"Patient" is not something that you would typically use to describe the Texas Rangers of the current era, despite plenty of offensive success. They are a team that swings early and often, and have been for a while.
This year, it is a bit ridiculous. As a team, Texas hitters are swinging at half of all pitches thrown their way. That leads the American League, behind only the Pirates in all of baseball, and is up 3.1% from 2011.
That can't just be dismissed as simple small sample size variation, either. Yeah, it's early in the year, but swing rates tend to stabilize at around 50 plate appearances; a total most of the Rangers have nearly hit already.
The poster child for the approach is Josh Hamilton, swinging at two out of every three pitches he sees, leading anyone with at least 30 plate appearances. Michael Young is not far behind.
Nearly every Ranger every day player is swinging more often -- usually significantly more often -- this year, showing even less patience than they did a season ago, resulting in a 4.9% walk rate that is one of the lowest rates in the league.
With the team averaging just 4.5 runs a game after averaging over five runs a game last year, this is a, bad sign, right?
Maybe not. If you continue looking around at the Fangraphs leaderboards, you'll notice something called to my attention first by Adam Morris: the Rangers don't chase much at all.
Texas is currently swinging at just 26.9% of pitches out of the zone. That's down quite a bit from last season, when that rate would have nearly led the league. This season, it's fifth in the American League, in the company of super patient teams like the Yankees and Red Sox.
So what's up with the huge swing rate? Well, simple. At 72.1%, no team in the American League is swinging at more pitches in the zone. They're still not looking too patient, but at least they're going after the right pitches.
A bit shockingly, they're seeing more pitches in the zone than anyone but Seattle. 51.8% of pitches thrown at the Rangers are in the strikezone. Elvis Andrus, notably, is third among all players with at least 30 PAs at not swinging at pitches out of the zone (12.8%); he may not seem like he's taking as many pitches as he used to, but that seems to be because he's not getting balls. It doesn't seem to make sense, but so far, pitchers are going after the Rangers. Texas is swinging constantly because they're constantly getting pitches to swing at.
Going after everything thrown in the zone is not necessarily the best strategy, since it's not a hittable pitch just because it's a (rule book) strike.
But, for the Rangers, it seems to be working. Offense in general is down so far, with teams scoring 4.16 runs a game. Cleveland and Boston are the only teams significantly ahead of Texas in runs scored so far, with Detroit and Toronto (and the Yankees thanks to their 10th and 11th runs as I type this) slightly in front. In the AL, Texas is charted as being second in line drive rate -- yet still with a significantly lower batting average on balls in play from a year ago -- and third in rate of fly balls resulting in home runs.
Most likely, the Rangers will continue to be aggressive, because that works for them, but opponents will also try to get them to chase more often, or nibble unsuccessfully. As teams throw fewer strikes, Texas will take fewer cuts. Baseball offense will improve, and the Rangers will improve as well.
In the mean time, while low pitch counts for starting pitchers might not be fun, take solace in the fact that the Rangers are swinging away not because they're getting fooled, but because they're seeing a radical number of strikes. And the result has been a functioning offense.