I follow Sam Miller on Twitter because I like most of the words that he writes, and also because I'm on a mission to follow as many people named Sam as I possibly can. So far I'm up to one. Earlier this morning, Sam Miller pointed me and some thousands of other people to a recent study I missed at The Hardball Times. The idea behind the study is a very interesting one, so you should read the whole thing. It won't take too much time out of your day, and I'm going to do a shitty job of summarizing it.
Now to summarize it. Basically, the author was interested in plate discipline, and wanted to look beyond O-Swing%, because O-Swing% is binary. You either swing at a ball, or you don't, regardless of just how bad of a ball a pitch was. The author came up with the idea of swing areas. Each hitter has a different swing area - within the perimeter of which he swung at at least 22.4% of pitches. (22.4% is kind of arbitrary, but it was chosen for a reason.) Hitters with the largest swing areas expanded the zone the most, while hitters with the smallest swing areas expanded the zone the least.
That is my poor attempt at a summary. Seriously, just read the article. Anyway, the hitter with the biggest swing area? Mark Trumbo. This is all based on 2011 data, by the way. And the hitter with the fifth-biggest swing area? Miguel Olivo.
"Wow!", exclaimed nobody upon learning that Miguel Olivo had and has terrible plate discipline. Swing area and O-Swing% are very closely correlated, which makes sense when you think about it. The higher the O-Swing%, the more balls a guy chases, implying that he has a worse eye. Having a worse eye would lead to guys chasing more close balls and bad balls. Miguel Olivo has always posted a miserable O-Swing%, so of course he has a miserable swing area. At least he doesn't have the biggest swing area. That would not have come as a surprise.
Miguel Olivo has always had one of the very worst approaches to hitting in baseball. It's kind of amazing that he's managed a lifetime .700 OPS despite that. Let's hear it for dingers. There are two things about Olivo's discipline history I find to be interesting. One is that he's made zero progress. Olivo's first three years in the Major Leagues:
Olivo's last three years in the Major Leagues:
I guess you could argue that he made negative progress, and then positive progress to return to where he was before. In Olivo's middle three years in the Major Leagues, he posted a walk rate of 1.8% without reducing his strikeouts. He had 22 unintentional walks, over three years, as a starter. I mean, God damn. God damn. Jack Cust drew 28 unintentional walks in September 2007. In August 2007, he drew 27. In May 2007, he drew 23. In three separate months in 2007, Jack Cust drew more unintentional walks than Miguel Olivo drew between 2006-2008.
The other interesting thing is that, as a minor leaguer, Olivo's discipline wasn't that bad. Olivo spent very little time in triple-A, having jumped straight from double-A to the Majors. Over 844 double-A trips to the plate, Olivo drew 73 unintentional walks, with 143 strikeouts. Those aren't good numbers or anything, but they aren't bad. They aren't eye-poppingly bad. Olivo had some modicum of discipline, at one point. Baseball America agreed. When he got to the Majors, it went away, never to return.
It makes you think about guys like, say, Carlos Peguero. In double-A, Peguero drew 53 unintentional walks, with 178 strikeouts. His triple-A ratio is even worse. In double-A, Greg Halman drew 42 unintentional walks, with 249 strikeouts. He's improved in triple-A, but the numbers are still bad. Toolsy prospects are interesting, because nobody's polished from the beginning, but developing plate discipline is among baseball's biggest hurdles. There's no physical barrier, like trying to go from no power to good power, or like trying to go from 80mph to 95mph, but there's still a barrier, and it's just a hard thing.
Bringing this back to Olivo, I have to wonder what happened when he got to the bigs. There was some discipline, and then there was next to no discipline. Maybe this is one of those cases where it's on a hitting coach. Maybe it's on Olivo. It's probably on Olivo. But he hasn't changed his ways, and as far as I know he's never tried.
Not that he's had to. A more disciplined Olivo would presumably be a better Olivo, but it's coming up on 2012 now and he's still a starting catcher. So in the long run, it's worked out. It's kind of amazing that it's worked out.