Building the Perfect MLB Hitter, Piece by Piece

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2015

Building the Perfect MLB Hitter, Piece by Piece

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    Tom Lynn/Associated Press

    Here's a thought: Let's step into the (imaginary) lab, dissect some of MLB's biggest stars (metaphorically) and build ourselves the ultimate hitter.

    Hey, it's mid-January, otherwise known as not the best time to be a baseball fan. There's another long, cold, soggy month until pitchers and catchers report.

    Other than obsessively warming our hands by the hot stove, what can we do?

    Frivolous theoretical exercises, that's what. (You thought I was going to say be a productive member of society? Pssh.)

    So, what makes a great hitter? A lot of things, naturally. For our purposes, we'll break it down into five essential elements: batting eye, bat speed, durability, power and swing. 

    Obviously there are many worthy candidates in each category. This may be the era of the pitcher, but baseball is still blessed with bushels of elite offensive talent.

    In nearly every case, there was no single obvious winner, even though we restricted ourselves to current players only.

    But, we think you'll agree, these five guys would unarguably combine to make one beastly Frankenmasher.

Batting Eye: Joey Votto

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Joey Votto missed 100 games last season with a right quadriceps injury, though he's expected to have "zero limitations" in spring training, per John Fray of The Cincinnati Enquirer

    One body part that's never betrayed the Reds first baseman? His eyes.

    Between 2010 and 2014, Votto led MLB in walk percentage (16.8) and on-base percentage (.430), per FanGraphs.

    Even as his power numbers dipped from their 2010 peak—when he took home National League MVP honors—Votto maintained his plate discipline, drawing an MLB-leading 135 walks in 2013.

    Yes, that patience has led to charges of timidity, claims that a middle-of-the-order bat should be collecting more RBI.

    To which Votto replied, per Sporting News' Jesse Spector:

    I try not to let the situation dictate what I do. I’m not trying to do something in particular each at-bat, I’m just trying to get the most out of that at-bat, do something that helps the team in the long run. There are some instances where I don’t have an opportunity to do anything but walk. There are instances where I get pitches to hit and I can hopefully do something good with it, and I try not to give anything away.

Bat Speed: Andrew McCutchen

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    At 5'10", 190 pounds, Andrew McCutchen is no one's idea of a prototypical power hitter.

    And yet, while he's got the wheels and glove to qualify as a genuine all-around talent, there's no question the Pittsburgh Pirates' center fielder can crush baseballs.

    How does he do it? With a whip-quick swing that seems to defy the laws of physics.

    Jeff Moore of Baseball Prospectus put it simply in 2013, when he opined that McCutchen "has as much bat speed as you will see in the game and is perhaps the quickest in the game from the decision to swing to the contact point."

    In the simplest possible terms, that means McCutchen takes an impossible task—hitting a tightly wound spheroid projectile hurtling through the air at ungodly speeds—and makes it slightly less impossible. 

    Let's go to the man himself for a better explanation, per Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

    Bat speed has to do with every part of your body. You generate your power from your legs. That's where it all comes from. When you go from your legs, it just coils up and fires...It's your quick-twitch muscles, all of that firing. You either have it, or you don't.

    No argument there.

Durability: Hunter Pence

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    With his spastic hack and herky-jerky style, Hunter Pence looks less like an iron man and more like a car wobbling on the side of the highway, with the wheels ready to come off.

    No one, however, has played more games over the past two seasons than the San Francisco Giants' right fielder. 

    That'd be 324 to be specific, or 1,395 at-bats. During that span, Pence has been plenty productive, mashing 47 home runs and driving in 173.

    "I've talked to Hunter about giving him a day off and he goes, 'You know, I don't want one,'" Giants manager Bruce Bochy told Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News in 2013, when Pence played in an MLB-leading 162 contests. "He's so strong and tough-minded. He can handle it."

    Added fellow San Francisco outfielder Gregor Blanco, "He's crazy with his consistency. He has the same energy every single day."

Power: Giancarlo Stanton

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    In the post-steroid era, power is at a premium, which sets the Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton—perhaps the best pure power hitter of his generation—apart from the rest.

    The 25-year-old smacked an NL-leading 37 home runs in 2014. But it's the sheer, soaring majesty of his drives that truly turns heads.

    According to ESPN.com's home run tracker, Stanton's bombs travel an MLB-leading "true distance" of 415.3 feet. And he launched the second-longest dinger of the season, a 484-foot shot that fell just shy of Mike Trout's 489-foot bomb. (Trout, incidentally, deserves a serious "honorable mention" in this and other categories.)

    At last season's Home Run Derby in Minnesota, Stanton dropped more than a few jaws. 

    "I've never seen anything like that in my life in person," no less an authority than McCutchen said of Stanton's 510-foot Derby moon-shot, per Fox Sports Florida's Christine De Nicola. "That was pretty impressive."

    Clearly the Fish, who just handed Stanton a contract that could span 13 years and $325 million, agree.

Swing: Miguel Cabrera

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    Now we arrive at the most subjective portion of this exercise. 

    What makes a perfect swing? Is it the compact, violent efficiency of Stanton, or the smooth, graceful poetry of Robinson Cano?

    The answer, of course, is a bit of both. 

    Aesthetically, it depends on what you like. Guys have gotten results with an array of approaches. 

    For our money, though, the winner is Miguel Cabrera.

    Yes, the man has won three batting titles, two MVP awards and a Triple Crown. More than anything, however, the Detroit Tigers' offensive cornerstone has simply hit with the effortless elegance of an all-time great.

    And he's done it by mixing his approach as the situation dictates. "They ask me questions but then they say I'm a crazy hitter, that my approach is totally different from theirs," Cabrera told The Wall Street Journal's Matthew Futterman in 2013, when asked about helping his teammates with their swings. "What can I do?"

    How about this: Keep taking beautiful cuts and let the rest of us enjoy it.