Having a purpose at the plate

Before we begin, let's take a brief show of hands.

When we talk about the Most Patient Hitter in baseball, are we referring to the hitter who most frequently walks?

(Gaggle of confident hands go straight up.)

Fair enough. But looking at it differently, how many think that the most patient hitter is the one who takes the most pitches, either to tire a starter or give teammates a better look at him?

(Several hands go up more slowly.)

All right. Now, which of you think that patience means, whether or not the hitter ends up with a walk, he can wait calmly for his pitch, and then swing confidently?

(A few tentative hands rise above a sea of befuddlement.)

Sure enough, regardless of how much patience has become a catchphrase for modern offensive philosophy, no matter how many books or brouhahas it spawns, there still is little delineation as to what the word actually means, no linchpin from which it can sweep an arc of understanding. We sense who are baseball's Most Patient Hitters, we think we know, but when you discover that even Barry Bonds might not be nearly as patient as people think ... well, it's time to pan back a little.

"Patience means getting your pitch depending on the strategy at the moment," said one American League advance scout, making way too much sense for so early in the conversation. "It might mean getting a walk if you need baserunners. It might mean waiting for a pitch up in the zone that you can drive or low if you're a low-ball hitter. It's very situation- and individual-specific."

Before graduating to nuance, it's easy enough to look at a few statistics to get a broad base of how patience manifests itself. First, these are the hitters who drew the most walks per plate appearance in 2004 (all statistics among batting-title qualifiers, and courtesy of STATS Inc.):

No surprises there. But what let's tweak the definition of patience a bit to seeing the most pitches per plate appearance, whether or not the hitter eventually walks. From now on, we'll look at both the Top 5 and Bottom 5 in each category:

This is where things get interesting. Casey Blake and Jermaine Dye walked only 68 and 49 times last year, respectively, but their at-bats lasted the third- and fourth-longest in the game. Weird.

Even weirder, given that Bonds had a mammoth 232 plate appearances (a.k.a. walks) which lasted at least four pitches, and other at-bats in which he surely saw plenty of balls, how could he not wind up well over 4 on average? Amazingly, Bonds clocks in at 3.93, roughly the middle of the pack. How could that be? Is it possible that Bonds' non-walk times to the plate, which he enjoys several times a week, end earlier than average?

Yep. In his non-walk plate appearances, when the pitcher is presumably somewhere around the plate, Bonds waits just 3.52 pitches before ending them -- less than the major league average of 3.60. Which suggests that Bonds is considerably more eager to make contact than most people realize.

"It's not just that Bonds can tell a ball from a strike," one NL scout said. "He knows that if he sees a strike, it might be the only one. He'll jump on the first pitch."

Speaking of swinging, or in this case not swinging, here are the leaders and trailers in Percentage of Pitches Taken:

Then again, does patience mean taking a ball (avoiding a bad pitch) or taking a strike (to tire the pitcher and/or get a better pitch later in the at-bat)? Certainly, dangerous hitters in general see more balls, and taking them isn't necessarily a sign of pure patience, but discretion. These are the leaders in Percentage of Strikes Called:

These are, at least more so than what we saw earlier, hitters who take pitches for the sake of taking them -- and, on the other side, swing at almost everything in the strike zone. The glaring name here is that of Jason Kendall, who was picked up by (surprise!) Billy Beane's A's this offseason.

"Kendall was a leadoff man, and his M.O. from (manager Lloyd) McClendon and (hitting coach Gerald) Perry was to take the first pitch and more," said the AL scout. "Some guys walk more because they're swing-and-miss guys who get deeper in counts. Kendall is the kind of guy who has no fear of getting to two strikes."

Indeed, Kendall swung at just 2.7 percent of first pitches -- by far the fewest in baseball -- and lasted 4.21 pitches per at-bat, but still walked or struck out just 101 times combined. More so than most reputedly patient hitters, the Abreus and Wilkersons and Dunns who wind up with a lot of whiffs with their walks, Kendall works deep counts before putting the ball in play on his terms.

From all these categories, it's fair to say that beyond Bonds, who is a little difficult to interpret, choosing the most patient hitters in baseball depends on how you define it. Abreu and Wilkerson see the most pitches per plate appearance; then again, they are threats enough to warrant more non-hittable pitches thrown to them. Kendall, Luis Castillo and D'Angelo Jimenez -- who can hit for average but don't slug at all -- appear to be taking the most pitches most willingly.
(As for the hackers, Vladimir Guerrero, A.J. Pierzynski and Johnny Estrada tend to be the least patient. Anyone else somewhat surprised that two of those are catchers?)

So let's leave it at this: Bonds is the Most Patient Hitter when it comes to balls, Kendall when it comes to strikes. Given that Bonds would probably be much more selective on strikes if he saw more of them, he gets our nod as the Most Patient Hitter overall.

No matter where you stand, no matter how hip patience may be today, the concept is actually far older than the modern zealots would have you believe, stretching back much further than even Ted Williams' famous mantra, "Get a good pitch to hit."

It's true that in baseball's earliest days -- and we mean earliest -- taking pitches was rare, even considered unmanly. "It was the unwritten law," 1870s superstar George Wright once said, "that the hitter should do his utmost to connect with the ball." Yet by 1918, long articles were popping up in Baseball Magazine with titles such as, "The Art of Working the Pitcher" and "Does It Pay to Hit the First Ball?" In the latter, primordial sabermetricians counted how often the Cincinnati Reds swung at the first pitch and rejoiced at how they'd hit .425 when doing so, glaringly misinterpreting the results. (Almost all hitters fare far better when swinging at the first pitch -- not because it's the first pitch, but because it's one they've decided they like.)

It wasn't even Williams who first posited the importance of waiting for a good one. Listen to Mickey Cochrane speak from the grave in his fascinating 1939 book, "The Fan's Game":

"Every pitcher has a best pitch. Let him get that out of his system, and unless it is a third strike, take it. Take a strike. Take two strikes to get the ball you want to hit ... Letting strikes go by when they look good is a difficult subject to discuss with anxious players. But the great hitters are the essence of patience and confidence in waiting for the ball they want."

Sixty-six years later, no matter how they define it, organizations are preaching patience to their minor leaguers, baking in the concept before the kiln fires. Promotions are being dictated by walk rates. Hitters learn their strike zones before their hot zones. The A's and Red Sox do this, of course, but so do many other clubs.

"The earlier you get to guys the better," said Chris Antonetti, Cleveland's assistant general manager. "It's the process of commanding the strike zone -- it gets you in hitters' counts and lets other things happen on the field."

Added Mets assistant GM Jim Duquette, "A lot starts with pitch recognition. Taking pitches has a negative connotation -- 'You're taking the bat out of my hand.' No. We're asking you to know the strike zone. When it's in there, hack at it."

The more you talk with baseball people, the more you get the idea that patience is, indeed, really as much about swinging as taking. It's about swinging only at the most purposeful times, whenever those may arrive.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His new book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.