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The Approach: How Much Correlation Exists Between Patience & Performance?

Aug 13, 2023

Plate discipline, like basically everything in baseball, is not merely a black-and-white concept. Much like cake, ogres, and the feudal system of the medieval era, it has layers to it. Too often, we see plate discipline translated simply into patience. That is, of course, one facet of it. Even that, though, operates heavily in shades of gray.

Baseball at any level has this long-held belief that a player who sees a high volume of pitches is automatically a better producer of offense than someone who presents as aggressive at the plate. At the highest level, we know that this isn't necessarily always true (the amateur levels still have some work to do there).

For example, someone like Trent Grisham could be characterized as being too patient. While routinely sitting among the league's lowest swing rates, he works himself into deep counts on a constant basis. He's also without the contact ability to compensate when he's at 2-2 or 3-2. Conversely, Luis Arraez — who may very well be the best pure hitter the game has to offer — isn't anywhere near the top of the leaderboard in swing rate or pitches per plate appearance (P/PA). Surely we don't think less of him because he doesn't see a high volume of pitches.

There are myriad ways in which we can quantify plate discipline. A low swing rate. A high pitchers-per-plate appearance. Minimizing chase percentage. A high swing percentage inside of the strike zone. Even a high contact rate, regardless of swing rates, can be representative of quality plate discipline. For my purposes here, however, the patience aspect is of the greatest interest.

The Watchers on the Wall in the Box

Patience mainly hones in on two components of plate discipline: Swing% & P/PA.

Here are the five lowest swing rates in baseball thus far:

And here are the five highest P/PA:

As one would expect, there's a fair bit of overlap between the two lists. That expands well beyond the small sample of five names for each list. Notably, Soto, Wade Jr., Rutschman, Tellez, Joe, and Kim are the players in the Top 15 of both Swing% and P/PA.

Perhaps no player here is more intriguing in such a discussion than that of Juan Soto. The league's lowest swing rate and 4.28 P/PA come as zero surprise; Soto is constantly looked at as one of the league's most patient hitters. There was an argument earlier in the year that he was too disciplined. Much of that talk likely stemmed more from the futility of the collective San Diego offense, though. Because now that Soto is hitting, the patience is a boon for his output. He's walking at an obscenely high rate and making hard contact at an impressive clip. He's an elite player for a reason. The patience and power upside work together in a way that doesn't quite gel for, well, the majority of players in the league.

Wade Jr. and Rutschman each provide their own offensive stability as a result of their patience, as well. Wade Jr. uses his patience to reach base via the walk, but also makes steady contact and finds the barrel on a consistent basis. Rutschman isn't quite the same. He drives up his OBP via walks, but also makes a healthy amount of contact through his volume of pitches seen. It's not quite the violent contact of a Soto or even Wade Jr, but his patience is a large factor in his upper-tier offensive production.

Names like Wisdom and McMahon are especially interesting on this list. Neither one is anywhere near the top in terms of swing rate. But they see a ton of pitches via the foul ball. Each of them is able to generate a high level of barrel contact, but regular contact in either is a relatively absent trait. While each has offensive upside, especially because of the hard contact wrought by the barrel, working deep counts isn't something that necessarily works in their favor.

If we did want to draw conclusions, we could likely point to the increased contact rate, higher walk rate, and overall "above average-ness" illustrated by wRC+. There are benefits to patience.

Patience, Zero

Conversely, here's the other side of the spectrum with respect to Swing%:

And pitches per plate appearance:

And this is where the argument in favor of patience as a driver of performance becomes even more muddled. There are some really stark contrasts. Walk rate isn't a factor at all here. Edman and France are adept at drawing the occasional walk, but if any of the other names listed plan to reach base, it's going to be via contact. And some of the contact rates are really quite strong. This speaks to the skill set present here, most notably with Ruiz, Edman, and Dubón.

This is why the strikeout rates aren't nearly as high as one might expect to see. Especially in comparison with the far more patient hitters. Ruiz, Edman, and Dubón don't seem to have a problem putting the ball in play. Ryan Mountcastle isn't struggling to put the barrel on the baseball. Neither is Sal Pérez. And while the wRC+ numbers largely fall under the "average" line, it's not as if they’re buried under it. If anything, they’re toeing it.

So while we can firmly say there are benefits to patience, given the above findings, we also can't say that aggressiveness is a detriment.

Is Patience Actually a Virtue?

Similar to the way our society seems to have abandoned the concept (Thanks, Amazon) of patience, there really isn't anything in this brief sample to suggest patience is a heavy factor in driving performance.

It can, obviously, be a factor. There are hitters with a keen eye that can utilize it as a tool to drive OBP and find pitches to hit. Even if they aren't driving on Soto's level, the clear divide in ability to make contact does suggest at least putting the ball into play happens more consistently with a more disciplined swing rate. At the same time, an aggressive hitter doesn't automatically indicate they fall on the wrong side of a threshold.

Does this even allow us to draw conclusions? Some guys just make a lot of contact, regardless of their approach. Because this brief examination is a small sample painted with broad strokes, it says nothing of pitch type. It says nothing of zone swing rate against whiff rate. Just as plate discipline has other factors to consider, so does patience itself.

What we can note is this. There are benefits to being a patient hitter. And some weave it into their skillset. In the case of an outlier like Soto, it becomes part of their offensive identity. Patience, however, isn't automatically an indicator of an elite offensive performer, nor is aggressiveness a sign of an underachiever. There are just too many factors at play. And that's very much part of the beauty of baseball.

Trent Grisham Luis Arraez The Watchers on the Wall in the Box Lowest Swing% Through June 5th Juan Soto LaMonte Wade Jr. Adley Rutschman Rowdy Tellez Connor Joe Highest P/PA Through June 5th Ha-Seong Kim Patrick Wisdom Ryan McMahon Patience, Zero Highest Swing% Through June 5th Eddie Rosario Salvador Perez Mauricio Dubón Ryan Mountcastle Ezequiel Tovar Fewest P/PA Through June 5th Keibert Ruiz Tommy Edman Ty France Esteury Ruiz Is Patience Actually a Virtue?