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CarGo and the Value of Plate Discipline

Note: I have no idea if I’m the first to do this, but quite frankly I don’t care.

As you’ve probably grown sick of hearing¹, Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez is undeterred by his team’s general shittiness and is having a terrific season–his 5.7 WAR² is a very close third in the NL, and one of the players he’s behind may be out for a while. While he’s always been an excellent defender (50.8 career UZR prior to this season), his bat has never been particularly good (his career-best wRC+ prior to this season was 105, last year).

A massive improvement on offense has been the driving force behind his MVP-type numbers, as his wRC+ of 133 this year sits at 16th in the NL; this can be attributed to an increase in power (.235 ISO, compared to .150 for his career) and an uptick in BABIP (.350, compared to .311 for his career). Many of the articles listed in the first footnote cite these as reasons behind his improvement. One element of his game that has not improved, however, and is getting startlingly little coverage from the media, is his plate discipline; his walk and strikeout rates sit at 6% and 25.1%, respectively, meaning his BB/K of 0.24 is 6th-worst in the NL.

Now, should Gomez end up leading the league³ in WAR with that kind of plate discipline, how revolutionary would that be? I decided to find out. I looked up every NL WAR leader going back to 1910 (when strikeouts for batters⁴ were first recorded) and recorded their strikeouts and walks, then calculated each batter’s K/BB⁵ and ranked them from lowest to highest; the top 10 are listed below.

2013 Carlos Gomez* 144 34 4.24
1988 Andy Van Slyke 126 57 2.21
2011 Matt Kemp 159 74 2.15
2012 Ryan Braun 128 63 2.03
1984 Ryne Sandberg 101 52 1.94
1971 Willie Stargell 154 83 1.86
2005 Andruw Jones 112 64 1.75
1970 Tony Perez 134 83 1.61
1978 Dave Parker 92 57 1.61
1941 Pete Reiser 71 46 1.54
*ZiPS Projection

The average K/BB was 0.85, meaning Gomez’s⁶ is nearly 400% worse.

Now, any fan of baseball–sabermetrically inclined or otherwise–knows that this year (and in recent years), plate discipline has been at an all-time low. Knowing this, I decided to measure each player differently. I gathered up all the league-average K/BB’s for every year going back to 1910, then divided each WAR leader’s K/BB by the league-average K/BB for the respective year, and created K/BB-, in the style of ERA-. I then ranked each batter’s K/BB- from highest to lowest (i.e. worst to best); the top 10 are listed below.

Year NL K/BB lgK/BB K/BB-
2013 Carlos Gomez* 4.24 2.51 169
1941 Pete Reiser 1.54 0.99 156
1988 Andy Van Slyke 2.21 1.8 123
1984 Ryne Sandberg 1.94 1.69 115
1937 Medwick 1.22 1.07 114
1971 Willie Stargell 1.86 1.67 111
1978 Dave Parker 1.61 1.48 109
1970 Tony Perez 1.61 1.63 99
1926 Hack Wilson 0.88 0.89 99
2011 Matt Kemp 2.15 2.3 93
*ZiPS Projection

The average K/BB- was 58, meaning Gomez’s was almost 200% worse.

The closest match to Gomez’s season (at least in terms of plate discipline) was Pete Reiser in 1941. That year, his K/BB was a very solid (by our standards) 1.54, but the league-average was below 1, meaning he was actually pretty bad by league-adjusted standards.⁷

Even when we adjust for the era, Gomez’s plate discipline is historically bad. People may argue about the value of plate discipline to a hitter, but you can’t dispute the facts: the average K/BB for a WAR leader is 42% better than league-average, and Gomez’s is 69% worse than league average, and yet he is contending for the WAR lead.

So, what does this mean? Obviously, as I mentioned in the introduction, a large part of Gomez’s value comes from his defense, and thus his offense is probably behind that of many others on this list. Gomez’s season has come out of nowhere, at least to some degree, meaning that it may be a fluke; for that to be determined, we’ll just have to wait and see. Though Brewers fan may be discouraged to hear it, history suggests it probably is.


¹You know, from here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here. Also, I’ve now started doing footnotes a la Grantland, although there isn’t any linking yet.

²All stats are as of Tuesday, August 13th, in case this takes some time to get published.

³I’m really getting sick of people using “the league” to refer to MLB as a whole; it’s misleading and it’s wrong. This isn’t the NFL–there are two leagues, not one. When you’re referring to MLB, say “the majors”, not “the league”.

⁴Strikeouts for pitchers go back all the way to 1876 (i.e. when all pitcher stats go back to). Why’d it take 34 years to record strikeouts for batters?

⁵I’ve always hated BB/K–it returns numbers that are much too minuscule. I prefer the larger form of K/BB.

⁶Is that correct, or should there be no “s”?

⁷Reiser’s success that year–166 wRC+–was mainly motivated by a .377 BABIP, 97 points higher than the MLB average that year, and by far the highest of his career.