Walking It Out, Top to Bottom

If you watched the Mets this season, you might have noticed that they’ve stopped swinging at bad pitches.

I don’t know, maybe you watched and didn’t notice. If I hadn’t looked at the numbers, I probably wouldn’t have noticed, as it tends to be harder to notice the absence of something rather than its presence. But it has been the most dramatic difference between the 2011 Mets and other Mets teams of the recent past — as a group, they’ve stopped chasing pitcher’s pitches. The Mets lead the National League in walks drawn this season, but only rank 22nd among all major league teams in pitches-seen-per-plate appearance. They’re not drawing walks with the long, drawn out at-bats described/seen in Moneyball — these Mets have waited for their pitch and not missed it.

And as simple as that sounds, it’s actually somewhat weird. The Mets are at one extreme or the other on nearly every plate discipline stat Fangraphs tracks, so it stands to reason that they’re doing something dramatically different from every other team. They are the best team in the National League at making contact, the second-best at making contact on pitches in the strike zone and the best at making contact on pitches outside of the zone. They swing at fewer overall pitches than any other NL team, swing at the second-fewest pitches outside of the strike zone and the fourth-fewest inside the zone. The Mets’ offensive philosophy — only swing at the pitches you can hit — is apparently vastly different from that of every other team in the league.

If, like me, you were wondering if the major league team’s philosophy of not swinging at bad pitches is an organization-wide philosophy — well, it looks like it. The Mets’ farm system as a whole (Triple-A through Low-A and the four rookie affiliates, nine teams in all) drew 2,697 walks last season. They drew 3,069 walks this season, a 13.8% increase. Among NL organizations, only the Diamondbacks’ affiliates drew more walks. The 3,069 walk total is the highest recorded total in the Mets’ history (mostly because the statistics from some leagues aren’t available for seasons earlier than 2005). So it looks like an organization-wide philosophy being implemented: Mets everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, are drawing more walks.

On the other hand, a closer looks shows that the Mets’ minor leagues have some ways to go: In terms of walks as a percentage of plate appearances, their affiliates ranked sixth out of the 16 NL teams, walking in 9.1% of their trips to the plate — the Mets were second in overall walk totals because they have two teams in the Dominican Summer League and thus a greater number of affiliates potentially drawing walks than other organizations. Interestingly (to me, at least), the Padres and the Diamondbacks rank #1-2 in that category, drawing walks in 9.9% and 9.8% of their plate appearances respectively — in my mind, those are the two NL teams best-associated with sabermetrics, and that makes perfect sense. The two systems that draw the fewest walks are those of the Braves and the Phillies, organizations that, again in my mind, tend to fall into the other end of the SABR-spectrum.

It should be noted that these numbers are heavily colored by the location of a team’s affiliates. Most of the western leagues favor hitters, and most minor leagues in the east favor pitchers. Teams tend to have affiliates located closer to their major league club’s home, so the affiliates of teams in the NL West outhit their NL East counterparts for reasons that involve weather more than talent. Just looking at NL clubs east of the Mississippi, the Mets are second in walk percentage, trailing only the Pirates.

It seems, at the very least, that the Mets successfully implemented an organization wide-plan this season to teach better plate discipline. The results at the major league level speak for themselves, with a team that ranks fifth in runs scored and second in adjusted OPS+ despite an unfriendly home park and numerous injuries. As for the minor league side, the army of disciplined hitters the farm system is going to plug into the holes the next few years should attest to what they’re doing down below. It seems silly to suggest that “don’t swing at bad pitches” is a revolutionary change in baseball strategy, but it’s hard to look up and down the Mets’ organization this season and conclude that they’re not doing something dramatically different.

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