John Buck cannot be stopped. Buck was an afterthought in the mega Blue Jays/Mets deal that sent R.A. Dickey to Toronto, but he’s been the best player early on. In 66 plate appearances, Buck already has 7 home runs, and is hitting .290/.303/.661. Even before Travis d’Arnaud got hurt, there was some question over whether a 32-year-old with a career .236 batting average would keep him in the minors. Based on Buck’s career numbers, nobody expects this surge to last. At the same time, Buck has utilized a different approach to begin the year. And even if it’s just a small sample size blip, it deserves some attention, as it’s already brought him a lot of success.
Buck seems to have adopted an aggressive approach at the plate this year. Even though he’s walked in over 10% of his plate appearances in each of the last two seasons, it’s tough to call Buck a patient hitter over his career. As his 3.2% walk rate shows, he’s taken his impatience to an extreme the start the year. It might not be the worst strategy, either. Buck is seeing a much higher number of first pitch strikes to begin the year, and might be taking advantage of that. His first pitch strike percentage has jumped from 61.1% last season, to 69.4% this year.
This has been a trend in Major League Baseball, as Eno Sarris recently explained. Pitchers have been able to pound the zone more frequently with their first pitch, but batters have responded by taking those pitches for strikes more often than in the past. We can also take a pretty good guess that pitchers generally lead off hitters with first-pitch fastballs.* Both the four-seam and two-seam fastball are the only two pitches Buck has positive values against over his career. Six of Buck’s seven home runs have some of fastballs, or variations of fastballs — like cutters or sinkers.
The other advantage of swinging early, at least in Buck’s case, is that he’s been able to cut down on his strikeouts. Buck has struck out in 23.7% of his plate appearances over his career. That number is down to just 14.5% this season. This is where things start to get really interesting. Strikeout rate is one of the first things to stabilize during the season. We know from Russell Carleton’s work that it only takes 60 plate appearances before strikeout numbers become somewhat dependable. After Sunday’s game, Buck is at 66 plate appearances this year.
How are we supposed to react to this? For one, we know Buck is using a different approach at the plate to start the year, and that could explain his decreased strikeout rate. However, it would seem like this is an easy thing for pitchers to pick up on as the season progresses, and Buck might stop seeing first-pitch strikes or first-pitch fastballs. If Buck continues to utilize the same approach after pitchers adjust, he might be able to retain the low strikeout rate, but his performance would likely suffer. If he reverts back to his old form, we know exactly what to expect, and it’s not impressive.
Unfortunately, we can’t really predict how Buck will adjust when the times comes. So, while there’s no definitive conclusion here, it gives us something to monitor with Buck moving forward.
*I did some research on this, but couldn’t find any definitive research saying hitters see mostly fastballs with a 0-0 count. I’m sure this exists somewhere, so I’m not sure why I can’t find it.