Denard Span cannot point to a particular moment when the light from heaven flashed around him and he was converted to the Church of On-Base Percentage. It didn't happen like that for Span. It probably doesn't happen like that for anybody. "No, there was no moment," Span says. "There wasn't a time when I thought, Oh, this is how you work the count. Oh, this is how you work for a walk. You just pick up things with experience, and then you pick up a few more things. I know my job."
And what's that job?
Span smiles. "Get on base. Make the pitcher throw a lot of pitches. Preferably both."
Span, the leadoff hitter for the Twins, just described in 13 words the foremost offensive strategy of baseball's newest era. There have been many different approaches to offense through the years. John McGraw believed in attacking a defense with speed and the hit-and-run. Casey Stengel liked matching up certain hitters against certain pitchers. Walter Alston favored the bunt. Earl Weaver preferred to wait for the three-run homer. And so on.
These days baseball games are often battles of attrition. The best offensive teams uniformly get a lot of players on base—in 2009 the team that put the most players on won 83% of the time—and also wear down pitchers by working the count and fouling off pitches and digging their way into opposing bullpens. Not surprisingly the team that faced the most pitches in '09 was the world champion Yankees.
Last season the average outing for a major league starter lasted 5 2/3 innings and 95.3 pitches. That means that on most nights teams had to find 10 outs with their bullpens. Against a deep and dangerous lineup like New York's, cobbling together those outs is dangerous business. It may surprise you to learn that in the first five innings the Yankees outscored the opposition by 10 runs, total, over the course of the season. It probably won't surprise you to learn that after the fifth inning they outscored opponents by 152. "Good lineups like the Yankees' just wear you down," says Royals starter Brian Bannister. "There are no breaks. You have to work so hard to get every out.
"You sometimes get the feeling with good lineups that early in games they're not even trying to score runs. It's like they're just trying to wear you down so they can get you later."
If that's baseball strategy in 2010, then the questions are simple: How do you learn to work the count in your favor? How do you get proficient at drawing walks? How do you find that balance between patience and aggressiveness?
The answers, though, aren't simple.
For more years than anyone cares to count, baseball scouts graded players on the five basic tools—hitting, power, speed, defense and arm strength. But today there's an important sixth tool: plate discipline. The trouble is, nobody seems entirely sure where to look for it.