The Most Indiscriminate Hitter in the League

Before we get into the meat of this article, I feel like I need to preface everything, so that the message and significance aren’t unclear. You might find it dreadfully uninteresting to read through this brief preface, but then, just imagine how much better reading the article will feel afterward!

(1) This was originally titled “The Most Indiscriminate Swinger in the World” but then I thought better of that because you people are crude.

(2) This article makes use of PITCHf/x plate-discipline data, which some people might not find to their liking. It forces two bits of that data together in a haphazard ratio, which more people might not find to their liking. There are always going to be sample-size concerns, and especially in this instance. I am aware of how the analysis might be considered insufficient and yet I’m still comfortable with it, because it’s more right than it is wrong.

See, that wasn’t too bad. Off we go.

Anybody who’s spent much time on FanGraphs has spent time on the player pages and leaderboards, and is presumably familiar with the plate-discipline data made available. I remember how I felt when I first laid eyes upon O-Swing% and Z-Swing%. We had some ideas before, but now we had data. These days we have PITCHf/x data. Based on a certain PITCHf/x strike zone, we can record how many swings there are at strikes, and how many swings there are at balls. This is plate discipline. There’s a reason this stuff is given the plate-discipline header.

Undisciplined hitters tend to run high O-Swing% rates. Miguel Olivo runs high O-Swing% rates. You don’t really want your hitters to be swinging at pitches out of the strike zone very often. This can be partially off-set by high Z-Swing% rates. Not all strikes are hittable, but many strikes are hittable, and a called strike’s no good. In theory, a perfect hitter would have a well above-average Z-Swing%, and a considerably well below-average O-Swing%.

So the opposite of a theoretical perfect hitter would have a low Z-Swing% and a high O-Swing%. He’d watch a lot of strikes and swing at a lot of balls. This brings me to a guy named Pedro Ciriaco.

The versatile Red Sox infielder has opened some eyes by playing flashy defense and batting .316. Quality defensive infielders who bat .316 can be some of the most valuable players in the league. Ciriaco’s done it over a small sample of just 176 plate appearances, but followers of this year’s Red Sox have needed to squint to find positives, and Ciriaco’s been a positive so far.

But there are warning signs, and it doesn’t take a baseball genius to spot them. Ciriaco’s got three walks and 33 strikeouts to his name, which is just miserable. The difference between his OBP and his batting average is 12 points. If you’re on his FanGraphs player page, go ahead and scroll down. Ciriaco’s also swung at 46.4 percent of balls, and 59.4 percent of strikes. Something about that doesn’t seem right. Something about that seems incredibly wrong.

We have reliable PITCHf/x data stretching back to 2008. Since 2008, there have been 1,937 individual player seasons with at least 150 plate appearances. Out of all of those, Ciriaco’s O-Swing% currently ranks third-highest. His Z-Swing% currently ranks 1,349th-highest, in a tie. I decided to make up a ratio, with Z-Swing% divided by O-Swing%. This was mostly for curiosity, and it turns out that Ciriaco’s ratio of 1.28 is the lowest in the PITCHf/x era. Next-lowest belongs to 2010 Garret Anderson, at 1.32. Even if you think this ratio is mostly a load of crap, it’s not a good sign to have the lowest ratio in five years. It’s a ratio made up of two important statistics.

I decided to go over to Baseball Heat Maps to get a visual. Here’s Ciriaco’s swing heat map against right-handed pitchers, compared to the league average. I’m only looking at righties because Ciriaco’s sample against lefties is very small.

Swing-happy everywhere but over the middle of the plate. Over the middle of the plate is where the most hittable pitches get thrown. Not every hitter has identical hot and cold zones, and Ciriaco is a special snowflake, but that does not look to me like the swing map of a quality bat.

For added visuals, here’s a Ciriaco at-bat from Tuesday night. The at-bat lasted three pitches; I didn’t leave anything out.

Ciriaco took a first-pitch fastball for a strike, taking the whole time. He swung wildly at an 0-and-1 breaking ball in the dirt. He took an 0-and-2 fastball for a strike instead of protecting the plate. It isn’t at all fair to say that this is the typical Pedro Ciriaco at-bat, especially while he still owns that high batting average, but this was an at-bat that highlighted some weaknesses.

Pedro Ciriaco has generated good results, but his process has been miserable, and there’s no part of that batting average that looks sustainable given everything else. I probably don’t even need to mention that Ciriaco’s running a high rate of hits on balls in play. Pablo Sandoval makes over-aggressiveness work, and of course Vladimir Guerrero made over-aggressiveness work, but even their approaches were better than Ciriaco’s, and they made or make more contact. Ciriaco swings at the wrong pitches and he doesn’t have a lot of power.

