There’s a lot been written over the weekend about the differences between the upstart Washington Nationals and the “big, bad Yankees,” as Davey Johnson called them before the first-place series showdown that ended in a sweep for the Bronx Bombers. Most writers tried to capitalize on Bryce Harper’s bad day, or the youth and inexperience of the Nats, or the simple “badassness” of the Yankees.
Despite all the words about leadership and intangibles and the like, as with everything else in baseball and real life, the real difference between the Nats and Yankees can be explained with simple numbers.
Over the course of the same 32 innings, the Nats threw 587 pitches to 146 batters, an average of 4.02 per plate appearance. The Yankees threw 449 pitches to 126 batters for an average of 3.56 per batter. That means the Yankees got 20 more plate appearances spread over the three games than the Nats did. More opportunities equals more runs. It’s really that simple.
Looking at it per inning, Nats pitchers threw 18.3 pitches per inning, while the Yankees threw just 14.03.
Taking pitches, working the count, getting into good hitters counts…it’s a learned skill — presuming it’s being taught.
Manger Davey Johnson was asked about his offense after Sunday’s 4-1 loss, and while rightfully bemoaning the lack of production from Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse, he also offered this little nugget:
“I want us to be aggressive, and sometimes the middle of the order is too passive,” Johnson said. “We’re not striking any fear in the opposing pitcher. They’re having it too easy with us. And those guys need to get going. They’re certainly talented enough to get going. Whatever we’ve got to do to get it going, the whole season’s in front of us.”
I think Johnson was specifically referring to being passive on pitches within the strike zone, because he surely can’t mean as a whole. The Nats are one of the most aggressive teams in Major League Baseball when it comes to swinging at pitches. The Nats currently have three of the five “leaders” at swinging at the first pitch of at bats in Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Harper, all very near 50 percent.
As a team, the Nats are second (behind the Pirates) in swing percentage (simply, the number of pitches swung at) at 48.3 percent. In contract, the Yankees are actually just the sixth most patient team in the Majors, swinging at 44.0 percent.
The Nats “lead” the Majors as a team in swinging at pitches inside the strike zone (67.8 percent), which kind of belies Davey’s presumed theory. But they’re also third in the bigs in swinging at pitches outside the strike zone at 33.1 percent.
But swinging is good if you’re making good contact, right? Well sure, but… the Nats are dead last in the Major Leagues at making contact at 76.5 percent. It’s no surprise then the Nats are also “first” in the league at swinging strikes at 11.2 percent.
So not to argue with Davey Johnson, because he’s forgotten more about baseball in the past week than I’ve ever known, but it appears from looking at the numbers the Nats are anything but being passive. They swing at more pitches than anyone and make less contact than anyone. Maybe they should try preaching patience instead of aggressiveness.