The Death of the Pure Contact Hitter in Baseball

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The Death of the Pure Contact Hitter in Baseball
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Major League Baseball hasn't found the next Tony Gwynn yet, and it's possible it never will.

There's a certain type of hitter that you just don't see all that much in Major League Baseball anymore. 

Remember pure contact hitters? You know, guys like Rod Carew, Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn?

These guys were all batting-average merchants in their heyday, and their approach was simple. They were just looking to make contact, even if it meant settling for bloopers or seeing-eye singles up the middle. So long as they didn't strike out, it was all good.

All-contact, little-power hitters like these guys tended to populate the top of the batting-average leaderboards back in the day. But over the years, they've all but vanished from the top of the batting-average leaderboards and have been replaced by an entirely different breed of hitter.

And as we'll ultimately find out, that's not a bad thing.

First, let's step into the TARDIS for a moment and go back to the year 1980. Per FanGraphs, the hitters with the six best batting averages in the league all posted strikeout rates (K%) under 10 percent. Nine of the top 11 hitters overall (Gary Templeton and Al Oliver both hit .319) posted a K% under 10.

Gray Mortimore/Getty Images
George Brett hit .390 with 24 homers in 1980, winning the AL MVP.

What's more, only two of those 11 hitters—George Brett and Cecil Cooper—hit as many as 20 home runs. Miguel Dilone hit .341 with zero homers, and Carew, Templeton and Willie Wilson all fell short of five homers.

Fairly typical stuff for the era. In 1981, seven of the top 10 hitters in the league posted a K% under 10 and only one topped 20 homers. There was some stirring in the ranks in 1982 and 1983, but both years saw four of the top five hitters post a K% under 10. Three of five failed to reach 20 homers in 1982, and five of five failed to reach 20 homers in 1983.

Things are a little different now. Consider what the top of the batting average leaderboard has looked like in the last three seasons:

  • 2010: Of the top 11 hitters, only one (Joe Mauer) posted a K% under 10 and seven hit at least 20 homers.
  • 2011: Of the top 11 hitters, only two (Jose Reyes and Victor Martinez) had a K% under 10 and eight hit at least 20 homers.
  • 2012: Of the top 13 hitters, only one (Yadier Molina) had a K% under 10 and 10 hit at least 20 homers.

Relative to where things were in the early 1980s, the script has been flipped. The top hitters in the league have gone from being largely contact hitters to being more powerful hitters who are perfectly fine with the occasional strikeout.

It hasn't happened overnight, mind you. It's been a process.

I went and looked at the annual batting-average leaders from 1980 to 2012, focusing on two things: power and strikeouts. If the pure contact hitter started dying a slow death after 1980, it would show in an increase in power and strikeouts among the top hitters in the league, right?

Precisely. This graph shows the progression of the average Isolated Power—like slugging percentage, except without singles mixed in—and K% among the top batting-average hitters since 1980.

The line that's budged the least over the last 30-odd years is the blue line, which represents the average batting average of the top hitters in the league. This goes to show that the best batting-average hitters in the league haven't gotten significantly better or significantly worse.

The red and green lines, however, tell a different story.

You can see that the red line, which represents the average ISO of the top hitters in the league, spiked up in a big way in the 1990s and early 2000s (we all know why, but more on that in a moment). It's gone down recently, but is still high relative to where it was in the 1980s.

And yes, this has much to do with homers. Here's a look at the average amount of homers hit by the top batting-average hitters since 1980:

Once again, a monstrous spike in the Steroid Era that went down for a moment and is now on the way back up.

The point: The top batting-average men started hitting for more power in the 1990s and are still hitting for more power.

As for the green line, which represents the average K% of the top hitters in the league, it also spiked in the 1990s and is trending back upward again now after a dive last decade. The top batting-average hitters in the league are indeed striking out more.

It's a sign of the times, as it's not just the top batters who are hitting for more power and striking out more often. All batters are doing that.

Using league data from FanGraphs, here's a look at a graph just like the one above, except for the whole league:

Same thing. Minor fluctuations in batting average, and major fluctuations in ISO and K%. Major League Baseball has become a different league, one in which hitters have become more powerful while becoming less apt at putting the ball in play.

Such a league isn't overly inviting to the idea of a pure contact hitter, but I wouldn't say that the league has phased out the idea of a pure contact hitter. It's more accurate to say that the league has evolved beyond the idea.

We know why power hitting became all the rage during the Steroid Era, and we've gone far enough beyond it to look back at the numbers and see just how out of control things really were. Based on how much power has deflated in the testing era (since 2005), we're probably never going to see a spike in power like the one we saw in the Steroid Era ever again.

This is what Jacoby Ellsbury's offseason workout looks like; courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com

But hitters are still more powerful now than they were back in the day, and the explanation for that isn't sinister. Hitters all have some sort of workout regimen that they stick to, and their physical well-being is taken care of like never before. Teams have a lot invested in these bodies, after all.

And yes, ballparks are generally smaller as well. Even the big ones don't stay big for long, and the balls tend to start flying out when the fences are moved in. Fellow MLB Lead Writer Jason Catania can tell you all about that.

As for the strikeout trend, that's where the real fascinating case study lies.

