Denard Span cannot point to a particular moment when the light from heaven flashed around him and he was converted to the Church of On-Base Percentage. It didn't happen like that for Span. It probably doesn't happen like that for anybody. "No, there was no moment," Span says. "There wasn't a time when I thought, Oh, this is how you work the count. Oh, this is how you work for a walk. You just pick up things with experience, and then you pick up a few more things. I know my job."
And what's that job?
Span smiles. "Get on base. Make the pitcher throw a lot of pitches. Preferably both."
Span, the leadoff hitter for the Twins, just described in 13 words the foremost offensive strategy of baseball's newest era. There have been many different approaches to offense through the years. John McGraw believed in attacking a defense with speed and the hit-and-run. Casey Stengel liked matching up certain hitters against certain pitchers. Walter Alston favored the bunt. Earl Weaver preferred to wait for the three-run homer. And so on.
These days baseball games are often battles of attrition. The best offensive teams uniformly get a lot of players on base—in 2009 the team that put the most players on won 83% of the time—and also wear down pitchers by working the count and fouling off pitches and digging their way into opposing bullpens. Not surprisingly the team that faced the most pitches in '09 was the world champion Yankees.
Last season the average outing for a major league starter lasted 5 2/3 innings and 95.3 pitches. That means that on most nights teams had to find 10 outs with their bullpens. Against a deep and dangerous lineup like New York's, cobbling together those outs is dangerous business. It may surprise you to learn that in the first five innings the Yankees outscored the opposition by 10 runs, total, over the course of the season. It probably won't surprise you to learn that after the fifth inning they outscored opponents by 152. "Good lineups like the Yankees' just wear you down," says Royals starter Brian Bannister. "There are no breaks. You have to work so hard to get every out.
"You sometimes get the feeling with good lineups that early in games they're not even trying to score runs. It's like they're just trying to wear you down so they can get you later."
If that's baseball strategy in 2010, then the questions are simple: How do you learn to work the count in your favor? How do you get proficient at drawing walks? How do you find that balance between patience and aggressiveness?
The answers, though, aren't simple.
For more years than anyone cares to count, baseball scouts graded players on the five basic tools—hitting, power, speed, defense and arm strength. But today there's an important sixth tool: plate discipline. The trouble is, nobody seems entirely sure where to look for it.
"It's about pitch recognition," says Allard Baird, special assistant to Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein.
"You have to have confidence hitting with two strikes," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says.
"You have to believe what your eyes tell you," Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire says.
"You do whatever you can to survive," Tigers outfielder Johnny Damon says.
Anyone can watch Ichiro Suzuki throw or Chone Figgins run and see that they're gifted. As for plate discipline, well, there isn't even agreement that it is a gift. Many believe plate discipline is something that can be taught, like the wheel play.
The evidence that taking a walk is a learned skill is pretty sketchy. Year after year at spring training you will hear how hackers like Jeff Francoeur or Yuniesky Betancourt plan to take more pitches. But they can't. Taking pitches is just not in their DNA. "Hitters normally improve their plate discipline somewhat over the course of their careers," says Red Sox senior adviser Bill James. "At the same time I wouldn't be wildly optimistic about hitters learning to draw more walks. Walks—unlike anything else in the hitter's record—are a simple measurement of a complex phenomenon."
The phenomenon, as seen just from the sampling of quotes above, involves numerous elements. Consider just one pitch: a slider that at the last instant dives out of the strike zone. To take that one pitch, a hitter has to almost instantaneously:
1) Recognize that it's a slider
2) Determine that it's not hittable
3) Determine that it will be called a ball
4) Have enough faith in his calculations to not swing
5) Have confidence he'll get a better pitch to hit
There are other judgments in addition to these, but the truth is, it's hard enough just to get through the first point. "Wily Mo Pe√±a never saw a slider in his major league career," James says. "He thought they were all fastballs."
Span played football in high school. He thinks this is a big part of his approach. Last year Span had a .392 on-base percentage, third among AL leadoff hitters with at least 300 at bats, behind the Yankees' Derek Jeter and Figgins, then with the Angels and now with the Mariners. It was the highest OBP of Span's career, including his five full years in the minors. How did it happen? Teammates joke that Span "plays angry." He goes into each plate appearance looking to battle on every pitch. "He's relentless," teammate Justin Morneau says.
Span concedes the point. "I think that comes from football," he says. "It's like the defensive back and the wide receiver. Every play, somebody wins. Baseball is a team game, but really it's the hitter against the pitcher. And somebody wins every time out."
It took Span time to focus that energy and aggression into working the count. As a younger player he thought, as most young hitters do, that the best way to win that battle at the plate was to hit the ball 500 feet, or at least for a double in the gap. But over time he realized that the pitcher can be beaten in other ways. Now Span considers any long at bat a win, especially when he's leading off the game. He says that in other situations—say if there's a man in scoring position with two outs—he will get more aggressive. He's aware of the fact that batters throughout the league hit .339 and slugged .558 when they were able to put the first pitch in play. Span hit the first pitch 54 times during the 2009 season and averaged .444 in those situations.