For his career, spanning parts of three seasons, Ciriaco owns a big-league .775 OPS. Not bad. Actually quite good, for an infielder. That’s over 216 trips to the plate. Over 1,080 trips to the plate in triple-A, Ciriaco owns a .649 OPS. He’s got 23 walks and 172 strikeouts. If there were something special about Pedro Ciriaco, one figures it would’ve shown up in the minors, too. It didn’t. Ciriaco debuted in 2005, and last year Jose Bautista drew more walks than Ciriaco has drawn in his entire professional career.

What this turned into was a post critical of a versatile Red Sox infielder, and there probably aren’t too many people who thought Ciriaco would keep hitting anyway. But we’ve also managed to identify the hitter who’s had perhaps the very worst approach in the entire league. You might hate your favorite team’s hacker, but he’s had a better approach this year than Pedro Ciriaco has. Ciriaco, to date, has been one of the Red Sox’s few positives. Consider that and you see how badly things have gone wrong.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

49 Responses to “The Most Indiscriminate Hitter in the League”

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  1. Jamie says:

    Are you sure it isn’t Francouer?

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  2. David33957 says:

    Well done article that gives great insight into what, on the surface, is a good performance by Ciriaco.

    This statements tells a lot: “Ciriaco‚Äôs also swung at 46.4 percent of balls, and 59.4 percent of strikes.” Video of 3 pitch-out also tells a lot.

    Thanks for posting this.

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  3. Nick says:

    I love when fans/mnstrm media lump Ciriaco in with the “young guys” the Red Sox are getting a look at in September.

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    • Jonathan says:

      I wouldn’t call him a “young guy” by any stretch, but he’s more likely to stick around than a lot of other guys who’ve been getting major playing time (Aviles, Podsednik). If nothing else, he should make for a viable utility infielder.

      Couple that with the fact he still has a few years before being arbitration eligible, it’s easy to see why people might lump him in.

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  4. Love this, Jeff. It’s the quirky sort of observation that makes for compelling reading. Awesome that you found such a perfect AB to demonstrate some of your findings, too.

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  5. Mrman says:

    I just love posts like these. Stuff I’d never think of involving a player I’ve never noticed. That heat map is a work of art…something if you explained what it is to a knowledgeable baseball watcher and then asked them what it meant, they’d say something like “that’s the dumbest hitter in the league”. Classic!

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  6. Chris R says:

    It doesn’t get much better (worse) than that 3-pitch AB to illustrate a bad approach. How does Hunter Pence stack up among the Hacking Hackers who Hack me off?

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    • Well that depends. Overall, Hunter Pence comes out reasonably okay, but Giants Hunter Pence has had some real problems. Goodness! Not worst-ever, but definitely needs-improvement.

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  7. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    This article is fantastic and I really enjoyed it.

    Doesn’t “indiscriminate” hypothetically mean “swings at everything equally”?

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    • Meh says:

      Only if he was an “indiscriminate swinger” would “swings at everything equally” be the definition.

      Indiscriminate hitter, to me, means someone who treats every pitch exactly the same, ie. he would take a 0-1 fastball down the middle at the same rate he’d swing at one.

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    • Yeah, that might not be the perfect word here. Welp, it makes enough sense.

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    • Jordan says:

      Yes, and Ciriaco’s the closest to that hypothetical currently in the majors.

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  8. Austin says:

    Mrman has it right – that heat map is absolutely priceless. I had to do a double-take to make sure you hadn’t inverted the color scheme.

    I’ll also echo everyone else in saying that these are my favorite kinds of articles to read, and nobody can write them quite as well as you can.

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  9. Eminor3rd says:

    This is hilarious. It’s like he is guessing every time and is frequently wrong.

    I don’t know if you care, but if you want to take this further, I’d be interested to see a similar analysis of these three hitters: Gordon Beckham, Dayan Viciedo, Starlin Castro

    Cool stuff, Jeff!

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  10. Peter says:

    Don’t stare at that heatmap too long, it could send you into a seizure. Somebody at should learn how to tweak a few parameters, or learn R.

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  11. Nate says:

    That’s not a heat map, that’s a COLD map baby!

    Nice article. Fun to read. You know your new temporary nickname is now “Jeff Indiscriminate Swinger Sullivan”…

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  12. isavage30 says:

    Lonnie Chisenhall was putting some pressure on Ciriaco before he broke his arm. Managed a 43.8% O-swing and 60.9% Z-swing. He was slightly better last year in a larger sample though.

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  13. dcs says:

    —” In theory, a perfect hitter would have a well above-average Z-Swing%, and a considerably well below-average O-Swing%.”

