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Tabata Taking His Walks

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Once again, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ offense is barely registering a pulse. The Bucs rank second-to-last in the National League in runs scored in 2011 after bringing up the rear in 2010. The left side of the infield is the culprit:

Pedro Alvarez is still searching for his power stroke and Ronny Cedeno’s slack bat has given failed Angels prospect Brandon Wood a chance at redemption.

Don’t blame Jose Tabata for Pittsburgh’s offensive woes, though. Entering play Monday, the Bucs’ left fielder is batting .284, getting on base at a .379 clip and slugging .457. The 22-year-old has raised his on-base percentage by 33 points compared to last season.

Tabata has boosted his OBP by laying off junk pitches tossed wide of the plate or in the dirt. According to Fangraphs.com, Tabata swung at 31.9 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone in 2010 (the major league average is 28 to 29 percent). In 2011, he has chased just 17.9 percent of off-the-plate pitches.

Tabata’s 2011 outside swing percentage is ninth-lowest among qualified major league batters (teammate Andrew McCutchen has the sixth lowest O-Swing in the bigs, by the way). And, while we’re still in April, Tabata has taken enough trips to the plate for the difference to matter. Changes in a player’s swing rate become reliable after roughly 50 plate appearances, Fangraphs writer Steve Slowinski said. Tabata has 96 plate appearances this season.

“Considering the sample size, I'd feel confident saying it's a conscious change in his approach,” Slowinski said. “My guess is that'll hold up over time, at least to some extent.”

With improved plate discipline, Tabata’s walk rate has climbed from 6.3 percent last year to 12.5 percent in 2011. On average, MLB hitters draw ball four in 8.5 percent of their plate appearances.

Venturing out of the strike zone less often has allowed Tabata to enjoy more hitter’s counts this season. Baseball-Reference.com shows that in 2010, the righty batter got ahead in the count against pitchers in 32.9 percent of his plate appearances (the NL average is slightly less than 35 percent). This season, Tabata has pulled ahead in the count in 38.5 percent of his plate appearances.

Conversely, the percentage of plate appearances in which he has fallen behind the pitcher has dropped. Tabata got behind in the count in 34 percent of his plate appearances in 2010, but just 30.2 percent in 2011 (32 percent NL average).

How much do those changes matter? Consider that in hitter’s counts, NL players have a collective .300 batting average, .447 OBP and a .490 slugging percentage this year. In pitcher’s counts, they’re batting .201 with a .207 OBP and a .296 slugging percentage.

Tabata’s power output has increased this year, too. His Isolated Power, a measure of extra-base prowess that subtracts slugging percentage from batting average, has improved from .101 to .173. While taking more swings in hitter’s counts will undoubtedly help Tabata, it’s still far too early to say that he has turned into more of a slugger: changes in ISO don’t become reliable until around the 550 plate appearance mark.

Along with McCutchen, Alvarez and Neil Walker, Jose Tabata is a key piece of the Pirates’ present and future. If he keeps wearing pitchers out and working himself into favorable counts, Tabata should provide a spark at the top of the lineup for years to come.

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