The Oakland A's most disappointing offensive performance last year came, perhaps, from the player who was most anticipated to boost the lackluster offense. Kevin Kouzmanoff entered the Oakland clubhouse and was immediately inserted into the middle of the order--all eyes on him and his bat--with the expectation that he would provide the ability to consistently drive in runs. He did manage to lead the team in home runs (16) and RBI's (71, tied with Suzuki), but his numbers were indeed disappointing. He saw career lows (min. 100 AB) in average, on-base percentage, and slugging to the line of .247/.283/.396, despite vacating the cavernous confines of Petco Park.
Inversely, the most impressive offensive performance last year came from one of the most surprising sources. Many fans had all but given up on Daric Barton before last season, even though he was still only 24 years old when the season began. He was criticized for his inconsistency, as evidenced by his woeful 2008 season and subsequent demotion to AAA Sacramento. But, in 2010, he had a strong Spring Training that propelled him into the regular season, spending the bulk of his time in the number two spot of the batting order as the team's most consistent on-base man. He showed little power, and perhaps struck out more than was expected, but still put up a line of .273/.393/.405. This season he is one of the few A's players that is not a question mark offensively, defensively, or injury-related. He is still expected to be an integral part of the heart of the A's lineup--which is saying something now that the A's have added Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham, and David DeJesus. Oh what a difference a year can make.
What makes Barton a better hitter than Kouzmanoff? As I compared the two batters, the one aspect of their game that jumped out at me was plate discipline. Barton made it deeper into the count far more often than Kouzmanoff.
There are twelve different counts that an at bat can end in--starting at zero balls and zero strikes (0-0) and ending at three balls and two strikes (3-2). 47.2% of Barton's plate appearances ended in one of the three highest counts (2-2, 3-1, and 3-2), compared to 23.2% for Kouzmanoff. Furthermore, only 32.2% of Barton's plate appearances ended in the three lowest counts (0-0, 0-1, 1-0), while Kouzmanoff ended his at bat 57.2% of the time without even seeing a third pitch.
More after the Jump.
Surprisingly, when in a two-strike count, Kouzmanoff appeared to hold his own. These two graphs show all pitches Kouzmanoff saw while in a two-strike count.
The view is from the catcher, so Kouzmanoff would be standing on the left side of these graphs. The left graph shows pitches that Kouzmanoff decided not to swing at, while the graph on the right shows pitches where he did swing. He did an excellent job swinging at pitches in the strike zone. His only real weakness at swing selection is swinging at pitches low and away. This is understandable though, since most of those low and away pitches were breaking balls.
When we show these graphs for Barton, they are not as different from Kouzmanoff's as we might imagine.
Barton bats left-handed, so he would be standing on the right side of these graphs. Right away, we can see Barton did not do quite as good a job as Kouzmanoff when it comes to protecting the strike zone with two strikes. However, Barton did not swing far outside the strike zone as often as Kouzmanoff did. We cannot conclude, from this, that two-strike counts have much to do with Barton being a better hitter than Kouzmanoff.
Next we will analyze their one-strike counts. First, Kouzmanoff.
It is obvious that Kouzmanoff tries to swing at anything in the strike zone when he has one strike. He has a slight tendency to swing at pitches slightly low and slightly inside, but for the most part he attacks everything near the zone, much like when he has two strikes.
Here is where Barton really excels.
At first glance, we can see Barton does not swing at as many balls out of the strike zone as Kouzmanoff does with one strike. What is surprising is how many pitches within the strike zone Barton elects to not take a swing. If we were to draw a line diagonally through his strike zone from top-left to bottom-right, we would, in effect, turn his zone into two halves: up and in; and down and away. A great number of down and away strikes are watched, while he swings at most up and in strikes.
This is where we find the philosophical differences between Kouzmanoff and Barton. Kouzmanoff is of the belief that he may not see any good strikes, so he will swing at anything close. This is one of the reasons he does not strike out quite as much as Barton, but it is also why he only walks a shade over 4% of the time.
Barton, on the other hand, has found the key to having good strike zone discipline: He lets the bad strikes go. He would rather take a strike, than take a bad hack at a pitch he can't drive. He accepts that the pitcher has just made a good pitch, and challenges him to make another one. This type of approach will extend at bats, and is why Barton sees so many pitches.
If a pitcher makes a mistake early, both of these hitters will take advantage. But the more pitches they see, the more opportunities for the pitcher to make a mistake. It is only when the pitcher doesn't make a mistake that the count gets to two strikes and Barton goes into protect mode. It seems to me, that Kouzmanoff is always in protect mode, no matter what the count.