Triple-A, one pitch at a time

Thanks to the proliferation of new data sources, baseball research has increasingly been focused at the pitch-by-pitch level. As usual, minor league research lags behind: Both the data and the interest just don’t compare.

We can get started, though. MLB Gameday doesn’t track minor league games nearly as extensively as it does major league games, but it does give us enough data to tinker around with. Specifically, Gameday includes pitch sequences for all Triple-A games. Those of you desperate to probe the underlying patterns behind Scott McClain‘s .850 OPS are in luck.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll take a look at which Triple-A pitchers stand out using pitch sequence data, and we’ll see how a promotion to the big leagues affects how players handle themselves on a pitch-by-pitch basis. For today, let’s focus on Triple-A hitters.

A couple of notes before we get any further. As is usually true with my minor league research, the numbers aren’t quite perfect. A few plate appearances are missing pitch-by-pitch data, and I probably mishandled a few of the rarer events. Also, the stats in this article are limited to players with 200 or more PAs in Triple-A, and are current through Sunday’s games.

Patience

The most popular pitch-level stat is pitches per plate appearance. We’re all impressed when a hitter works the count, and we groan in unison when someone like Johnny Estrada grounds to second base on the first pitch he sees…again. With that in mind, here are the Triple-A hitters who have seen the most pitches per plate appearance so far this year:

Player               PA      Pitches Pit/PA
Jesus Feliciano      245     1105    4.51
Robby Hammock        208     901     4.33
Eric Bruntlett       257     1112    4.33
Pete Laforest        328     1416    4.32
Jack Hannahan        403     1735    4.31
Jason Botts          455     1948    4.28
Clay Timpner         340     1449    4.26
Brent Clevlen        278     1183    4.26
Brian Myrow          306     1296    4.24
Mitch Jones          218     922     4.23

Not surprisingly, the list includes a couple of sabermetric faves, Jason Botts and Brian Myrow. Hammock’s presence here is aided by his extreme reluctance to swing at the first pitch: in those 200+ plate appearances, he swung at the first pitch a grand total of eight times.

To identify the least patient Triple-A hitters, let’s use that metric: the percent of first pitches they swing at.

Player           PA      1st Swg 1st Swg %
Carlos Mendez    225     62      27.6%
Brayan Pena      263     59      22.4%
Alexis Gomez     250     56      22.4%
Brian Esposito   233     51      21.9%
Luis Figueroa    376     81      21.5%
Danny Sandoval   343     73      21.3%
Brent Butler     236     50      21.2%
Terry Tiffee     392     81      20.7%
Jeremy Reed      503     100     19.9%
Joey Gathright   277     55      19.9%
Rich Thompson    272     53      19.5%

There are a few familiar names on the list, but no one here is famous for his plate discipline. I stretched this list out to 11 names so that I could include Thompson, who is something of an oddity. Despite the high rate of first pitch swings, he has seen more than 4.1 pitches per plate appearance this year, nearly enough to put him on the first list.

Gathright is also an interesting case. Most of the players on this list swing at about 55% of the pitches they see, while the speedster only pulls the trigger a bit more than 40% of the time. I didn’t separate bunts from other hits; perhaps Gathright’s penchant for bunt base hits is what makes him an exception to the rule.

Swinging to contact

“Contact rate,” at the plate appearance level, is likely overrated by the casual fan. It’s the sort of thing that looks impressive—hey, when that guy swings, he usually hits the ball! The flip side, of course, is that the type of swing that generates lots of contact usually doesn’t generate much power.

At the single-pitch level, I’m all the more impressed by a high contact rate…but it still isn’t going to do much for your team. Here the hitters who get the bat on the ball (including fouls) in the highest percentage of their swings:

Player           PA      Contact Rate
Tike Redman      317     93.1%
Jeff Keppinger   256     91.7%
Wes Timmons      308     91.3%
Martin Prado     397     91.3%
Luis Figueroa    376     91.2%
Jim Rushford     367     90.8%
Mark Johnson     232     90.3%
Timo Perez       469     90.0%
Russ Johnson     353     89.6%
Matt Tupman      281     89.4%

The opposite number of this list veritably defines the word “hacktastic,” with names such as Brad Eldred, Mike Hessman, and Reggie Abercrombie.