    I’m not sure the first part is true. I suspect that the optimal ZSwing% is the lg avg of around 62% (for a typical batter). Take too often, and you keep getting behind in the count. But swing at strikes too often, and you are swinging at more pitchers strikes, plus lowering your chance to draw a BB. One piece of ‘evidence’ for this is that older batters have lower OSwing% than younger batters, as we would expect from their getting wiser about the strike zone. But batters of all age groups seem to have about a lg avg ZSwing%, despite whatever learning has been going on…

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  14. Pedro Cerrano says:

    blah blah blah jambo.

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    • Chris says:

      Ciriaco needs hats for his heat maps, his heat maps are cold, cold heat maps are fearful and sick. He should ask Jobu to come take fear from heat maps, make heat maps warm.

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  15. Alex says:

    Now we have to know who finished with the best ratio in your made up Z%/O%. That is, the most discriminate hitter. Please do tell. Hell, it could even warrant another fascinatingly quirky article

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  16. simo says:

    I’ve been hating on pedro ciriaco since looking him up around the time that he came up because of his unbelievably awful career minor league line (.272/.299/.357)… whenever he gets a hit(which he has quite a bit), I get angry because of how much I think he has benefitted from luck(no offense pedro): nice to have some agreement and a great analysis to further prove my conclusions.

    but seriously, who hits .272/.299/.357 overall in the minors??

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    • Brent says:

      “but seriously, who hits .272/.299/.357 overall in the minors??”

      I would think lots of guys. The REAL question should be, how many of them get a Major League job?

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      • Tim says:

        That’s 40 points of OPS better than Drew Butera.

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      • simo says:

        @brent: I meant that haha… just trying to state my point, but yeah
        @tim: thanks for pointing that out. dang thats pretty rough, I almost feel bad for butera but at least hes a catcher(and the twins tend to use people who were no too great in the minors)

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    • Jonathan says:

      I’ve seen many a Sox fan argue that Jose Iglesias should be traded in favor of keeping Ciriaco because, and I quote, “Iglesias has never been able to hit in the minors.”

      Now I’m not saying Iglesias is going to be a perennial All Star or anything (Or even hit his weight, for that matter), but that was among the dumbest things I’ve ever read.

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      • simo says:

        I agree. Iglesias is also a poor hitter, but his bat is probably around the same value as Ciriaco’s at least, and he is a very highly-touted fielder. his career line in the minors is poor, but the career OBP is not as insanely horrendous as ciriaco’s, at .313, although Iglesias’ slugging is pretty atrocious. I could see MLB defensive replacement/utility man possibly(although not likely) in Iglesias’ future while I can’t bring myself to see much future in the majors for Ciriaco at all.

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  17. taliesin says:

    Strictly speaking, the ratio of Z-Swing% to O-Swing% does not quite make sense as a metric, because the denominators of the two items in the ratio are different; that is Z-swing% is swings at strikes/strikes thrown and O-swing% is swings at balls/balls thrown. Dividing them doesn’t give a result that can be interpreted easily.

    Fortunately, fangraphs already has the data to allow us to calculate a better ratio. If we take the product of Z-swing% and Zone%, the result is swings at strikes/pitches thrown, and similarly O-swing% by Zone% is swings at balls/pitches thrown. Then it’s easy to compute swings at strikes/total swings, which would seem to be more like what we want to know.

    Example: Pablo Sandoval, notorious hacker, has an O-swing% of 46.9% and a Z-swing% of 82.0%; pitchers know he is a hacker, his Zone% is only 32.4%. Thus, swings at strikes/pitches are 0.82*0.324=26.6% and swings at balls are 0.469*(1-0.324)=31.7%. Swings at strikes/total swings, then, is 26.6/(26.6+31.7) = 45.6%. Yes, just 45% of the pitches that Pablo swings at are strikes. It turns out this is the lowest in the big leagues.

    By this standard Ciriaco does not look so bad; his swings at strikes/total swings ratio is 50.3%, not as hackery as the Panda. But for some reason, despite Ciriaco’s terrible plate discipline, his Zone% is still 45.4%. Probably once pitchers figure out that he will swing at anything, this number will drop as it has for Sandoval, and the results will likely not be good.

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    • JRoth says:

      No, no, it’s not that Ciriaco will swing at anything; he prefers to swing at balls. If pitchers throw him fewer fat pitches up and slightly in, he’ll really start raking. He’s like kryptonite to good pitching.

      As a Pirates fan who’s been agog at Pedro’s Boston success, this is very reassuring.

