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Coco Crisp - Plate Discipline and Outcomes

Coco is walking twice for every strikeout in 2013, and he's hitting for a ton of power. Has anything changed in his fundamental approach at the plate?

Coco Crisp : Part of a nutritious lineup.
Coco Crisp : Part of a nutritious lineup.
Bob Levey

Coco Crisp's career-high OPS is .810, and that mark came in 2005 as a member of the Cleveland Indians. It's the only time he's ever finished a season with an OPS above .800.

Through 159 plate appearances in 2013, Coco has posted an .886 OPS, good for a wRC+ of 142. He is currently hitting out of his mind. OPS is a very blunt stat, though; what specifically is Coco doing differently?

He's not just getting lucky. One obvious small-sample test is to look at a hitter's BABIP, but Coco's mark (.274) is far below his career number (.300). He is posting a career-high in both slugging percentage (.500) and isolated power (.220), and part of that is fueled by a few cheap homers at Minute Maid Park in April. However, he's also hitting a ton of doubles (12 so far, plus a triple), so a lot of his slugging has come in the form of hitting the gaps and corners and using his wheels. He probably won't finish with an isolated power above .200, but he could certainly continue racking up extra base hits, especially if his career-low line-drive rate (15.7%) moves up toward his career mark (19.5%).

Coco's most glaring stats, though, come when he is not hitting the ball at all. Entering Monday, he has drawn 24 walks and struck out only 12 times. He has as many doubles as he does strikeouts. Coco's always been good at putting the ball into play and avoiding the K's, but he has taken it to another level this year. To illustrate:

BB% K%
Coco Crisp, career 7.9% 12.8%
Coco Crisp, 2013 15.1% 7.5%
Coco Crisp, previous career-bests (minimum 100 games) 8.9% (2012) 11.1% (2011)

Those numbers represent the percentage of plate appearances in which Coco has either walked or struck out. He has never posted anything like these rates, for a full season or for his career. He did do something similar to this in his 49 games with the Royals in 2009, but he's never held it for a full season. Let's take a look at some of his underlying peripherals and see if Coco is actually doing anything differently at the plate.

Here is the standard intro, written by Cuppingmaster:

While most stats take some time to normalize, research has shown that plate discipline statistics reach some level of significance after only about 50 plate appearances. These data are derived from two sources: Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) classifications or PITCHf/x. BIS is basically guys sitting down watching baseball games and classifying pitches. PITCHf/x is MLB's in-house pitch classification that relies on a neural network to decide what pitches are what. Essentially, a really fancy and expensive computer program designed for decision-making. After all this, there are 9 pretty useful statistics:

O-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone.
Z-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone.
Swing%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter swings at.
O-Contact%: The percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with outside the strike zone when swinging the bat.
Z-Contact%: The percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with inside the strike zone when swinging the bat.
Contact%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with when swinging the bat.
Zone%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter sees inside the strike zone.
F-Strike% - The percentage of first pitch strikes (BIS only)
SwStr%: The percentage of total pitches a batter swings and misses on (BIS only)

Since I much prefer PITCH/fx classifications, but BIS has two data points that PITCH/fx doesn't use, I've merged the data into one table that describes it all. The first seven columns use data from PITCH/fx, but F-Strike% and SwStr% come from BIS data. All data itself (and the above glossary terms) are from Fangraphs.

We'll begin with the numbers, looking at both 2012 and 2013 (2013 stats and league averages are through May 26):

Coco Crisp plate discipline 2012-3, in percentages


















































All stats are from Fangraphs

There are noticeable improvements in Coco's plate discipline stats, but I expected to see a bigger change. He is chasing fewer pitches outside of the zone than he has for the last several years, but still swinging within the zone at his normal rate; that could help explain the uptick in walks.

He's always made a ton of contact when he swings, but he's setting a career-high in that department this year. His contact rate within the zone has always been above 90%, but since he joined the A's (and that partial season with the Royals), Coco has also started making contact on about 3/4 of the pitches he swings at outside of the zone. This elevated level of contact means that he's swinging and missing only 4.0% of the time this year, which is a career-best by far; this helps explain the lack of strikeouts.

This extra-patient approach has led to a drop in first-pitch strikes, which suggests to me that he is doing a better job of getting ahead in the count so that pitchers have to give in to him more often - you want to avoid walking Coco at all costs so that he can't terrorize you on the basepaths. This could explain why he's hitting the ball so well, since he's (possibly) doing a better job of forcing the pitcher to give him a good pitch to hit.

Coco has always been a Dusty-Baker-style leadoff hitter, with top-notch speed trumping his poor on-base skills. I'm not ready to say that his current .386 OBP is for real, but he's definitely become a more selective hitter since he joined the A's and has reached new levels of patience in 2013. As I said, I don't think that he'll finish the year with an isolated power above .200, but he could break his career-high of .165. I also don't think that he'll keep walking twice for every strikeout, but he could at least walk once for every strikeout (which he's never come close to doing before in a full season). What I'm saying is, Coco won't keep hitting this far above his head, but his improved approach at the plate suggests to me that he could at least continue having a career year.

Coco was once an excellent defender with passable hitting. He's lost a step or three in the field, and the metrics are pretty confident that he's now only around average (or even slightly worse). However, he's turned himself into a more patient and powerful hitter since he's joined the A's, and has continued to improve in both departments this year. As one part of his game has eroded, another has risen to take it's place, such that he has remained a valuable and productive player. He's probably a little over his head right now, but I believe that some of his improvement is for real.

There's something particularly appropriate about the A's giving away a Coco Crisp cereal bowl on Sunday, June 2nd. Breakfast is like the leadoff hitter of meals, and just as it's said to be the most important meal of the day, Coco is proving to be one of the most important hitters on the A's in 2013.