01 March 2016

Adam Jones Has Better Plate Discipline Than Chris Davis

The Orioles recently re-signed Chris Davis to a seven-year, $161 million contract. As Jon wrote, Davis brings to the immediate a strong bat with a heavy right-handed favored split.  It’s pretty simple, people like Chris Davis because he has elite power and can absolutely crush pitches. Meanwhile, CBS Sports feels that he still strikes out a lot, but made small strides with his plate discipline last season.  The writer argues that Davis’s BB/K ratio of .4 may not be ideal but isn’t terrible either. People generally seem to agree that Chris Davis may strike out a lot but his walk rate does offset it to some extent.

On the other hand, it is pretty well accepted that Adam Jones has bad plate discipline. Bucs Dugout asserts that Adam Jones swings at pretty much everything. Peter Gammons claims that his major problem is that he swings too often in favorable counts. Camden Chat says that it’s indisputable that he strikes out too much and walks too little.

In this article, I intend to show that Chris Davis has significantly worse plate discipline than Adam Jones, despite the fact that Davis has a BB/K of roughly .4 while Jones has a BB/K of roughly .2 over the past three years.  Here, let me explain.

Recently, I wrote a post breaking wOBA into three component parts using data from ESPN Stats and Information. I measured a player’s production when he hits a pitch in the strike zone, when he hits a pitch that isn’t in the strike zone, and when he doesn’t make contact at all. Using this method measures each player’s production in these three areas as shown in the chart below.

Chris Davis averages a wOBA of .187 on balls not put into play compared to Adam Jones who averages a .136 on balls not put into play from 2013-2015. This makes sense as Chris Davis does walk more often than Adam Jones and would seem to support the argument that Davis has better plate discipline. However, such an analysis ignores one crucial thing. It ignores the fact that Adam Jones failed to put the ball into play 24% of the time while Chris Davis failed to do so 44% of the time.

This is relevant due to a point that I made in my previous post. For the average batter, a strikeout is more damaging than a walk is beneficial. Batters only have a .219 wOBA on average when failing to put the ball into play and nearly all do better when they put the ball into play than when they fail to do so. The general rule of thumb is that it takes roughly 11 walks to offset 9 strikeouts because batters average a .369 wOBA when putting the ball into play.

In order to compare Adam Jones’ plate discipline to Chris Davis, it is necessary to take into account the fact that Chris Davis doesn’t put the ball into play as often.  Just comparing .187 to .136 fails to take quantity into account.

The way to take into account both quality and quantity requires some high school algebra. It requires comparing how Adam Jones actually performed to how he’d perform if he put a pitch into play only in 56% of PAs and failed to do so in the other 44% but had the same wOBA when not putting the same ball into play as Chris Davis. In other words, this is equivalent of determining which equation is greater:

.76 * wOBA Jones InPlay + .24 *wOBA Jones NotInPlay  or
.56 * wOBA Jones InPlay  + .44 *wOBA CD NotInPlay.
Which simplifies to:
.2 * wOBA AJ InPlay + .24 wOBA AJ NotInPlay vs .44 * CD wOBA NotInPlay
In other words, it’s necessary to compare how Chris Davis performs during the 44% of times when he fails to put the ball into contact to how Adam Jones performs during the 24% of times he fails to put the ball into contact AND another 20% of how he performs when he does put the ball into contact. This results in the following.

When one takes both quantity and quality into account, it becomes apparent that a player able to hit the ball as successfully as Adam Jones would rather have his walk and strikeout numbers rather than having Chris Davis’s. Even though Chris Davis has a better BB/K and a wOBA Not in Play than Adam Jones, the fact that he puts so many fewer balls into play hurts him.

I make two assumptions for this analysis. I assume that Adam Jones will hit the same proportion of pitches in the strike zone or not in the strike zone if he makes contact less frequently and that his production when he does make contact won’t increase if he swings less frequently. Preliminary research suggests that these assumptions are slightly inaccurate. He should be expected to make slightly better contact if he swings less frequently.

The wOBA All Balls Field projects how Adam Jones would perform if the extra in play contact was solely against pitches out of the strike zone and thus balances out both of the assumptions in the paragraph below. Even still, one would rather have Adam Jones’ numbers than Chris Davis’s strikeout and walk numbers. In reality, as shown in the chart above, Chris Davis’s plate discipline is about as good as Jonathan Schoop’s and only slightly better than Jimmy Paredes.

This poor plate discipline shows why it’s so hard for Chris Davis to be successful.  My metric measuring plate discipline suggests that he’s typically in the bottom 2% in this regard (5th percentile in 2014). He’s able to thrive because in 2013 and 2015, he was in the 99th percentile of wOBA for pitches hit into play. He was elite in those years because he was able to kill the ball whenever he hit it. In 2014, he was in the 86th percentile in wOBA for pitches hit into play. As soon he drops from elite to very good in wOBA for pitches put into play, he becomes an average hitter.

As the chart below shows, when he’s in the 99th percentile for wOBA for pitches in play, he’s in the top five percent of all batters. If he drops to just the 95th percentile for wOBA for pitches in play, all of a sudden he’s down to the 77th percentile of all batters. If he drops to the 90th percentile, then he’s in the 65th percentile of all batters. Once he drops to the 75th percentile for wOBA for pitches in play, he’s in the 36th percentile of all batters and is a DFA candidate. The takeaway is that he can still be one of the best batters when putting pitches into play and still be worthless. The chart below shows where he ranks based on his wOBA for pitches in play.

