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Have the Giants become more patient?

For a team that’s prided itself on bucking the trend of working the count, the Giants seem to be working the count a lot more.

San Francisco Giants v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Jeff Sullivan wrote an article this past Thursday about Pablo Sandoval’s seemingly newfound plate patience. Specifically, he points out that Pablo Sandoval has gone from swinging at the first pitch of an at bat 44% to a little under 3%.

When you’re looking for players who’ve changed their approaches, you almost never find changes this dramatic. For one pitch every time he’s come up, Pablo Sandoval has had a brand new identity.

This is one way of measuring hitter patience, and, according to this, compared to Sandoval, no hitter has been more patient.

It was notable in three ways: 1) it’s an article about Pablo Sandoval written in 2018 without sarcasm and without mentioning his Boston performance 2) it suggested a Giants hitter was patient — again, without being sarcastic 3) Pablo Sandoval swung at the first pitch of his third at bat in Friday night game, the first game since it had been posted.

But it also got me thinking about the rest of the Giants. My sense has been that, as a team, they’ve managed to work the count a lot more than in recent years. I offer that the spike in their team strikeout rate is evidence alone that they’re seeing more pitches overall. Beyond that, though, a quick view of the numbers does suggest that, even in a smallish sampling of 64 games, the Giants have been more patient than we might believe.

Going off of Sullivan’s work, the Giants, as a team, have taken the first pitch in 1,755 of 2,456 plate appearances (71.5%) so far this season, right around where they were all of last season and 2016 (both 69.5%), and greater than 2015 (67.8%). That’s not a remarkable improvement on the level of Pablo Sandoval’s, but at least it’s a start.

The point of taking a first pitch more often than not goes beyond driving up a pitch count. Working the count, as a concept, has always had more to do with “staying alive” in order to see the right pitch — seeing your pitch, if you’re the hitter. The first pitch might just be your pitch and, so, why not swing at it? The Giants have pushed that philosophy over the Scott Hatterberg model of always taking the first pitch, no matter what. That approach is not without its flaws — being in an 0-1 hole ups the stress of an at bat right away, that first pitch could’ve been the best pitch, etc.

But good hitters can handle deep counts, and the Giants believe they’ve assembled a group of some of the best hitters in the league. Their approach this season seems to suggest that, anyway, and the results appear to prove their hypothesis. They’re averaging 4.27 runs per game, which is 17th in the league this year, but tied with the 2010 Giants for 4th-most by a Giants’ team this decade. They’re scoring a third of a run more versus last year’s team, and three quarters of a run more than last year’s team at this same point in 2017.

Still, it’s not strictly about the runs, it’s how they score them. When the Giants take the first pitch, the outcome of that plate appearance is 5% better than the rest of the league (105 sOPS+). Remarkably, the Giants’ team OPS is exactly the same whether they take the first pitch or not.

Because the first pitch numbers are so remarkably league average or near league average, I expanded the search to see how the Giants fared in really working the pitcher to reach a full count. My thinking was that by examining two extremes of a plate appearance — first pitches and full counts — I could get a better idea of how the Giants’ approach at the plate has changed this season.

As Sullivan mentions,

For a hitter, patience means taking pitches. Discipline means taking the right pitches.

I don’t think getting to a full count alone proves patience or discipline, but to me it strongly suggests the presence of both.

The Giants have seen a full count in 63 of their 64 games over 336 plate appearances (13.6% of their season total plate appearances). They’ve already seen 43.5% of last season’s total and there are still 98 games to go. And just to give you a better sense of how much better that full count plate appearance rate is, the previous three season (2017, 2016, 2015) have seen season rates of 12.6%, 12.8%, 12%, respectively. So, they’re doing much better than they have in recent years getting deeper into counts. But how’d they do in those spots?

I think you’d agree that patience and discipline only matter if there’s a payoff. In 2015, the Giants hit 5% better than the league with the bases loaded. In 2016, they were exactly league average in that spot (100 sOPS+). Last season, they were 3% worse than league average, but 44% better than how they normally hit in all other counts (man, that was a really bad team). This season, the Giants are 24% better than the rest of the league with the bases loaded and 36% better than in all other counts.

What we already see with our eyes is a better hitting team, thanks to a lot of “name brand” players like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Andrew McCutchen, Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, and Evan Longoria. We know those guys can hit or at least make a pitcher work until he throws a mistake. The numbers demonstrate that when they have the patience to look for their pitch and the discipline to avoid a strikeout — which is the chief trade off in this refined approach of theirs — the Giants are a better hitting team overall.