Is patience a virtue?

Is patience a virtue?

The art of hitting goes beyond base hits and walks. It goes beyond strikeouts and groundouts, too.

All the pitches leading up to the inevitable conclusion of an at-bat count, too.

The slider just off the plate taken for a ball, the pitcher's best pitch perfectly executed but getting slapped foul into the stands, the next pitch catching a little more of the plate -- they all add up.

That's where the patience factor comes in, and those hitters who demonstrate an ability to keep an at-bat going can make an impact on a game even if they don't wind up getting a hit. Whether it's extending a starter's pitch count or wearing him down so the next guy gets something good to hit, the patient and/or pesky hitter makes a difference.

The best way to quantify that ability is pitches per plate appearance, or P/PA. It's a number that hasn't made it into the baseball lexicon quite like OPS or some of the other sabermetrics standards, but one that's drawing notice from baseball decision-makers.

"It could be the sign of a tough out, or it could be the sign of a good hitter -- sometimes it's both," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said.

Of course, not everyone needs patience to be a top-notch hitter (see: Guerrero, Vladimir), but players who see a lot of pitches also tend to be good offensive players.

When the Phillies' Bobby Abreu, Home Run Derby champ and one of the game's top overall batsmen, leads the world with 4.41 P/PA, and the heart of the Red Sox order isn't all that far behind, it's a pretty good indication that a little patience certainly can be a good thing.

When the Nationals' Cristian Guzman has spent most of the season below the .200 waterline and sees just 3.14 pitches per plate appearance, second-fewest in the Majors, perhaps that's an indication that a little dose of patience might help.

For his part, Abreu has some simple advice for those who want to be patient hitters.

"Don't swing if it's not your pitch," he says.

It's a little easier said than done, but there are certainly a lot of players able to find a way to wait it out.

From Epstein's perspective, if you have enough of those guys in your lineup, who happen to hit like 3-4-5 guys Manny Ramirez (19th in MLB, 4.04 P/PA) David Ortiz (23rd, 4.02) and Jason Varitek (15th, 4.14), you've got something special.

"It's probably even more significant as a team concept," Epstein said.

At 3.85 P/PA as a club heading into this week, the Red Sox are just a tick behind the A's (3.86) in the patience category. After that, it's the Reds (3.84), Phillies (3.82) and Brewers (3.82) rounding out the top five.

"The important part is to not give up at-bats," Varitek said. "We've got a long lineup here, and longer at-bats from everybody makes it tough on the other team."

Ultimately, racking up a lot of good approaches takes its toll.

"As a catcher, I know it wears on pitchers," Varitek said.

It all adds up, and the more patient the lineup, the quicker the pitches accumulate.

And it all begins with the pitches that don't wind up in the box score as hits, walks or outs.

With that in mind, here's a look at the most patient of baseball's hitters and the least patient, with numbers updated through Sunday's games and including only qualifiers for the batting title:

The Top 10
1. Bobby Abreu, Phillies, 4.41
2. David Dellucci, Rangers, 4.31
3. Adam Dunn, Reds, 4.30
4. Jim Edmonds, Cardinals, 4.27
5. Casey Blake, Indians, 4.26
6. Pat Burrell, Phillies, 4.21
7. Brad Wilkerson, Nationals, 4.20
8. Jason Giambi, Yankees, 4.18
9. Paul Konerko, White Sox, 4.18
10. Bill Hall, Brewers, 4.17

The conversation pretty much begins and ends with Abreu, the quintessential patient hitter with pop. He has a good eye, a knack for waiting out his pitch and the talent to do something with it once he gets it.

"That's what I've done my whole career," Abreu said. "I'm not afraid to hit with two strikes. I feel comfortable at the plate, and don't try to rush myself."

For Abreu, a big part of it is seeing a pitcher's stuff early on so he can use it against him later. And if it makes the pitcher work more, all the better.

"Sometimes you see what kind of pitches they have and you can see the rotation," Abreu said. "How is the fastball? How is the breaking ball? Later in the game, you have a better chance if you see that pitch again. You can see what kind of pitch he's going to use most in the game."

From Varitek's point of view, it's really all about having a plan. The goal isn't just to roll up the opposition's pitch count, but to take a good approach into each plate appearance.

"I go into some at-bats trying to extend, but other times I don't -- it has to change according to the game," Varitek said. "There's times when a quick at-bat's not a such bad thing. If you line out on the first pitch, you tip your cap. You did everything you're supposed to do.

"It's going up without a plan and popping out on a bad pitch that hurts you. That's what you try to eliminate. You have to have a plan. To me, as much as anything it's about not being afraid to hit with two strikes or being down in the count."

The Bottom 10
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees, 3.01
2. Cristian Guzman, Nationals, 3.14
3. Garret Anderson, Angels, 3.28
4. Vladimir Guerrero, Angels, 3.29
5. Neifi Perez, Cubs, 3.31
6. Carl Crawford, Devil Rays, 3.31
7. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies, 3.32
8. Shea Hillenbrand, Blue Jays, 3.34
9. Jose Guillen, Nationals, 3.35
10. Vernon Wells, Blue Jays, 3.36

The bottom of the patience barrel certainly isn't a bunch of guys who can't hit. There are seven All-Stars in the mix, a defending MVP in Guerrero and the Yankees haven't minded Cano swinging early in the count while putting up numbers that have him being mentioned for AL Rookie of the Year.

The one guy on that list who's been struggling the most this year is Guzman, a 2001 All-Star with the Twins who is hitting .195 for the Nationals. His woes at the plate got so bad in July that Nationals hitting coach Tom McCraw asked Guzman to just focus on the fastball until he had two strikes on him.

"That way his average could start climbing as he gets more confidence and gets more productive," McCraw said. "But that's been a tough deal so far."

Don't look for anyone to offer that advice to Guerrero. Long known for his ability to turn around just about any pitch -- his line drive that stuck in the wall at Montreal's Olympic Stadium on a pitch that bounced is the stuff of legend -- Guerrero is more than just a free swinger.

"Vlad swings at pitches he can handle," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He isn't just up there blindly hacking."

Guerrero is the exception to the free-swinging rule.

"He can hit anything," Varitek said.

So, in essence, Guerrero can handle just about anything, so swinging at just about anything makes sense for him. Your Guzmans of the world, not so much.

Among all the other numbers that have become such a part of baseball evaluation, the P/PA doesn't rack up with good, old runs scored or the vaunted OPS. But it's a number that can tell you about how a hitter approaches his job, and if a player's slumping, it might tell you why.

Just put it in the sabermetrics toolbox with the rest of them.

"It's never been a primary factor, more of a complementary one," Epstein said. "There's obviously more that goes into what a player can do, but it's something that can help us formulate an opinion about a guy and what we think of him offensively."

John Schlegel is a reporter for reporters Bill Ladson and Ken Mandel contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.