Since 2012, four center fielders are hitting at least .280/.325/.490: Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gomez and Adam Jones. With two home runs last night against the Angels, Jones now has 84 in the past three seasons, tied with Giancarlo Stanton for the most among all outfielders and fifth among all major leaguers.
Jones was justly rewarded with his fourth All-Star selection in 2014, his third consecutive. At 28 years old, Jones has either maintained or improved in each of his seven major league seasons. He is pace for a fifth straight season with at least 600 plate appearances and 149 games played. And he's doing it all without walking: Jones has walked 12 times in 420 plate appearances this year, a career low 2.9 percent walk rate.
Jones owns a 123 OPS+ and is on pace to become the 11th player to qualify for the batting title with at least a 120 OPS+ and a walk rate under three percent. This isn't just a Moneyball thing, either -- only one player, Mickey Rivers of the 1976 Yankees, has done it since 1916. Not since the dead ball era have players produced like this without taking walks.
Jones isn't alone. Matt Adams owns a .323/.338/.527 line with nine walks in 328 plate appearances at first base for the St. Louis Cardinals, and although Jones brings more to the table in position, defense, and health, Adams's 138 OPS+ would be the highest by a player with a walk rate under three percent since Charlie Hickman did it in combination for the 1902 Boston Americans and Cleveland Bronchos.
It has been interesting to see the way these players have been treated by a baseball media more in tune to the value of the walk. These players give us a couple examples of the way discipline is often written about in baseball circles. On June 24th, ESPN's Eric Karabell wrote, "Adams isn't going to be hitting .328 for much longer if he ignores any sense of discipline." In 2011, a Baseball Prospectus annual comment on Jones said "Still only 25 and an exemplary defensive outfielder, he retains a chance at stardom if he can rein in his overeager approach."
The point here lies not in the accuracy of the predictions, but rather the tone of the discussion. Unlike many skills -- power, or particularly speed -- plate discipline is discussed as a choice rather than a learned and developed ability. Note the verbs, "ignored" and "rein in," both of which would be totally out of place next to a scouting tool like power, speed, or arm strength.
Discipline has multiple meanings. In the American sports world, it tends far closer to "the discipline of the strap" or "submissiveness to order and control; habit of obedience" as opposed to the more academic definition, "development of the faculties by instruction and exercise."* The discipline of a baseball coach has always represented military man far more than teacher.
*quoted definitions from Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913 version)
Plate discipline, the baseball term, shouldn't be restricted to simply swinging at strikes and laying off balls. And more importantly, it shouldn't be treated as a decision. In 2009, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick quoted Athletics farm director Keith Lieppman on plate discipline:
"I've been in this job 18 years, and I've gotten phone calls from people in other organizations who say, 'How do you guys teach that selectivity thing?'" Lieppman says. "I tell them, 'Have you got a couple of years?'"
Plate discipline, like contact, power, speed, and the rest of baseball's skills, comes from some combination of disposition to the skill, decision making, focus on improvement and hard work, at the least. But the definition of discipline I think makes the most sense for the skill is this one, also from the Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary: "Discipline aims at the removal of bad habits and the substitution of good ones."
For each player, good and bad habits will vary. Jones and Adams have each been very productive with their swings in 2014. They strike out less often than the league average hitter. They both reach base more often and hit for more power with the contact they make than the average hitter. Plate discipline isn't so much about rigid obedience to a law of swinging at strikes but rather a knowledge that swings are valuable and should be saved for pitches the hitter can handle.
Jones and Adams aren't ideas of discipline by this definition either. But we should recognize, particularly for these hitters who have succeeded without the typical model of plate discipline, that it's not as simple as a choice or an attitude. A rigid law of swinging at strikes and taking balls might not be adaptive enough to deal with talented and deceptive major league pitchers. Patience for patience sake may result in a trade off when hittable pitches are taken for strikes. The 2-0 count gives an advantage because of the walk, of course, but the real advantage of the 2-0 pitch is this pitch Jones saw from Angels starter Matt Shoemaker in the first inning yesterday:
Right down the middle, and crushed for a two-run home run.
Of course, Jones and Adams and hitters like them would be better off if they could lay off a few more pitches out of the strike zone. Treatment of such hitters as ignorant or lazy, however, neither reflects the way hitters learn to play baseball nor respects their agency as people nor the effort they put in to improve.