The news gets even worse. On Twitter, Jon stated that he felt that Chris Davis had a good chance of becoming ineffective due to a collapse in offense if his contact rate drops any further because his walking ability is an indirect effect of his hard contact. I figured that was unlikely because I presumed that Davis will be average offensively before his ability to make hard contact degrades significantly. But when I looked at the data, it became clear that one could argue that Davis always had elite numbers when putting pitches into play but struggled earlier in his career because he hits few pitches in the strike zone compared to other batters and had a poor walk vs. strikeout ratio.

In addition, while Adam Dunn, Carlos Pena, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia each became ineffective once their wOBA when putting pitches into play degraded, it would appear that Melvin Upton and Ryan Howard started to become ineffective when their plate discipline degraded. It seems reasonable to presume that Chris Davis will start struggling if his primary competency of hammering pitches put into play starts to falter or if his plate discipline becomes significantly worse. It’s reasonable to argue that Jon and I both have reasonable chances of being right.

Chris Davis probably won’t become ineffective immediately, but should before his contract ends. There are a few encouraging outliers though. David Ortiz didn’t stop being elite in this regard until he was 36 while Nelson Cruz is still elite at 35. Davis’s contract only runs through 36 so if he can take after those players then the Orioles will likely be happy with the results of this signing. On the other hand, Ryan Howard started struggling at 32 and Adam Dunn started struggling at 31. This contract may look ugly if the Orioles only receive three years of strong performance from Davis.

This article shows that most players would rather have Adam Jones’ walk and strikeout percentages rather than Chris Davis. If so, this suggests that plate discipline is largely misunderstood and that a metric similar to K-BB should be used for both hitters and pitchers. With a few exceptions for players like Nori Aoki and Alberto Callaspo, it is better to put the ball into play than not. Indeed, in 2013, Chris Davis had a .657 wOBA when putting a pitch in the strike zone into play while a player that walked in every plate appearance would have a .690 wOBA.  It's easiest for batters to be successful by putting the ball into play.


Roger said...

I thought the whole idea of Moneyball was that a walk is the same as a hit and no one should ever sacrifice or steal a base. You're implying or even actually stating that walks are vastly inferior to even a ball in play and anything that results in contact is better. That makes Anderelton Simmons look like pretty good hitter. No walks, no Ks, lots of DP balls and popups.

Adam Jones gets a way with a lot because he's a good bad ball hitter. If he loses the ability to hit bad pitches then he'll decline as much as Davis has the potential to. If he had better "plate discipline" and didn't swing at as many bad pitches, he'd get more walks and elongate his career.

Davis's issue is often missing pitches in the strike zone by over-swinging. If he doesn't get "hot" his seasons will look like 2014, but if he has a couple of real hot stretches then every year will be 2015.

Matt Perez said...

A walk isn't inferior to a pitch in play even if hit in the strike zone. But a walk plus a strikeout is a worse scenario then putting two pitches into play according to wOBA for the average batter. Simmons isn't the average batter though.

Adam Jones is actually worse than you'd expect when hitting pitches out of the strike zone. The problem is that he does it quite often. For the past three years, he's been in the top five percent. But he doesn't even get relatively good production when he does make contact.

Jon Shepherd said...

The 2000 idea was not about a walk being the same as a hit. One aspect was about how offense is about not getting out. Walks are effective means of not getting out. So are hits. At the time, walks were undervalued, so they were played up in the club seeking talent.

Roger said...

Jon, seems like the O's undervalue walks at the moment too........ It'd be nice if they could find some OBA somewhaere....

Jon Shepherd said...

No, a poor man does not have diamonds because he undervalues them. He does not have them because he cannot afford them. Orioles simply choose not to pat the going rate OBP because everyone values it. It is costly.

vilnius b. said...

Yep. Great analogy. Everybody wants players who can hit and have a high OBP. Until that day when cloning Bryce Harper or Miguel Cabrera becomes easy and cheap, that is the reality of major league baseball.

One note I'd like to add about Chris Davis, according to David Laurila who writes a Sunday Notes column for fangraphs (great for old timers like me): he had a whiff rate on all breaking balls last year of approximately 45%. (I didn't bookmark the specific Sunday in which he included the statistic in his random notes section, but it was roughly that number.) That's staggering. Too bad Peter Angelos apparently doesn't read fangraphs.

Or would it matter? He was so determined to re-sign Davis that he was essentially bidding against himself.

Roger said...

Anyone see Buck's lineup today? L-R-L-R-L-R-L-R-L It's a pattern..... (OK, some were switch hitters). You can bet they're still looking for a LH RF.

Anonymous said...

Does the fact that Adam jones gidp often and Chris Davis hardly ever does have any effect onvthese calculations?

Chicago Curmudgeon said...

So, what about an extreme scenario like Wade Boggs? He could put anything he wanted into play just about, but also was very productive when keeping the bat on his shoulder. It seems he was better off when he took his free base according to this analysis, because his BABIP could not have been as good as his BB/(BB+K).

Matt Perez said...

You don't want to compare BABIP to BB/(BB+K) because the average hit is more valuable then the average walk. You can't walk a three run home run. You want to use wOBA weights (http://www.fangraphs.com/library/offense/woba/) for plate appearances where the ball is put into play and compare them to plate appearances where the ball isn't put into play. But yes, Wade Boggs in 1987 was more valuable leaving the bat on his shoulder then swinging. It's rate but does happen.

Dustin Pedroia in 2009 is an extreme case in this dataset. His 10.4/6.3 BB/K% helped mask the fact that he had a tough year putting the ball into play. And there's A.J Ellis in 2014 with his .191/.323/.254 line due to an 15.3/16.4 BB/K rate.

On average, players do better swinging then not. But there are always a few exceptions.