Maybe it’s my imagination, but there seems to have been an increased focus in the past few years, on batters seeing a lot of pitches, or taking a lot of pitches, or wearing down the pitcher, driving up the pitch count, being patient at the plate, and so forth. But wouldn’t it be easier and more effective to just get hit by more pitches? The problem is, when guys get too into this plate patience thing, they get into bad habits like getting out of the way of pitches so they can take more pitches. That’s not a good thing, and I can prove it. (sort of)
From 2005 to 2009, a batter saw about 3.8 pitches during an average plate appearance. In games in which a team saw pitches at under 3.8 per plate appearance, they got hit once every 104.6 plate appearances, but if they took pitches at or above the 3.8 pitch average, their plunk rate fell to 1 every 112.5 plate appearance. So see less pitches than average per plate appearance throughout a game increased their plunk rate in that game by 7.5%. This matches up pretty well with the fact that 62.5% of plunks occur in the first 3 pitches of a plate appearance. Once you get to that 4th pitch, you’re less likely to get plunked at an individual rate, and if your team is watching over 4 pitches per plate appearance you’re plunk rate is going down. Teams who take 4.2 pitches or more per PA in game get plunked once every 123.4 plate appearances. Teams over 4.5 pitches per PA get HBPs once every 133.9 plate appearance.
However, some amount of patience is necessary to maximize a team’s rate of being plunked. Teams that see 3 pitches or less per plate appearance get hit in those games about as infrequently as teams at 4.2 pitches per PA or more – about one HBP every 123.4 plate appearance. There’s a sweet spot in the middle there, from about 3.2 to 3.6 pitches per PA. If a team stays in that range for a game, they’ll get plunked about once every 103.6 plate appearances. In the 1,117 team games where batters saw pitches at 3.3 per plate from 2005 to 2009, those teams got hit 13.5% more frequently than the overall average of that 5 season span.
So, hopefully you can see how excessive plate patience leads to diminished rates of plunks, but you may still be inclined to point out that the goal is to win the game, not get plunked the most – and I would grudgingly agree with that. But then you might say that being more patient at the plate has a better chance to cause winning than getting hit by a lot of pitches. Perhaps this statistic will change your mind – from 2005 to 2009, in games when one team got hit by more pitches than the other, the team with more HBPs won 59.2% of those games. During that same span the team whose batters saw the greater number pitches per plate appearance won 45.8% of the time. That’s right*, the team showing more patience at the plate loses more often than it wins. But people will look at teams like the 2009 Yankees, who won 103 games and the World Series, and there batters finished 5th in the majors in pitchers per plate appearance. But they only actually took more pitches per plate appearance than there opponent in 80 of 162 regular season games, and they won those games at a .613 rate. When they were less patient than their opponent they won at a .659 rate. It’s probably safe to say their success had more to do with hitting a billion home runs than being patient at the plate. (but don’t tell them, they don’t need the help)
*- when I say “That’s right”, I just mean as far as I can tell that’s right. I’m working with retrosheet’s play by play data from 2005 to 2009. If anyone can duplicate or refute my results I’d love to see it. Maybe my math has gone astray.