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      • Zach says:

        That’s not true. He swings at more strikes than balls. I think you’re misreading the heat map. It’s based on the league average at swinging at pitches in each of those zones. So, he swings at many more pitches outside of the zone than average, and much less down the middle than average. His approach is miserable for a major league hitter, you would think if he swings that often out of the zone he would swing more often than the major league hitter at pitches in the zone. But even with the worst discipline in the league, he still swings at more strikes than balls.

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    • Baltar says:

      Fascinating. Thanks for that data. Why does a pitcher ever throw a strike to Sandoval?

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      • taliesin says:

        Well, they do throw him the fewest strikes of anyone in the majors! And by kind of a lot, actually. The average Zone% is 45% among guys with at least 150 PAs (trying to keep Ciriaco in the sample), and there are only two batters below 37.5% — and those are the only two guys who swing at more balls than strikes. Sandoval’s 32.4% Zone% “beats” Hamilton’s 34.4%.

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  18. Jake says:

    Looking at Ciriaco’s splits is even more fascinating. His two best counts this season, according to wRC+ are 0-1 and 1-1 (131 and 104 respectively). His three worst counts explainably include 1-2 (13), but somehow also include 3-1 (11!!!) and 2-0 (25).

    I don’t have anyway to find an exact number, but my operating assumption would have to be that Ciriaco takes an exorbitant amount of first pitches. Baseball Reference’s splits include stats in particular counts, whereas here you get “through” counts, which I assume combines stats in those counts as well as stats after. Of his 178 PAs this year, only 20 of them have ended after the first pitch, including one SacB. Given that his contact rate is 76.2%, I would guess that means he’s swung at roughly 15% of first pitches. That has to be toward the bottom of the league, I would think. For a quick reference, I also checked Chase Utley, who I know rarely swings at the first pitch from watching him for the past 9 years, and this year, using the same math would put him at 7.7%.

    My point is, I think an interesting article would be to analyze the players who swing the least at the first pitch and what kind of results they have.

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  19. Paul says:

    This was awesome. Love the work everyone does here on fangraphs. Makes learning about players so much fun.

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  20. Steverino says:

    I’m not sure Ciriaco “prefers” any particular kind of pitch or location. I think he is the quintessential “guess hitter.” I don’t think he has a good approach (thinking along with the pitcher about, based on game situation, alignment of defense, and count, what is likely coming), but further and probably much more importantly, I don’t think he has any pitch recognition. The ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and he doesn’t know what it is going to do or where it is going to end up. Waiting for a pitch you can drive does not work, when you have no ability to tell where the pitch is going to cross the strike zone, therefore never knowing if it is a pitch you can drive til it has met the bat.

    He appears to get by on hand-eye coordination alone. That’s enough to put up a modest batting average, a terrible OBP, and no power. Beyond that, we’re looking at small sample sizes driven not only by random variation on balls in play, but also by random variation driven by how often he happens to guess correctly. Lack of pitch recognition skills and lack of approach at the plate suggest that his guessing will not improve with experience.

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    • insane_sanity says:

      I’ll say this — based on the three vids shown above you are absolutely correct.

      Look at the sequence — first pitch 97 FB down the heart. Next pitch, a slider that starts on the same plane as the FB, but then disappears and Ciriaco puts a feeble swing on it. Last pitch, same plane but a 99 FB — after just seeing that slider, he doesn’t want to fish…but ends up watching strike three.

      Again, this is one AB and he saw 2 good FBs and a pretty filthy slider (very filthy in that particular sequence). But he didn’t have a chance…and guessing wrong seems to be responsible.

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  21. tz says:

    I’ve heard great hitters referred to as being “Rembrandts” at the plate.

    However, Ciriaco’s heat map is clearly a Picasso.

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  22. Dan says:

    Delmon Young. Delmon Young, Delmon Young, Delmon Young. It HAS to be.

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  23. Baltar says:

    I enjoyed your “snowflake” reference. However, the notion that “no 2 snowflakes are alike” is nowhere the truth. I read in Scientific American that there are only a relatively small number of shapes which snowflakes have. I’m too lazy to look up the article, but the number is somewhere on the scale of 20.

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  24. Dauber says:

    Nothing like some numbers to help make sense of what the eyes see, but do not understand. Thanks for your work on this.

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  25. HPJoker says:

    I’ve been tracking most of the Red Sox games since he started playing. If he hits .200 next year he’ll be lucky. 0 plate discipline, 0 power, most of his extra basehits have come from hard hard ground balls that somehow sneak past the third baseman, down the line. EXTREMELY PULL HAPPY. You can almost guarantee a ground ball to the left side of the field. The two home runs he’s hit have been on pitches inside though, so at least he’s discovered his hot spot? Beats a TON of pitches on the outside part of the plate toward third base though. It’s ridiculous how little he seems to want to go the other way.

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