Patience at the plate: Some have it, some don't
Hitters like Votto, Span wait for good pitches while others are inclined to be less choosy
Growing up, Joey Votto's favorite hitter was Barry Bonds. Votto would watch how the Giants slugger waited for the precise pitch he wanted, then take it deep.
"Obviously I can't relate to that, but I can relate to sitting and waiting for pitches, getting walked," Votto said. "I can relate to trying to get off good swings on pitches I view as pitches I can do damage on."
Votto may not be able to do damage in the same way Bonds could, but when the Reds first baseman gets his pitch, he generally gets the barrel of the bat on it. Until that pitch arrives, he rarely offers.
"It's what I like to do," he said. "It's what I think is the best approach and what I've had success with."
It's an approach that works, but one that few can match. While patience can be an asset, it can't be forced. A player might be able to improve his plate discipline, but entirely revamping it is a different story.
"Everybody can't go up there and see a lot of pitches," Nationals center fielder Denard Span said, "so I think it's something you either have or you don't."
Span ranks among the National League leaders by seeing 4.14 pitches per plate appearance, and he draws walks at a healthy 9.4-percent clip. As Washington's leadoff man, that's an important part of his role.
But not everyone can operate that way, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. One of Span's teammates, shortstop Ian Desmond, entered Sunday with a 2.4-percent walk rate, the sixth-lowest among qualified players.
He ranked 25th by swinging at 52 percent of all pitches and 19th by offering at 37.9 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, according to FanGraphs.com. But Desmond also sits third among Major League shortstops in slugging percentage and fifth in OPS, a year after winning a Silver Slugger Award and making the NL All-Star team.
His might not be the ideal approach, but it works for him.
"You have to be yourself," Desmond said. "The minute you try to be somebody else is when the wheels start falling off and things start going wrong. You've got to be yourself and stick to what got you here and believe in what you're doing. Sometimes it doesn't go good. Sometimes it's ugly, but at times it works great, and hopefully it works great more than it's ugly."
Desmond's approach has held fairly steady throughout his time in the big leagues, which is not unusual.
For qualified players with the lowest walk rates -- between three and five percent -- in the five seasons from 2003-07, 13 also were qualifiers over the next five years, from 2008-12. Of those, nine improved their walk rates, but the average difference was less than one percentage point. In another group of 14 players with well-above-average walk rates -- between 10 and 10.5 percent --- the results were similar.
In Desmond's case, the lack of change doesn't come from a lack of awareness. For as long as he can remember, his mom has told him to be patient, but he never was able to follow her advice.
"I just don't like to stand there and take pitches," Desmond said. "It's just not my thing."
Still, an approach can be sharpened over time. Span considers experience to be "the No.1 teacher" and credits some of his failures in the Minor Leagues for helping him develop into the hitter he is now. Without suffering through some strikeouts back then, he might not be so confident now hitting with two strikes.
Votto's walk rate has risen in each of his big league seasons, from 10 percent in 2008 to 14 percent when he took home NL MVP honors in 2010 to 19.8 percent last year. But he also takes an extremely cerebral approach to hitting. For him, patience is a result, rather than a goal.
"At this point now, I virtually never try to work the count," Votto said. "I try to wait for a pitch to hit, and if it doesn't happen to come in the first three, four, five pitches, then so be it."
As Votto points out, there are many factors at play in determining how often he swings and how long he extends his at-bats. Most important is the quality of the pitches he sees. But it also depends on whether he is able to pull the trigger on the ones he wants and if he can take advantage of them, rather than fouling them off or missing them entirely.
If the right pitch doesn't come, Votto is both willing and able to wait -- and eventually take his base. It's a simple idea that's not always so simple to execute.
"I'm not saying I wouldn't be a better player if I walked 100 times a year and struck out 50," Desmond said. "Of course I'd be better. But I just play the game I know how to play."