But he also knows that those batting averages are illusions, because they don't count the many foul balls hit on the first pitch—foul balls that give the pitcher a powerful advantage in the count.
So when Span is leading off he has a stringent plan. He almost certainly will not swing at the first pitch. He almost certainly will not swing in hitter's counts such as 2 and 0 or 3 and 1. He almost certainly will do everything he can to foul the ball off if it looks like the pitcher has dazzling stuff.
"When I lead off a game, that at bat doesn't belong to me," he says. "That at bat is for my teammates. I'm trying to get on base for them any way I can. And I'm trying to make the pitcher show his slider or his changeup before he really wants to."
Span's ability to get on base—which helped persuade the Twins to sign him to a five-year, $16.5 million deal last month—does build off his pitch-recognition skills, which he says he always had. And it builds off his determination to stick to his game plan. But perhaps more than anything, it builds off his competitive nature. Last year, when Randy Williams of the White Sox hit him in the head with a pitch, Span's first (conscious) thought was: Well, that will help my on-base percentage.
"If they want to hit me, I'll take it," Span says. "I'll take whatever I can get."
McGwire was a controversial choice to be the Cardinals' hitting coach, not only because of his steroid admission but also because a lot of people wonder what a .263 lifetime hitter can teach others about hitting.
There's no telling just yet how McGwire will do as a hitting coach, but the second issue is ridiculous for two reasons. First, some of the most famous batting instructors—Charlie Lau (lifetime .255) most prominent among them—couldn't hit a lick. Second, McGwire was one of the best ever at working the count. His .394 lifetime on-base percentage ranks higher than that of Honus Wagner, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron or Pete Rose. Not only did he walk a lot (only five players who played in at least 1,600 games walked more per plate appearance), but he also became good at getting himself into favorable hitting counts. But when asked how much count strategy he teaches hitters, he shakes his head.
"I tell hitters all the time that they have to trust their eyes," McGwire says. "That's the key. You have to keep it simple. I never guessed. Never. If the count was 3--1 or 0--2, I tried to treat it the same. I didn't overthink. I didn't say, Oh, he'll try to throw a fastball here, or He's ahead so he'll try to get me to chase. I just looked for the ball out of the pitcher's hand. That's what you have to do as a hitter."
Hall of Famer George Brett concurs. He says the perfect mental state for hitting is when the brain is completely blank. Brett, the vice president of baseball operations for the Royals, often asks hitters what they're thinking about when they're on a hot streak. He gets great joy when they say—as they often do—"I was thinking about nothing."
Span doesn't disagree. "You can't overthink it," he says. "Sure I study the pitchers on video, I know what they throw, I have a game plan. But I'm not in there trying to guess with him. I want him to try to guess with me."
As good as he was in 2009, Span is certain he can improve his on-base percentage even more. Last year, after all, was only his first full season in the majors. He looks around at players who have taken dramatic steps forward, sees that it is something you can get better at and tries to pick up a few tricks. Figgins had shown moderate-to-good plate discipline throughout his career, then improved dramatically last season; he walked 101 times (his high had been 65) and saw more pitches than any other player in baseball. New Red Sox shortstop Marco Scutaro, who had never even walked 60 times in a season, had 90 free passes in '09 while with the Blue Jays. Boston's Kevin Youkilis—the famed Greek God of Walks from the book Moneyball—saw more pitches per plate appearance than any other AL player and turned that into the second-highest on-base percentage in the league.
"I don't know if this is exactly what I dreamed about," Span says. "I mean, on-base percentage and all that. You're growing up, you dream about winning a batting title or hitting 40 home runs. But you know what I did dream about? Being a major league baseball player. And this is how I have to do it."
Span's teammates joke that he plays angry because he's looking to battle on every pitch. "When I lead off a game, that at bat doesn't belong to me," Span says. "That at bat is for my teammates."
Last season Denard Span had the highest OBP of his pro career (.392), in large part because he became one of the most selective hitters in the majors. Overall he swung at only 18.3% of pitches out of the strike zone. (Compare that to the Giants' Bengie Molins, the majors' worst hacker at 43.9%.) Below is a breakdown of how many pitches Span saw in areas in and out of the zone and how often he went after them.
Swing data from STATS LLC
Photograph by CHUCK SOLOMON
NURTURE OVER NATURE As they've matured, Span and Scutaro (opposite) have dramatically increased their walk totals.
MICHAEL DEHOOG/SPORTS IMAGERY/GETTY IMAGES (SCUTARO)
[See caption above]
CHUCK SOLOMON/PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGING
WORTH THE WAIT The selective Figgins ranked 11th in the majors in pitches per plate appearance (4.21).
[See caption above]