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Should the Rockies become Blake Street Bullies? Exploring aggressiveness in the 2013 Rockies Lineup

The Rockies are bringing an attitude of aggressiveness to their offense at Coors Field this year. Will this spell success for dominating at home, or is it folly for a young lineup?

Rich Pilling

Walt Weiss and Dante Bichette are rolling out a new persona for the 2013 Rockies: the "Blake Street Bullies." The philosophy behind it is simple: win more ball games at home in order to improve your team's ability to contend. Win more ball games at home by bringing the fireworks back to Coors Field, by instilling fear and uncertainty into visiting teams, and by becoming an aggressive, formidable offensive machine- at the plate and on the base paths.

My first reaction is that this is total folly - even as preseason rhetoric, this could set the team up for failure. The idea that the solution to winning games at Coors is to be aggressive just does not sit right with me, mostly because of the youth and relative inexperience of our lineup.

When I think of an aggressive plate approach, I think of Vlad Guerrero's golf swings to smack balls in the dirt, or of the Pablo Sandovals of baseball who swing at absolutely everything. While an aggressive approach has worked out for these two guys, it doesn't seem like a great tactic for a young, developing team. I had a pretty bleak vision of lots of strikeouts and the OBP of our players taking a collective nosedive. In order to talk myself down from this stance, I took a closer look at what this bold, assertive vision could mean for this team.

So what, exactly does aggressiveness at the plate look like? Can it be defined or quantified? This piece from two years ago explored this question, and came up with a model for quantifying aggressiveness. There are four important concepts that I took away from this:

1. Defining aggressiveness by what it is:

Aggressiveness: The rate at which a player swings at pitches out of the strike zone.

2. Defining aggressiveness by what it is not:

Passiveness: The rate at which a player takes pitches that are in the strike zone.

3. These values are independent of actual contact rates.

4. The article loosely characterizes hitters as belonging to one of four categories: Most Passive, Most Aggressive, Most Passive and Aggressive, and Least Passive and Aggressive.

Based on this piece's findings, one argument for a more aggressive plate approach is that the list of Most Passive players in 2011 are far from dominant hitters- our own Jonathan Herrera makes an appearance on that short list- and quality hitters are indeed more numerous in the Most Aggressive category.

One main conclusion of this piece is that, while there were quality players in each list, the best hitters of that year lay in the "Least Passive and Aggressive" category. This group has the highest tendency to swing at pitches in the strike zone, and not swing at pitches outside of the strike zone. As a whole, the least successful players fell into "Most Passive and Aggressive"- that is, they were the most likely to swing at balls outside of the zone but take strikes inside of the zone.

That seems really obvious, right? One mark of a good hitter is pitch recognition- in other words, the ability to recognize pitch location and make that microsecond decision on whether to swing or not. An aggressive approach, walking up the the plate thinking "swing the bat," is not necessarily going to teach pitch recognition or improve a hitter's ability in that regard.

Using Pitch F/x data found here, and Peterson's equations provided in his piece, Here is a breakdown of some players in our 2012 lineup who are likely to make an impact in 2013:

Aggressiveness Passiveness Passiveness + Aggressiveness
Carlos Gonzalez 17.78% 15.41% 33.19%
Chris Nelson 13.83% 16.77% 30.6%
Dexter Fowler 12.14% 16.17% 28.31%
Eric Young 12.48% 18.04% 30.52%
Jonathan Herrera 13.7% 21.93% 35.63%
Jordan Pacheco 14.82% 20.14% 34.96%
Josh Rutledge 16.94% 17.04% 33.98%
Michael Cuddyer 17.88% 20.48% 38.36%
Todd Helton 10.2% 22.69% 32.89%
Troy Tulowitzki 11.2% 22% 33.2%
Tyler Colvin 20.78% 15.44% 36.22%
Wilin Rosario 17.19% 16.39% 33.58%

Below are a few of my observations, thoughts, and conclusions that I reached from looking at our 2012 lineup and the overall MLB picture from 2011.

  • In what was offensively his strongest year in the majors, Dexter Fowler is by far the leader in the least aggressive and least passive category. An aggressive approach is only a part of pitch recognition, which in turn is only part of what marks Fowler's strength as a hitter, but I doubt that assuming a more aggressive, dominating approach will help him offensively.
  • Michael Cuddyer. Despite belonging to the relatively inauspicious category "Most Aggressive and Passive" in both the 2011 and 2012, he stood out as a strong hitter in 2011, and was right around league average in 2012. There is little correlation between aggressiveness (as defined here) and offensive production.
  • Troy Tulowitzki only appeared in 47 games, and saw 732 games in 2012. His overall numbers from 2008-2012 aren't that much different: A = 13.43, P = 21.29, and A + P = 34.72.

Overall, I get the strong impression that assuming an aggressive approach is not actually a key to improving offensively at Coors, or winning more games at home. It seems like the effects of an aggressive approach on improving offensive production are nonexistent at best.

What do you think? Could the Rockies benefit from a more aggressive approach at the plate, or is the management diverting time and attention away from improving pitch recognition?