It seems that so often we are talking about our hitters, especially our right-handed hitters, and their aggressive to the level of detriment approach at the plate. And none of them ever seem to get a clue, recent Yuni improvement on hold until we get a bigger sample. Johjima, Beltre, Yuni, Lopez; all of our right-handed infielders share a similar hack-tastic approach that constantly drives us batty.
It's part of the reason that Franklin Gutierrez has seemed like such a breath of fresh air at the plate. His willingness to take pitches, even borderline pitches in 0-2 counts is so foreign as to be continuously baffling. Well, there's somebody else worth talking about too, a homegrown product even, that is taking strides in the plate discipline part of his game. Wladimir Balentien's improvement in that (and other) areas is one of the brighter points for this 2009 team.
Balentien always had a strikeout problem in the minors, but it is also something that by and large showed consistent and methodical improvement. In 2005, at High-A, he struck out in 29.7% of plate appearances. Next year, even with a move up to Double-A, that fell to 26.8%. In 2007, with yet another promotion, it was all the way down to a somewhat respectable 19.3% in Tacoma. Wlad's success in this area had many people getting legitimately excited about his prospect status and may have played a part in former GM Bill Bavasi's willingness to trade away Adam Jones.
And it was not like he improved his strikeout rate at the cost of his walk rate. That too improved in spurts. Overall, his plate disciplined as measured by walks drawn per strikeout has progressed each season, a table of which is listed to the right.
In 2008, Wlad improved his strikeout rate again in his half-season at Tacoma, down to 17.8%. Then he got promoted to Seattle and regressed all the way back to 30.4%. Clearly he still had a lot of work to do.
And it looks like instead of being satisfied, Wlad instead did go to work. His strikeout rate so far this season is at an all time low of 16.5%. Last year he swung at 31.1% of pitches thrown to him outside the strike zone. This year, it's 24.7%. Put graphically, here is a heat map comparison of pitches Balentien has swung at:
He still has a tendency to chase a bit inside and outside, but he appears to have rather beefed up his skill at identifying pitches low and high. Whether or not it is related, it is also a good sign that Balentien's contact rate on swings at pitches inside the strike zone has improved from 78.3% to 84.9% in 2009. Wlad is swinging less often at balls and making contact much more often when he swings at strikes. What remains to be seen is if Wlad is able to maintain this improving level of awareness at the plate (and in the field) and regain his once awesome power. If so, well, we might just have a set outfield for the next four years or so.