It seems like Josh Willingham has donned the silver Elvis wig more times than any other Nationals player so far this season, thanks to a string of well-timed, game-winning hits. But behind the dingerz! and RBIs, something quite extraordinary has been happening: Hammer is turning into one of the most patient, selective hitters in the majors.
Right now, Willingham is:
- Leading the NL in walks, with 33.
- Second in MLB in percentage of PA that end in a walk, with 19.0% (behind only Chipper Jones)
- 6th in the NL in BB/K (1.22: 33 BB vs 27 K)
- 2nd in the NL (behind Chipper, again) in rate of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone (15.2%)
The usual caveats apply: "early season," "small(ish) sample size," etc. Josh has 174 PA coming into today. The numbers may regress towards his career averages as the season goes on, but they're pretty striking. I haven't heard anything about eye surgery, but has the Hammer changed his approach at the plate? A comparison to career numbers after the jump. (Data courtesy fangraphs.com, baseball-reference.com)
First of all, how do these numbers compare to Josh's career values?
Hammer is striking out about 20% less often than his career rate, taking him from an above-league-average to a below-league-average K rate. That's pretty good for a power hitter. Even more significantly, look at that walk rate! He's walking almost once every 5 PA, which is more than twice league average, and nearly twice his career rate. What's going on?
First of all, let's see what Hammer is getting to hit:
Only 43.7% of pitches to Willingham are in the strike zone ("Zone" in the table), which is less than league average and well below what he's seen in his career. He's also seeing fewer first-pitch strikes ("F-Strike"), and he seems perfectly willing to let them go by, as his 4.16 pitches seen per PA is a career high (and only bested by Adam Dunn among regular hitters in the Nats' lineup). So Josh is certainly getting fewer pitches to hit.
Speaking of "letting 'em go by," let's see what Hammer is (and isn't) swinging at:
"O-Swing" is the percentage of pitchers outside of the strike zone that Willingham swings at. As I mentioned above, he's #2 in the NL at not-swinging-at-balls. He's about half as likely to chase a ball out of the zone as league average, and a good bit less likely that his already-low career average. "Z-Swing" is the percentage of pitches inside the zone that Josh swings at. He's below league- and career-average, here, too. "Swing" is the total fraction of pitches he's swinging at, and he's swinging 20% less often than league average this year, and 10% less often than his career average, no matter what kind of pitch. Also interesting, his rate of swinging strikes (SwStr) is less than three-quarters of career- and league-average. In short, Josh seems to be choosing which pitches to swing at much more carefully so far this season: he won't go out of the zone, and he won't even swing in the zone unless he likes the pitch.
Finally, let's take a look at what happens when Willingham does swing:
First off, he's making contact about 20% more often when swings at pitches outside the zone ("O-Contact" in the table above). He's swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone, but getting more contact on the ones he swings at. Overall, he's getting slightly more contact on pitches in the zone ("Z-Contact") as well as slightly more contact on the pitches he swings at, overall ("Contact"). What happens after contact? Well, he's hitting slightly more line drives ("LD") and more home runs per fly ball ("HR/FB"). Most striking, though, is that his ratio of ground balls to fly balls ("GB/FB") is at a career low, nearly a third lower than his career average. Similarly, his rate of popups ("IF/FB") is at a career high, about half-again above career average.
Overall, what are we seeing? Well, pitchers seem to be unwilling to challenge Willingham--he sees the lowest proportion of strikes of any Nationals hitter. Perhaps the bottom of the order is sufficiently unintimidating that Josh won't see a lot to hit. At any rate, he seems to have responded by become even more selective, and looking for pitches that he can drive--more home runs per fly ball + more fly balls = moar dingerz!