Walks are important for a baseball team's offense. For the Colorado Rockies they are probably even more important. In recent years, the Rockies have not been very good in this department, but on the bright side, they've gotten a lot better in 2016. One player who has not aided in that improvement is Gerardo Parra.
Parra became the starting left fielder after signing a three year, $26 million contract this January, and his numbers look pretty good at first glance. A .294 batting average with 47 hits and 14 doubles through 40 games seems great. Parra's dismal plate discipline, however, isn't factored in to those surface numbers, and his approach at the plate is more important when thinking about what he's going to do for the remainder of the season. Parra's complete inability to reach base by way of anything other than a base hit paired with his consistent swings at pitches outside the strike zone have led to an on-base percentage of just .302 and a wRC+ nearly 20 percent worse than league average. Let's take a deeper look at his numbers.
Through his first 162 plate appearances of the season, Parra has somehow managed only two walks. That comes out to a walk rate of a measly 1.2 percent, last in the league among qualified hitters. That, obviously, is bad. If you dig a little bit deeper into those walks, you'll find that it actually gets even worse.
Parra's first walk of the season was on April 14 against the San Francisco Giants. It was intentional. The second walk came on April 26 against the Pittsburgh Pirates. At least the second one wasn't intentional! That's the best that can be said though. The walk came on four pitches at the hands of Arquimedes Caminero, who currently ranks 299th out of 301 pitchers with at least 15 innings pitched with 6.89 walks per nine innings. Those are two of the easiest walks a hitter will ever have, and they're the only ones he has been able to manage in 2016.
The fun doesn't stop there, though. Parra has yet to walk this season in any plate appearance in which he has seen even one strike and, if we remove the intentional walk, his walk rate drops to a seemingly impossible 0.6 percent. He has only worked a 2-0 count 13 times (he has hit .273/.385/.636 in those plate appearances) and has gone to a three ball count only 11 times. When he's been thrown a pitch out of the strike zone, Parra has still swung 43.5 percent of the time. That's the fourth most often among the league's 188 qualified hitters.
However, the lack of plate discipline isn't just about a lack of walks. There's a ripple effect created here that goes beyond what we see on the surface. Look at the difference in results when Parra swings at strikes compared to when he swings at balls:
Parra's swings at pitches in the strike zone:
Parra's swings at pitches outside the strike zone:
(Charts via Baseball Savant)
A few things jump out immediately here. First, and perhaps most obvious, Parra has swung and missed (listed here as "whiffs") more than three times as often at pitches outside the strike zone. It isn't just more contact, though. It's also higher quality contact. We see a jump of more than seven percent in hits, nearly a 10 percent jump in balls put in play, and a jump in average exit velocity from 81.8 mph on pitches outside the strike zone to 89.5 mph on pitches within the strike zone. This is something we probably could have guessed, but it's good to see numbers that show how much better Parra has been when he isn't chasing bad pitches.
We already have plenty of information that tells us why Parra needs to improve his plate discipline, but believe it or not, there's still more we haven't considered.
So far in 2016, Parra is seeing, on average, 3.16 pitches per plate appearance. That is the fewest pitches per plate appearance of any qualified hitter. Seeing more pitches increases the probability of the opposing pitcher making a mistake, makes that opposing pitcher work harder, and gets your opponent into their bullpen more quickly. This, again, is something that bears itself out in the numbers. All five National League playoff teams in 2015 were at or above league average in pitches seen per plate appearance. It is worth noting that the Kansas City Royals actually came in last in this category in the American League and won the World Series anyway, but those guys seem to be playing from a different rule book than everyone else.
We're still relatively early in the season, and while he has never been known as a patient hitter, Parra is currently sitting on career highs in chase rate, swing rate, and soft contact rate. His surface numbers are good so far, but all other indicators suggest Parra's going to crash. Of course, it's possible that we'll see those numbers improve back to his career norms, but it's also possible this is the new normal for him. If that's the case, the next two seasons might see Parra become either an overpaid backup outfielder or a severly underperforming starter.