We all know the Moneyball Fallacy. The belief that Moneyball means taking walks and eschewing defense because those are the things that the 2002 Oakland Athletics did. We also know the Moneyball Truth, that those strategies were just flavors of the month because they were undervalued at the time. However, it doesn't change the fact that plate discipline is an important skill, one whose full value perhaps wasn't realized until Billy Beane's teams popularized it around the turn of the century. Wait for your pitch instead of swinging at something you can't hit hard. If you don't get that pitch, take your walk so you don't make an out. If you swing, at least put the ball in play because a 30 percent chance of it becoming a hit is better than hoping the catcher drops strike three. These are some of the fundamentals of hitting.
Well, it turns out that the 2014 A's are pretty good at these fundamentals too. In fact, they have the best plate discipline in baseball. They lead the Majors in walks, and they rank 27th in strikeouts. That low whiff rate is even more impressive when you consider that the 2012 A's set an AL record by striking out 1,387 times. And, since the '14 A's also score a ton of runs and thus bring lots of batters to the plate, their 18.0 percent strikeout-per-plate-appearance (K%) is 29th, which is another way of saying second-best. The same effect isn't present in their BB% (9.5 percent), which still easily ranks first in baseball.
Of course, as you may have guessed, those respective rankings mean that Oakland holds a comfortable lead in walk-to-strikeout ratio. Their 0.53 mark is the best in the bigs, ahead of the Rays (0.50) and the Indians (0.46). To put that into greater perspective, Oakland's ratio is the best of any team since 2011, when four different clubs finished between 0.53 and 0.55. This is about as good as plate discipline gets these days.
Why does this matter? Well, it means that the A's get a ton of extra baserunners. It means that they tend to put the ball in play more often than other lineups, and, as we all know, anything can happen once a ball is in play. You can't control your BABIP, but if you increase the denominator with more batted balls then the numerator (hits) is overwhelmingly likely to go up as well. The A's are 29th in BABIP, which is terrible. And yet they're 15th in batting average, because a lower percentage of a higher number can still be bigger. And they're sixth in OBP, because they don't rely on those batted balls to get on base. Only three teams swing and miss less often than they do, only three make more contact, and only one chases out of the strike zone less often. Control the plate, and good things usually follow.
This type of hitting approach also helps drive up opponents' pitch counts, making the team eighth in baseball in pitches-per-plate-appearance. By seeing more pitches, earning extra at-bats, and keeping innings alive, starters are forced out of games earlier and the A's get to hit against opposing bullpens more often. Using Baseball-Reference's Play Index, I found the 300 shortest starts of the year so far, ranging up to 4⅓ innings. The A's were the opponent for 14 of them. That's not the most of any team (which appears to be Detroit, with 17 occurrences), but it's easily in the top 7-10.
So, which hitters have been the keys to this discipline? Coco Crisp is at the top of the list, with more walks than strikeouts. Here are the top five in BB/K:
Coco Crisp, 1.10 (44/40)
Alberto Callaspo, 0.91 (31/34)
Derek Norris, 0.84 (36/43)
Jed Lowrie, 0.74 (40/54)
Eric Sogard, 0.64 (14/22)
There is so much to take from this list. First off, that's the everyday leadoff hitter at the top, who also happens to rank 26th in baseball in pitchers-per-plate appearance. That's a good thing, and it's nice that he also happens to fill the traditional role of terrifying basestealer. Coco does all of the intangible leadoff-y things that an old-schooler would appreciate, but he also puts up the tangible peripheral stats to earn his spot atop the order from a sabermetric sense. He's kind of perfect.
Elsewhere in the top five, you have the All-Star catcher and then three of the worst hitters on the team. There's Lowrie, who is supposed to be good but has had a rough season that is easy to chalk up to BABIP; it's even easier when you see that at least he's still controlling the plate, even if his discipline slipped a bit during his slump. There's Callaspo, whose one real offensive skill is that he can make contact with anything -- that makes him an interesting guy to have at the plate in a big late-inning situation where you just want a ball in play somewhere to drive in a runner from third. And there's Sogard, who is at least good at something with a bat in his hands. But the point is that even when you get to the bottom of the A's order, past the OBP machines at the top, past the gauntlet of four All-Star sluggers, you still have to work to get your outs. Those guys at the bottom are pesky, and rather than lay down and take their K they're going to slap the ball somewhere and force you to make a play. Even the easy outs in this lineup aren't easy.
Even some of the guys who aren't on that list above are improving on their own career norms. Yoenis Cespedes has the lowest K% of his career, as he's cut his rate of swinging strikes by more than a quarter. Brandon Moss has seen his K% go down from 30.4 percent in 2012, to 27.7 percent last year, to 23.8 percent this season. And Nick Punto walks more than either one of them even though he can't actually hit. That must be frustrating for an opposing pitcher.
Unfortunately, not everyone has become a Jedi strike zone master. Josh Donaldson has taken a step back from last season's breakout, but that's not exactly news to anyone. The odd case is John Jaso. He's having the second-best season of his career, with an .815 OPS (129 OPS+) and a pace to shatter his career-high in homers. However, he has by far the worst BB/K ratio of his career; usually a hitter who walks as often as he whiffs, he's now striking out twice as often (50) as he draws a free pass (24). His career has taken a strange arc. At first he had prodigious discipline but no power, then he added power but also strikeouts, then he added more strikeouts but lost the power, and now he's got the power back at the expense of his walks. It's like he has all three skills -- drawing walks, making contact, and hitting for power -- but he can only choose two of them each season.
There's more to hitting than drawing walks. The A's are also tied for sixth in MLB in homers, and they're ninth in total bases. But for this club, each of those distinct skills is part of a larger puzzle that has led to the second-most actual runs in baseball. See the ball. Hit the ball. Unless it's ball four, in which case take your base.