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Monday, August 5, 2013
Updated: August 8, 2:12 PM ET
Impatience is a virtue

By Doug Mittler
ESPN The Magazine

Carlos Beltran
Carlos Beltran is a key guy in the Cardinals' league-leading lineup.

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ONE OF MONEYBALL'S central tenets -- espoused in the book, in the film and on MLB diamonds for the past 10 years -- demands that batters take plenty of pitches, tire out the starter and get deep into the bullpen. A good hitter is a patient one, the thinking goes -- thinking that led to World Series championships for the Red Sox in 2007 (when Boston ranked first in pitches per plate appearance, or PPA) and the Yankees in 2009 (when New York ranked fifth).

But could that thinking have run its course?

The easy answer is no: The average major leaguer has eyed 3.84 pitches each trip to the dish in 2013,* the highest of any year since 1988, the first full season numbers were available. But there is a secondary trend, running the other way, and some of the most successful teams in baseball are leading it. They are swinging free and loving the result.

The new value of impatience is not simple to detect. After all, some very patient teams are still doing well -- the Red Sox and A's are first and fourth in PPA. And some teams that swing freely, like the Marlins, Giants and Brewers, are terrible. But smart clubs now appreciate that impatience can be its own virtue. In the past three seasons, all six World Series teams and 11 of the 26 clubs that made the playoffs (including all four LCS teams in 2011) ranked in the bottom third of PPA. And arguably the best-hitting contenders this season, the Orioles and Cardinals, rank 22nd and 27th in PPA.

What changed? In a word, strikes. Pitchers are dominating baseball by throwing more of them. Not only are K's near an all-time high, but walks per nine innings are down to 3.0, the lowest figure since 1968 -- when pitchers were so good that the mound had to be lowered. That leaves the strikeout-to-walk ratio at 2.52, the highest in the modern era. And first-pitch-strike percentage, at 60.3 percent, is on pace to rise for a fourth straight season. In a league of nasty strike throwers, a high PPA can just as easily indicate a team constantly behind in the count.

"I believe some teams have taught patience to their detriment, misunderstanding what the term 'patience' means," says ESPN analyst Nomar Garciaparra, a career .313 hitter whose 3.22 PPA over 14 seasons was well-below the MLB average. "Patience isn't taking pitches. It's swinging at strikes."

Says Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, whose team ranks third in MLB in runs, hits and OPS: "We go up there 1 to 9 in the order looking for a pitch to drive. If it's the first pitch, we hack at it."

That's certainly what MVP candidate Yadier Molina is doing. Back in 2010 he swung at 69.5 percent of pitches in the strike zone, had a relatively impatient PPA of 3.64 and hit .262. Now his increasingly assassin-like approach has him swinging at 75.9 percent of pitches in the zone and facing just 3.43 pitches per at-bat, the fewest of anyone in the league. Yet his .331 average before he went on the 15-day DL on July 31 has led the most productive offense of free swingers in the NL: first in runs, team BA and OBP, and their average with runners in scoring position is .339, almost 50 points better than any other team in the majors. And all this while ranking 27th in PPA.

"We don't try to make any guy a robot and be exactly what we think they should be," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny says.

Is it a coincidence, then, that all the Cardinals seem to do is win?

* All stats through July 29.

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