thing of getting a good pitch to hit.”
For Joyce last season, it could be a challenge to know when that pitch would come. Coming into a game to pinch hit, he would sometimes see pitchers challenge him with the first pitch. In those cases, Joyce said, “I was going to be aggressive and take my best swing at it.”
Overall, Joyce swung at just 18.2 percent of pitches he saw that were outside the zone, according to Fangraphs, third-lowest among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances. In other words, he was really good at not swinging at balls. And maybe it’s as simple as that.
“It’s important for us to make pitchers work,” Melvin said. “So all those things we were deficient in the last couple years, hopefully we’re that much better this year.”