Patience pays for Scutaro
How a discerning eye at the plate gave the Red Sox shortstop his breakout season
Marco Scutaro is a patient man.
In 2001, Scutaro was a 25-year-old second baseman who had never sniffed the major leagues.
He'd put together a solid year for the Indianapolis Indians, a Brewers affiliate, hitting .295 with 11 home runs. It was his third straight productive season in Triple-A. So on Sept. 1, with rosters expanding, it sure seemed reasonable that he'd finally get the call he'd been waiting for.
But Scutaro was waved into manager Wendell Kim's office only to get bad news. He wouldn't be joining the Brewers.
"What can I do?" Scutaro mumbled as he fiddled with his batting gloves dejectedly.
This scene is documented near the end of Bart Stephens' film "A Player To Be Named Later," which followed that Brewers farm team in 2001. Stephens chronicled the season from the perspective of four players, including Scutaro.
What could Scutaro do? He led the team in runs, hits, batting average and on-base percentage. But Elvis Pena, and his .240 batting average, got the call-up thanks to the 40-man roster squeeze.
With more than 3,000 minor league plate appearances under his belt, Scutaro had to be wondering whether his patience would ever be rewarded.
That offseason, the Mets claimed Scutaro off waivers, and he finally made his major league debut in July 2002 at age 26. Two years later, the A's gave him a shot to be a regular. Ironically, just as he got his chance, Scutaro's patience abandoned him.
In 2004, he walked only 16 times in 477 plate appearances. Not exactly what A's general manager Billy Beane was looking for. By 2005, he was back in a utility role, in which he essentially stayed until last season.
So how did a 33-year-old utility player put together a season worthy of a $12.5 million contract? It comes back to patience.
His 2004 season aside, Scutaro always has been a patient hitter. From 2005 to 2008, he averaged one walk per 10.2 plate appearances, third-best among American League middle infielders. But last season, he took his plate discipline to another level.
So what was the difference? For the first time since 2004 -- and just the second time in his career -- Scutaro entered a season secure in his position as an everyday player.
That job security allowed him to be a more patient hitter. He had 22 walks in April alone, fourth-most in Blue Jays history for the month.
Bat on the shoulder
Highest percentage of pitches taken in 2009 among American League hitters:
|Bobby Abreu, Angels||67.5|
|Jamey Carroll, Indians||66.2|
|Marco Scutaro, Blue Jays||65.2|
|Nick Swisher, Yankees||64.3|
|Joe Mauer, Twins||63.9|
On the season, he averaged one walk per 7.6 plate appearances, 10th in the American League and one spot ahead of Kevin Youkilis. His .379 on-base percentage was fourth-best among AL middle infielders. Although Scutaro set career highs in most power categories, those were a reflection of more plate appearances. It was his improved plate discipline that set the season apart.
Scutaro's patience with his career finally led to a starting gig. But it was his patience at the plate that allowed him to cash in with the Red Sox.
If you think J.D. Drew is almost patient to a fault, wait until you see Scutaro.
Last season, Scutaro didn't swing at 65.2 percent of the pitches he saw (up from 58.7 percent in 2008). In the AL, only Bobby Abreu and Jamey Carroll were more willing to leave the bat on their shoulders.
The biggest difference was on the first pitch. In 2009, Scutaro swung at the first pitch only 18.4 percent of the time, compared with 29.6 percent the year before and 28.8 percent in 2007. His patience was frequently rewarded, as he hit just .220 on the first pitch and .289 on all subsequent pitches.
Making a connection
Lowest swing-and-miss percentage among American League hitters in 2009:
|Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox||7.4|
|Placido Polanco, Tigers||7.5|
|Marco Scutaro, Blue Jays||7.7|
|Scott Podsednik, White Sox||9.2|
|Robinson Cano, Yankees||10.1|
Scutaro averaged 4.06 pitches per plate appearance, up from 3.64 in 2008. His 2009 rate ranked 13th in the AL, and only six players saw more pitches. In this regard, he will fit in quite nicely on the Red Sox, who finished third in the majors in that category. With his addition, Boston has five of the AL's top 15 players in pitches per plate appearance, including the league leader in Youkilis.
Of course, no player could be successful just by not swinging. Plate discipline means nothing if you can't hit strikes. That's what made Scutaro so special last season.
When Scutaro does decide to swing, he almost always makes contact. Last season, Scutaro had a 7.7 swing-and-miss percentage, which ranked third in the AL behind only Dustin Pedroia and Placido Polanco.
His ability to make contact was key to extending at-bats. It also helps explain how Scutaro led the AL with a .366 on-base percentage with two strikes. The league average is just .271 in those situations.
With two strikes
Highest on-base percentage with two strikes among American League hitters in 2009:
|Marco Scutaro, Blue Jays||.366|
|Jason Bartlett, Rays||.358|
|Scott Rolen, Blue Jays||.355|
|Derek Jeter, Yankees||.342|
|Magglio Ordonez, Tigers||.338|
Along those same lines, 53.2 percent of Scutaro's swings put the ball in play. That put him fourth in the AL. Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury ranked second and sixth, respectively.
Indeed, the Red Sox are counting on Scutaro to be a lot more than just a defensive whiz. He promises to be a true table setter at the bottom of the order.
Like Scutaro, Red Sox fans who endured five seasons of uncertainty at shortstop may be rewarded for their patience.
Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.
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