How to think about Vitters

On the powerhouse Tennessee Smokies, a team with a hitting line of .303/.362/.489 and an .851 OPS, Josh Vitters’ .229/.278/.390 (.668 OPS) sticks out. The playing time granted to Vitters demonstrates the difference between a good prospect and an important prospect. Vitters is very important to the Cubs, a team whose owner (if not the GM) is committed to building a contender from within. The Cubs have a lot of good people at Tennessee and at other minor-league venues, but they simply cannot afford to have whiffed on a #3 overall draft pick. They need Vitters to succeed. The Cubs had to lose 96 games in 2006 to earn that pick–which reminds me that next month it will be four years since they drafted him. This is his fourth full year as a professional. His batting averages in those four years, as he has moved up the ladder to double-A, have decreased steadily: .322, .284, .247 and now .229.

Is there anything in his numbers that would suggest progress and give cause for optimism about Vitters’ future, apart from his still callow age of twenty-one? I would answer yes. It’s a cautious yes, and I would be leaning hard on a number in his hitting stats that has caught people’s attention but is difficult to interpret.

Vitters has only struck out six times this year, in 118 at bats. 6 walks, 6 strikeouts. To put that number in perspective, here is a list of hitters in the National League with the fewest strikeouts in at least 100 at bats. The hitters are ranked according to number of at bats per strikeout. Basically, it’s the number of at bats between strikeouts, so the bigger the number, the better. I’ve added Vitters to this list, even though he’s not a major leaguer, since what would be the point of a ranking of minor leaguers that you don’t know anything about? Vitters, it turns out, strikes out less often than anyone in the NL.

If I emphasize–and perhaps over-emphasize–a low strikeout rate, I would like to be able to show that Vitters is actually swinging the bat, and not just giving himself up to keep his K-rate down. One relevant measure would be the number of extra-base hits compared to overall hits. If Vitters has a high number of XBH’s per hit, then he is probably swinging the bat with authority. Below is the same K-rate table with three new columns appended, hits, extra-base hits and hits divided by XBH’s. This table shows that Placido Polanco, for example, with his very low number of strikeouts, has been primarily a singles hitter this year. So have most of the players on the table, including Pujols.

Vitters has a very good XBH percentage of 41, second on the list to Tulowitzki. That’s XBH as a percentage of hits, not at-bats. Vitters doesn’t have a lot of hits.

What can we say, then, about what Vitters is doing right and what he is doing wrong, and about the likelihood that he will begin to redeem himself as a high draft pick?

The buzz about Vitters has always been that he has an effortless, “perfect” swing which he applies to putting the bat on the ball. He puts everything into play. The K rate has gone down significantly: two seasons ago, he struck out every seven at bats, as opposed to every nineteen-plus this year. Probably he is doing a better job of laying off pitches out of the strike zone. His walks have gone up slightly, but not much. If you think about it, it’s hard to get a walk when you tend to put the first decent pitch in play. To walk you, the pitcher has to throw four straight balls.

I saw a Smokies game recently. It was the Sunday home game where Trey McNutt took a shutout into the seventh inning, before he raised a blister and ran into problems. The bats were cold on that particular day, but I got a good look at the Cubs’ talent-laden AA lineup. Vitters had a home run and a double the next day, which I didn’t get to see. When I was there, he was oh-for-four, a fairly typical day at the plate for him.

One of the things I particularly wanted to watch was how many swings it would take Vitters to go oh-for-four. A very low strikeout rate means that you don’t swing and miss very often. A hitter who doesn’t often swing and miss will probably hit fewer foul balls than other hitters, since there is a continuum between hitting a ball squarely, hitting it foul, tipping it and missing it. (I am leaving out of consideration the singles hitters who learn over time how to foul off pitches on the way to ball four, since Vitters is not that type of hitter.)

Nobody keeps stats for swings-and-misses and foul balls, and if the data exists anywhere, it applies to major leaguers. Just anecdotally, then: on the day I saw him, Vitters swung at four pitches and went oh-for-four. As a matter of fact, in one of his at-bats he grounded into a double play, so overall he used four swings to produce five outs.

If Vitters has lowered his strikeouts by laying off pitches out of the strike zone, his next project should be to learn to swing differently according to the count. He might look for a fastball middle-in when he is ahead in the count, for example, and lay off breaking balls in those counts no matter how fat they are. Today, there is no guesswork in Vitters’ see-the-ball, hit-the-ball approach. There should be. If he guesses wrong, so what? Maybe he takes a called strike or he swings and misses. That takes him one pitch deeper into an at-bat that may ultimately yield ball four.

Consider the effect of an occasional walk on a hitter’s batting average. If you eke out one hit per game, your BA will vary widely according to the number of official at bats you amass. If you are charged with four at bats every game, you’re a .250 hitter. That’s pretty much where Vitters is right now. If you lower your at-bats to three per game, your BA is .333. If you get seven at-bats instead of eight every two games, you’re a respectable .286. It is not unusual for a slugger to coax one walk every two games. In the NL last year, seventeen hitters drew 70 or more walks.

Implementing a guessing strategy, then, would allow Vitters to go deeper into counts and to draw more walks. That would be the payoff when he guessed wrong. When he guesses right–bingo! Over time, Vitters should naturally develop a better understanding of how things work, numbers-wise, for a hitter, and his numbers should trend upward accordingly.

Meanwhile, if baseball decides to change the rules so that a hitter is only allowed one swing per at-bat, Vitters’ .229 average might lead the league!

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