The rise of the strikeout in today's MLB has been noticed and analyzed by pretty much every expert under the sun, and the focus has tended to be mainly on what the pitchers are doing. The explanations are many, but here are a few key ones:

  • Pitchers are throwing harder, as Baseball Info Solutions data, via FanGraphs, shows that the average fastball velocity has gone from about 90 miles per hour to almost 92 miles per hour over the last decade.
  • Pitchers are also throwing fewer fastballs, as the league's fastball percentage has declined from over 64 percent in 2002 to under 58 percent since the start of last season.
  • It's likely thanks to the increased number of off-speed pitches that pitchers are getting hitters to expand the zone more, as the league's O-Swing% has skyrocketed over the last few years.

That's just a taste of a larger scholarly pursuit among baseball stat-heads, but don't think that hitters haven't played a role in the rise of the strikeout. What's happened in the last couple of years is a perfect mix of pitchers wanting more strikeouts and batters really not minding more strikeouts.

Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com tackled the subject just a couple of days ago, and he summed it up perfectly with these two paragraphs:

There was a time when strikeouts were humiliating, to the point that the mere notion worked its way into other elements of our culture. If you asked a girl to the prom and she denied you, what happened? You "struck out," in the parlance of your peers. Worse yet, in many states, habitual offenders became subjected to "three-strike laws," the slang of a sport directly impacting the particulars of imprisonment.

But pimply-faced teens and convicted felons don't have other data to offset their version of striking out. In the Major Leagues, teams have embraced the higher strikeout totals, provided they are accompanied by some other form of run-production positivity. In an environment in which high-velocity arms and bullpen specialization, among other factors, have placed production at a premium, strikeouts are shrugged off like never before.

Brandon Wade/Getty Images
Mike Trout struck out about 22 percent of the time in 2012, and still hit .326.

We can put a number on precisely how damaging strikeouts are. Noted sabermetrician Tom Tango rounded up the run values of specific events a couple of years ago, and it turns out that a strikeout is exactly as damaging as a foul fly out. A strikeout is certainly far preferable than grounding into a double play, and it just so happens that a strikeout can prevent that very event from happening.

If you don't go for all the sabermetric gobbledygook, perhaps you'll go for the other reason hitters aren't afraid to strike out. Striking out may still be demoralizing, but at least striking out is one way to increase a pitcher's pitch count.

That's at least a secondary goal of virtually every hitter in the majors when at the plate. The league began emphasizing working the count years ago, with the idea being to A) try to work more walks and/or B) make the pitcher on the mound get closer to his pitch-count limit more quickly.

You'd be surprised how much the league has responded to this emphasis. Here's a graph I trotted out the other day that shows the rise in the average number of pitches per plate appearance seen by the league's hitters, with the data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com:

Because this data only goes as far back as 1988, we can't fairly compare how patient the top batting-average merchants of yesteryear were next to today's top batting-average merchants. But we can put the rise in patience among contemporary hitters in perspective.

Consider Tony Gwynn. He was a brilliant hitter for many years, but he wasn't the most patient hitter. In addition to a career 4.2 K%, he retired with a pedestrian 7.7 BB% (see FanGraphs). He didn't go up to the plate looking to stick around long enough to walk or strike out. He went up looking to hack.

So, not surprisingly, Gwynn never saw more than 3.81 pitches per plate appearance in any of his 14 seasons from 1998 on, according to Baseball-Reference.com. In those 14 seasons, he averaged 3.35 pitches per plate appearance.

Miguel Cabrera, last year's AL batting champion, saw 3.76 Pitches/PA in 2012. Buster Posey, the NL batting champion, saw 4.24 Pitches/PA last year.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Amount of awesome in this picture: Much.

All this patience resulted in a 14.1 K% for Cabrera and a 15.7 K% for Posey, but Posey and Cabrera also found themselves in a lot of three-ball counts. Both ranked in the top 25 in baseball in three-ball counts seen in 2012, and both did very well in such situations. Cabrera had a 1.050 OPS in three-ball counts, and Posey had a 1.262 OPS in three-ball counts.

And yes, the two of them also drew their share of walks. Posey walked in 11.3 percent of his plate appearances, and Cabrera walked in 9.5 percent of his. 

Top hitters generally didn't do walk rates like that in the 1980s. Here's a quick look at the average walk rates (BB%) of our top hitters by era:

  • 1980-1989: 9.17
  • 1990-1999: 10.87
  • 2000-2009: 11.29
  • 2010-2012: 9.43

The league's top hitters suddenly aren't walking as much as they had been for roughly two decades, but they still hold a slight edge on the top hitters from the 1980s.

And now we can look at why that's important. Focusing on the same eras, here are the average on-base percentages of the top hitters:

  • 1980-1989: .390
  • 1990-1999: .410
  • 2000-2009: .415
  • 2010-2012: .390

The best batting-average merchants baseball has to offer today aren't getting on base as often as they were from the 1990s and 2000s, but they're getting on base precisely as often as the top batting-average merchants from the top 1980s.

That makes the whole strikeout thing out to be no big deal. Combine that with the fact that today's top batting-average hitters are hitting for more power, and there's no reason to lament the decline of the pure contact hitter.

I'll speak for myself when I say that I wouldn't mind another Carew, Boggs or Gwynn, but I'm perfectly fine with the Cabreras, Poseys, Brauns, Trouts and Canos that we have now. 

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that you are too, dear reader.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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