March 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves
A common thread that has been spun by casual fans and even some journalists over the past couple of years is that Chipper Jones has been an albatross on the Braves, keeping the team from becoming contenders with a crushing salary, injuries and mediocre performance when he is on the field. Conveniently overlooked is that last year, in a down year for him, he was the second best hitter on the team, with a 123 OPS+, meaning he was 23% better offensively than average. The common narrative has been that he is no longer a power hitter, although he led the team in slugging percentage last year and was even second in ISO (Dan Uggla led the team in ISO).
While his injuries and salary have certainly diminished his value to the Braves, they are certainly far from meaning he is a crushing weight on the team. I won’t go into overall value in this post. Here I am going to go into what allows Chipper to still be such an effective hitter, even at his advanced age.
To understand Chipper’s plate approach, let’s first get an idea of where he likes to hit the ball. For that I’m going to use a slugging percentage heat map. (all data in the graphs will be from 2009-Present, written statistics will be the same unless mentioned as otherwise):
As we can see, he really likes the ball thigh high middle in against RHP and mostly anywhere middle in against LHP. He also has a mild hot spot on the outside, which is from him hitting the ball up the middle when pitched that way in pitchers’ counts.
Next, let’s get an overall idea of his plate discipline for all counts:
As we can see, and as should come as no surprise, Chipper has excellent discipline. Against, RHP, he lays off low and in and up and in, even in the strike zone, correctly realizing that taking a strike in those positions in most counts is favorable to the weak contact that swinging at those pitches is likely to produce.
Against LHP we see that he lays off up and away strikes a bit more, and this goes along with what we noticed in his slugging percentage map, which is that against LHP he is mostly an inside ball hitter, power wise. Again, he prefers to take these pitches for a strike as opposed to producing weak contact. These graphs align up very well with what we saw with Chipper’s strengths.
That is one of the primary signs of a truly great hitter, knowing their power areas in the strike zone and waiting for a pitcher to give him one there and laying off pitches that the hitter knows he’s likely to only produce weak contact on.
However, the true beauty in Chipper’s plate approach lies in how he approaches certain count types. In order to avoid small samples, and having a ton of graphs (because chipper is a switch hitter, it doubles the number of graphs) I’m going to lump these into three types: Selective counts (counts where the hitter can be selective), forced counts (counts where taking a called strike would either end the batter’s AB or put him at a substantial disadvantage) and neutral counts (taking a given pitch is neither a substantial advantage or disadvantage). Selective counts are 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 3-1. Forced counts are 0-1, 0-2, 1-1, 1-2 and 2-2. Neutral counts are 2-1 and 3-2.
As we can see in the selective counts Chipper swings at fewer balls, and even lays off more strikes, swinging mostly at pitches in his wheel house. Chipper focuses on middle of the plate against RHP and inside pitches against LHP, again matching his slugging percentage strong areas. In these counts a hitter should not swing unless it is a pitch he knows that he can drive. The effect is even more pronounced when you limit the pitch type to fastballs, however the graphs are not different enough to add here.
In selective counts, Chipper has hit for an astounding .347 BA, .599 slug pct and a .454 wOBA. Keep in mind those numbers are since 2009, those aren’t “prime years Chipper”.
Next, let’s look at the neutral counts v. RHP (I’m not including lefties here because the sample size was too small to lead to an accurate graph):
We can see here that the biggest difference is that he now swings at most pitches in the strike zone and pitches “on the black” or just off the plate outside. Pitches just off the plate outside are called strikes around 60-75% of the time by umpires, and these pitches are too often called strikes in this type of count to take. In a neutral count, you don’t want to swing at bad pitches, but you also don’t want to take a strike you can make contact with, as you are then either struck out (in a 3-2 count) or in a substantially disadvantageous count (2-2). In these counts Chipper slugged .407, with a .247 BA, and a .380 wOBA.
In neutral counts most of Chipper’s value comes not from hitting the ball hard, but fighting off pitchers’ pitches and eventually working walks. These counts are perhaps where the difference between current Chipper and prime years Chipper was at its greatest. Prime years Chipper was able to still be patient, but yet drive the ball in these counts, whereas current Chipper has become a little more defensive out of necessity, as it becomes harder for him to drive pitches he isn’t explicitly waiting for.
Finally, let’s look at Chipper in ‘forced counts’, counts where the pitcher is able to dictate the at bat:
At first, this might seem a little funny. It looks for all the world like Chipper is swinging at fewer pitches in these ‘forced counts’ than he is in the neutral counts above. And this is where how truly amazing Chipper’s plate approach is fully shows. Chipper knows, either instinctually or intellectually, that umpires are less likely to call a strike to him with two strikes. This is for two reasons: 1) Umpires call fewer strikes with two strike counts, as has been documented in the book Scorecasting and 2) This effect is even further exacerbated when the hitter has a reputation for having a good hitting eye. I gave my own reasons for why I think this effect holds up in a blog post last year, found here.
In many cases, it seems like umpires trust Chipper’s hitting eye more than they trust their own. And Chipper leverages these facts to his advantage.
This effect is dramatic when you compare heat maps of the percentage of taken pitches that are called strikes for Chipper in these types of counts to the league average.
The difference is large when you focus around the periphery. Chipper’s reputation essentially means he is able to subtract a few inches off the effective strike zone. This allows him to actually be more selective in these counts, and thus then work his way back into neutral or selective counts, where he is a much better hitter or can walk. In Scorecasting, the authors suggested it might be a good idea if hitters were more selective in these counts, given that umpires are less likely to call a borderline strike, yet it seems that very few hitters take this approach. Chipper does.
Chipper Jones is able to still be a productive offensive player mostly through having perhaps the best plate approach in the game. In counts that allow him to be selective he is able to leverage his strengths and produce outstanding numbers. While his bat is no longer able to be effective in neutral counts or counts that are in the pitcher’s favor, Chipper is able to use his approach to get himself back into counts that work in his favor, or work a walk.
With an approach like Chipper’s I imagine he could be a productive bat for several more years if he was able to DH, however I don’t see that happening as I can’t imagine him leaving the Braves prior to retirement. And while Chipper may no longer have the speed or the pure power he had several years ago, his approach remains a thing of beauty. It’s also why if there’s any way possible, I would absolutely lock Chipper down as a hitting coach as soon as the man retires. I don’t care who we have at the time, Chipper has the job as soon as he wants it.
Next time Chipper strides to the plate, focus on the approach he takes to getting the pitches he wants and the way he works the umpire. It’s a pure thing of beauty.