A common phrase heard in spring training is that batters are "working on their approach at the plate" or that they are "trying to be more patient at the plate". What does that mean? Which Nats batters were patient in 2009? Who were the free swingers?
A quick and easy way to look at a batter's patience at the plate is see what they do on the first pitch. First, we will look at the one event that a pitcher has total control over - did the ball cross the strike zone. In 2009, major league pitchers threw their first pitch in the strike zone 48.9% of the time. Next, we'll look at the one thing the batter has control over - did he swing or not. In 2009, major league batters swung at the first pitch 26.4% of the time.
Using the league averages, we can plot how the Nats did in 2009. The horizontal dashed line shows the league average 48.9% for the first pitch in the strike zone. The vertical line shows the league average 26.4% swing rate at the first pitch. So, players listed below the line saw fewer first pitches in the strike zone in 2009. Players to the left of the line swung at the first pitch less than the league average.
How did the Nats do? By and large, the better hitters swung at the first pitch less than the league average. As a team, the Nats saw more first pitches thrown in the strike zone than the league average.
Overall, the percentage of appearances where a batter saw a first pitch in the strike zone didn't correlate to the percentage of times where they swung at the first pitch. Josh Willingham, Ryan Zimmerman, and Nyjer Morgan all saw a higher rate of first pitches in the strike zone than the league average, but they all had a lower first pitch swing rate. Adam Kennedy, Adam Dunn and Nick Johnson all saw a lower rate of first pitches in the strike zone - they also had a lower than average first pitch swing rate. (In fact - it looks like Nick Johnson didn't have a pulse on his first pitch. He only swung at 8.7% of his first pitches in 2009.)
The players who had less success at the plate in 2009 tended to have a higher first pitch swing rate than the league average. Veterans like Cristian Guzman and Pudge Rodriguez could especially afford to take a few more pitches in 2010. Mike Morse looks like he played in a different league. 65.5% of the time, he saw a first pitch in the strike zone. He swung at it 41.8% of the time.
Finally, we have Elijah Dukes. 51.9% of his plate appearances began with a pitch in the strike zone - a few points over league average. Unfortunately, Elijah swung at the first pitch 46.9% of the time - almost twice the league average. Based on these numbers, the greatest thing Dukes can do to improve his plate performance in 2010 is to take more pitches at the beginning of his ABs.