Through 12 games, the Phillies have 49 walks and a 10.3 BB%. Both figures lead the NL and are fourth in the majors (behind the A's, Indians, and Twins). For a team that has been increasingly terrible in the patience department over the past two years, this is hugely welcome.
Is it a sign of a change of heart though? Has Ryne Sandberg preached patience and have the players responded? Or is this just a statistical blip that we're noticing because it's the start of the season?
One way to test this out is to look to see if recent Phillies teams have matched this number. The team's patience took a turn for the worse in 2012 and 2013, when it finished 9th and 12th, respectively, in the NL in OBP and 14th and 15th (dead last without the Astros!) in BB%.
If the Phillies of 2014 are better at taking walks than the team has been over the past two years, then we wouldn't expect to find a stretch of 12 games with 49 walks in 2012 or 2013. On the other hand, if we do find a similar streak (or multiple similar streaks) in those two years, then it's less likely that the start of the season in 2014 is, by itself, a sign of a big change. After all, if the team can put up horrible overall patience numbers while still having a great 12 game stretch, then the 12 game stretch might just be the natural tail of the bell curve.
So what do we find looking at 2012 and 2013? Unfortunately, we find that a 12 game stretch like the one the Phillies have started the season with this year is not completely anomalous.
They've had one other stretch that was clearly better than this one. In September 2012, the Phillies walked 54 times from the 7th to the 19th. (They also had 49 or more for the two games before that and the two games after, though 54 was the high.)
They also came very close to this current streak in July 2012. From the 14th to the 27th, the Phillies walked 48 times, just one short of the current 49.
How about in 2013? There was nothing around or better than 49 all year. But, they did come somewhat close a few times. Under Charlie Manuel, the closest they got was 43 from May 27 to June 7. After Sandberg took over, they got even closer, taking 45 walks from August 23 to September 3 and then again from September 7 to September 20.
In other words, it's very possible to be a terrible team with respect to patience at the plate and approach or even better the Phillies' current 49 walks over 12 games. They bested that number in 2012 and came close several times in 2013, when they were an even worse team with respect to walks.
This analysis by no means proves that the Phillies are not an improved team this year with respect to patience at the plate. That's entirely possible, as the 49 walks may very well be an early indicator of a change in approach.
However, what this exercise shows is that it's too soon to tell because even bad teams, like the 2012 and 2013 Phillies, can snap off streaks like this one.