Everything else

Just about every other pitch-by-pitch stat depends on patience and contact skills; measures such as swing percentage and called strike percentage correlate highly with those you’ve seen so far. As is often the case, delving into the available minor league data makes me wish there were more, whether that means the data to evaluate prospects below Triple-A, or pitch location data to better gauge the quality of a player’s eye.

For now, here are all the metrics I’ve discussed so far, plus a few others, for some of the bigger-name prospects who have logged 200 or more plate apperances in Triple-A. “Swing%” is the percentage of pitches a player swung at; “Swg/Strk” is the percentage of strikes were swinging strikes, and “Fr Ctt %” is the percent of swings that generated balls in play. Approximate level averages are included at the bottom of the list.

Name             PA      Pit/PA  1stSwg%   Swing%   Swg/Strk  Contact%  Fr Ctt %
Jason Botts      455     4.28    9.7%      39.9%    70.1%     73.7%     35.4%
Chris Shelton    488     4.21    3.9%      39.1%    66.4%     75.0%     36.3%
Billy Butler     254     4.00    6.3%      38.3%    69.2%     83.5%     45.2%
Ryan Sweeney     371     3.99    6.7%      40.7%    63.7%     84.9%     45.9%
Brandon Moss     461     3.98    11.1%     46.2%    75.5%     71.7%     34.8%
Brandon Wood     380     3.94    12.6%     45.9%    75.3%     69.9%     36.0%
Adam Jones       468     3.93    11.8%     49.6%    78.5%     73.3%     34.8%
Wladimir Balentie473     3.90    11.4%     48.9%    78.2%     72.3%     36.9%
Eric Patterson   495     3.88    10.3%     46.4%    72.1%     82.9%     42.8%
James Loney      259     3.85    6.9%      42.7%    69.4%     83.6%     43.9%
David Murphy     445     3.85    12.4%     40.1%    66.0%     85.1%     48.3%
Ronny Cedeno     272     3.84    8.5%      44.4%    70.8%     83.4%     45.7%
Daric Barton     479     3.82    18.0%     43.5%    73.6%     86.4%     45.1%
Joey Votto       463     3.81    13.8%     46.3%    77.8%     75.0%     38.7%
Geovany Soto     334     3.81    14.4%     43.0%    71.6%     73.5%     40.4%
Ian Stewart      458     3.79    13.5%     47.2%    76.6%     77.3%     39.4%
Rick Ankiel      405     3.76    10.9%     56.7%    85.1%     76.3%     34.5%
Delwyn Young     439     3.75    11.4%     50.4%    77.8%     79.5%     38.4%
Andy Marte       269     3.74    11.2%     44.2%    74.0%     81.1%     47.2%
Chris Carter     492     3.71    9.8%      46.7%    72.3%     84.4%     45.8%
Jacoby Ellsbury  282     3.71    16.0%     44.6%    70.0%     86.9%     47.3%
Kurt Suzuki      239     3.71    7.9%      42.8%    68.8%     81.3%     45.5%
Angel Berroa     289     3.67    11.1%     50.6%    76.5%     79.3%     41.9%
Alexi Casilla    358     3.66    11.5%     40.7%    64.1%     79.4%     50.7%
Kendry Morales   207     3.61    13.5%     53.5%    79.8%     81.3%     42.8%
Jeff Mathis      270     3.58    17.0%     49.1%    77.8%     78.5%     43.7%
Justin Huber     207     3.53    19.3%     51.4%    80.1%     76.8%     43.2%
Clint Barmes     418     3.50    11.5%     49.5%    74.5%     87.2%     46.5%
Felix Pie        236     3.49    17.4%     51.7%    80.2%     81.7%     41.8%
Brent Lillibridge232     3.46    16.8%     42.0%    67.5%     82.2%     52.8%
Jeff Clement     416     3.43    14.4%     44.1%    73.6%     78.7%     46.2%
Jeremy Reed      503     3.31    19.9%     50.2%    79.9%     84.7%     48.2%

Approx AAA Avg   --      3.73    12.9%     45.6%    73.1%     79.1%     43.0%
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