The phrase used to be, and arguably still remains, that if you were a baseball player in the Dominican Republic, you had to hack (or swing and hit) your way off the island in order to make it with a Major League team. Such a phrase seemingly came from scouts, coaches, and general managers but was also manifest through the free swinging ways of many of the players who arrived from the Dominican Republic.
Vladimir Guerrero is often pointed as a reference point when such a phrase comes up, whether it be in an interview or a general comment. What’s interesting is that Guerrero has shown an ability to work on his plate discipline. Here are his plate appearances per walk from 1998 when he had 677 PA with Montreal through 2003 before he went to Anaheim.
1998: 16 PA per BB (677 to 42)
1999: 12 PA per BB (674 to 55)
2000: 11 PA per BB (641 to 58)
2001: 11 PA per BB (671 to 60)
2002: 8 PA per BB (709 to 84)
2003: 7 PA per BB (467 to 63)
In a period of 6 seasons Guerrero managed to improve his patience at the plate from 1 walk every 16 plate appearances to peaking in 2003 at 7 plate appearances for every walk. Fangraphs shows that in 2002 Guerrero swung at 32.6% of pitches outside the strike zone and swung at 34.8% of pitches outside in 2003. That number dropped further in 2004 to 29.9% and 2005 to 32.2% before suddenly jumping up to 40% and 45% where he’s often been through the present.
Miguel Tejada is a more prominent example of the term. He entered the majors for good in 1998 and proceeded to walk 28 times in 407 PA (6.9%). He then improved his ability to draw a walk in 1999 (8.5%) and peaked in 2000 at 9.7% with 66 walks. Rather than continuing his climb, which saw his On Base Percentage rise from .298 to .349 in just 2 seasons, he reverted and seemingly has regressed in his career. Now he relies on a high batting average to maintain a solid On Base number while drawing the occasional walk.
Even in recent years that trend has seemingly continued with players such as Fernando Martinez who has walked 80 times in 1204 plate appearances in the minor leagues (6.6%) and Wilkin Ramirez who has 171 walks in 2497 plate appearances (6.8%) in minor league play.
Other pro players such as Adrian Beltre with 478 walks in 6877 career plate appearances (7.0%) and Angel Berroa with 117 walks in 2807 career plate appearances (4.2%) have seriously struggled with maintaining enough plate discipline to be selective pitch wise and draw walks when the opportunity arises.
This is not to say that players coming over from the Dominican Republic can’t develop the plate discipline and eye to succeed. Players such as Luis Castillo with 761 walks in 7172 plate appearances (10.6%) with a career .369 OBP have shown that Dominicans can carve out very successful careers. He’s had 7 seasons drawing over 60 walks and has parlayed that into what will be his 15th season in the Majors. David Ortiz showed promise from 2000 through 2002 with a walk rate of 10.8% before blossoming as a full time player with the Boston Red Sox and going 3 straight years with over 100 walks.
Given the rise of importance related to the On Base Percentage statistics within Major League Baseball front offices, it remains to be seen whether that will eventually carry over to Dominican Republicans and their ability to transition from free swinging to patience to get off the island. Jerry Crasnick of ESPN offers up an interesting tidbit at the end of an article related to plate discipline focusing on the Oakland Athletics Latin-American academy.