The thing we like about hitters is that hitters are stable. Pitchers are crazy. Pitchers are unpredictable, like a Super Ball on a cobblestone walkway. Hitters are dependable. Sure, there are occasional freaks like Jose Bautista who spontaneously decide that they're tired of being mediocre and instead would like to be the best hitter on the planet, but those are the rare exceptions. Most hitters have a certain skill set, a certain approach, and a certain batch of results as a consequence.
As far as that approach is concerned, though, while a hitter will typically keep the same or a similar approach from the day he arrives to the day he leaves, sometimes a hitter will change things up. A change in approach, as you can imagine, can lead to a change in results, so I thought I'd take this chance to see who's been hitting differently in the early going so far this season.
I went over to Fangraphs and pulled out the 205 batters who came to the plate at least 100 times in 2010, and who have come to the plate at least 100 times in 2011. I then sorted them by their change in swing rate (the frequency with which they swing). I initially sorted them by their change in swing rate at pitches out of the zone, but I decided that overall swing rate would make for the better measure.
So what do we find? Here are the players who have been swinging more often in 2011 than they did in 2010 to the greatest degree:
Leading the way, we get one of the worst hitters in baseball, as Loney has been swinging more often and generating terrible results. Pitchers have come after him with a lot more first-pitch strikes and Loney, to date, has been helpless to make them pay for their aggression.
Behind Loney, Lowrie has also been swinging a lot more often than he ever has, but his results have been good. Meanwhile, it's interesting to see veterans like Huff, Damon and Berkman on the list. Ordinarily you think of veterans as being entirely set in their ways, but it turns out old dogs can do new tricks, or at least they can do old tricks slightly more often than they used to do them.
And now let's move on to look at the players who have been swinging less often than they did a season ago:
There are changes, and then there are big changes, and then there are changes like the one Jonny Gomes has made. Gomes has gone from being an aggressive hacker for much of his career to one of the most patient hitters in baseball, and he's gotten so patient that Dusty Baker thinks he's being too patient:
"The main thing is we've got to get Jonny aggressive in the strike zone," Baker said on Wednesday. "He's taking fastballs and swinging at breaking balls. Some of that is a little bit of tension and wanting to do it so badly. We're just trying to get him to the point of relaxing. You can accomplish a lot of things with controlled aggression and relaxation."
Behind Gomes - well behind Gomes - there's youngster Jose Tabata, who's still trying to establish himself in the bigs, and then lightning rod Jeff Francoeur, who's been posting huge numbers for Kansas City even though the bulk of his newfound "discipline" involves him not swinging at so many strikes, as his swing rate on balls out of the zone is about as high as it's ever been. That doesn't seem like a recipe for success, but it would only be fitting were Jeff Francoeur to finally find his success in an unconventional way.
It's interesting to see Adam Dunn on the list. You might have asked yourself before, "Would it be possible for Adam Dunn to swing even less than he already does?" To which Dunn has replied, "Yes, it would be. And thank you so much for asking." Also, Jose Bautista's swing rate is going to approach zero over time as pitchers trend towards issuing nothing but intentional walks.
So there are your big changes. Not all of them will keep up over time, as some might be sample-size flukes, and as some hitters may abandon their altered approaches in search of better results, but these are things to monitor. It's rare that a hitter adopts a more aggressive or more patient approach at the plate, and it's fascinating when they do. Here's to the little things that keep the game interesting.