Oakland A's Plate Discipline Steals the Show
Entering 2013, the Oakland A's were given a chance to compete because of solid young pitching. Two weeks into the season, the arms have been excellent (the team's 2.90 ERA is tops in the American League), but it is the offense that has stolen the show.
Through 10 games, Oakland has scored 66 runs, the most of any team in the majors and 10 more than the closest competition. The club's .292 batting average and .368 on base percentage are second in the AL. How has this group of hitters suddenly morphed into one of the most lethally efficient lineups? The answer lies in plate discipline.
In the AL this year, there have been a total of 4896 plate appearances. 9.7 percent of those have begun and ended with the first pitch. For the 90.3 percent that make it to a second pitch, the end result hinges heavily on whether the first pitch was a ball or a strike. After an 0-1 count, AL hitters have an OBP of .275. After a 1-0 count, that OBP jumps to .386.
That means that an AL hitter gets on base 11.1 percent more often after a first pitch ball than a first pitch strike. Think that is a big difference? It is nothing for the A's whose OBP after 0-1 is .247 compared to a whopping .445 after 1-0.
Of course, Oakland doesn't just have an advantage every time the count goes to 1-0. The team also does a great job getting the count there. Of all multiple pitch plate appearances, the average AL hitter gets a first pitch ball 45.7 percent of the time. The average A's hitter gets a 1-0 count 49.7 percent of the time.
With only 7.0 percent of Oakland's plate appearances ending with the first pitch, the club is also more patient on first pitches than most teams.
So, you might ask, why not just throw the first pitch in the strike zone, forcing the A's to start 0-1 more often? Well, that simply hasn't been a safe approach so far. Oakland has had 23 at bats end with the first pitch. 12 of those have ended in hits (.522 average compared to .333 for the AL as a whole). Four of those hits have been doubles.
To summarize, the A's hitters are doing a great job not reaching for first pitches out of the zone while punishing pitchers who attack the zone with the first pitch. That's forcing a high number of first pitch balls, and the team is adept at turning those 1-0 counts into base runners.
All that said, the sample size is extremely small and not enough to determine if this is a permanent uptick in efficiency or just a good start against poor teams. Additionally, only eight of the A's runs have been scored against power pitchers (guys who rank in the top third of the league in strikeouts plus walks). The Tigers are going to throw two power pitchers at them in Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. The onus is on the A's to keep up the hot hitting against the better opposition.