Building MLB's Perfect Hitter, Piece by Piece

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2016

Building MLB's Perfect Hitter, Piece by Piece

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Some would argue that engaging in an exercise to build MLB's perfect hitter is an effort in futility, for such a player already exists. But sadly, Bartolo Colon did not make the cut as a potential donor for our trip into Dr. Frankenstein-like madness.

    Cue the creepy music—or Edgar Winter—whatever floats your boat.

    As we patiently wait for the Hot Stove League to heat up again, and with pitchers and catchers still about a month away from reporting to spring training, there's no better time to try and construct the perfect hitter.

    The attributes that go into making a perfect hitter are certainly subjective, but we'll focus on five specific categories: batting eye, bat speed, durability, power and swing.

    As you'd imagine, there were more than a few excellent choices to pick from in each category, and you could certainly build an impressive hitter with different elements from players we opted not to dissect.

    But we'd put our monster masher up against your unholy creation any day of the week—and twice on game day.

Batting Eye: Joey Votto

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Is Joey Votto too passive when he steps to the plate with runners in scoring position? Maybe. Is he ever going to live up to the expectations that come with the 10-year, $225 contract extension he signed with Cincinnati at the start of the 2012 season? Probably not.

    But for all the criticisms we can throw at the four-time All-Star and former National League MVP, none of it can diminish his absolute mastery of the strike zone. And make no mistake about it—Votto owns the plate like no other player in baseball.

    Votto is the only active player with a career on-base percentage above .400 (.423), a feat that's all the more remarkable when you consider that he doesn't even crack the top 10 in walks among active players, ranking 11th with 754 free passes, 50 behind Jose Bautista.

    While he's led baseball in walks in three of the past four seasons, including a career-high 145 in 2015, "they (walks and on-base percentage) don’t fully tell the story when it comes to Votto’s uncanny batting eye," as Jonah Keri wrote for Grantland this past September.

    Since 2012, Votto has swung at only 20.3 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, the lowest figure among everyday players (minimum 2,000 plate appearances), culminating with a career-best 19.2 percent mark in 2015. Per FanGraphs, the MLB average over those four years is right around 31 percent.

    That kind of plate discipline isn't just impressive—it's uncanny. 

Bat Speed: Bryce Harper

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    Love him or hate him, there's no denying that Bryce Harper is one of, if not the most naturally gifted player in the game today. The youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history, taking home the honor last year in his age-22 season, Harper is still years away from the prime of his career.

    That we've yet to see the best of him is a scary proposition for the rest of baseball.

    "He hits all pitch types with proficiency—he performs above the league average against fastballs, cutters, curveballs, sliders, change-ups and splitters," wrote the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore. "If it can be thrown, his swing can hit it."

    While Harper's overall game is impressive—like Mike Trout, he's a picture-perfect example of a five-tool player—what he's able to do with a bat in his hand is truly what separates him from the rest of the pack.

    “What makes him special is the amount of bat speed he can generate, and the amount of rotation that he has, and still stay completely balanced,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told Kilgore. “For me, that’s what separates him. He can generate that club head speed and stay as balanced as he does. I compare it a lot to Tiger Woods’s swing with a golf club.”

    Except Woods is hitting a stationary object. Harper is hitting a tightly wound projectile moving at ludicrous speeds—and makes it look easy.

Durability: Kyle Seager

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    Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Former Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon had a penchant for letting his players know ahead of time if he was giving them a day off, so it came as quite a shock for Kyle Seager when he entered the visitor's clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field last August only to find his name missing from the starting lineup.

    “He didn’t know about it," McClendon later admitted to The Seattle TimesRyan Divish. "And I didn’t tell him about it because I didn’t feel like with fighting him.”

    It's been nearly impossible to keep Seager off the field since he became Seattle's everyday third baseman in 2012, with the 28-year-old appearing in more games (635) than any other player over the past four seasons.

    “You work out and train to play every day and you want to be in there helping every day,” Seager told Divish. “That’s our job ultimately is to be in there and be able to play every day and be in position to help the team win. That’s where you want to be.”

    Not only has Seager been incredibly durable, but also remarkably consistent, averaging 21 home runs and 83 RBI a season despite playing half his games at Safeco Field, which remains one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the game.

Power: Giancarlo Stanton

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    We've all heard the term "screaming line drive" before, but in the case of Giancarlo Stanton, the baseball screams out in agony whenever the 26-year-old slugger makes contact, whether it be a line drive, a fly ball or a seeing-eye single through the hole.

    It's a natural reaction, of course, considering that Stanton's average exit velocity, as noted in the above video, sat at 99.1 mph in 2015, four mph greater than Miguel Cabrera, whose 95.1 mph exit velocity seems mediocre in comparison.

    On the list of highest exit velocities from last season, provided by MLB's Statcast, Stanton's name appears eight times in the top 10, with only Nelson Cruz and Trout able to sneak in for a cameo appearance.

    Per ESPN's Home Run Tracker, Stanton didn't lead the majors in average true distance on his dingers last season, his 417.1 foot average finishing second to Los Angeles' Joc Pederson, who led the game with a 421.7 foot mark.

    But that doesn't take away from Stanton's otherworldly power, or the fact that, through his first six seasons, his numbers are comparable with arguably the greatest slugger of all-time, Hank Aaron—despite logging roughly 1,000 fewer at-bats than the legendary icon.

    PlayerABHRSLGAB/HR
    Aaron3,524179.55919.7
    Stanton2,567181.54714.2

    Imagine how gaudy his numbers would be if he could stay healthy for a full season. After all, this is a player that smacked 27 home runs in only 74 games last year—and he hasn't appeared in at least 150 games since 2011, his age-21 season.

Swing: Miguel Cabrera

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    Is it a coincidence that Cabrera's greatest individual accomplishments—four batting titles, two MVP awards and a Triple Crown—all came after he swore off participating in the Home Run Derby, an event in which the nine-time All-Star last appeared in 2010? Perhaps.

    Or maybe Cabrera's just smarter than everyone else. "I don't want to mess with my swing anymore," he explained to USA Today's Anthony Fenech in 2014 about his continued absence from the event. "I got enough going on with it."

    That last part wasn't exactly true, however, as Cabrera's swing is, well, damn near perfect, without the wasted movements that other players struggle to eliminate from their mechanics. And he's been incredibly consistent in repeating those mechanics, as you can see in this GIF courtesy of FanGraphs.

    It shows six different home runs hit by Cabrera between May 2012 and May 2013, and with one lone exception—an abbreviated toe tap during a spring training game (upper right)—his swing is identical in each one.

    What makes Cabrera even more of an oddity is that while his swing is incredibly consistent, his stance in the box is anything but that. "He can go to the plate and show four different stances in the same at bat," then-Tigers batting coach McClendon told The Wall Street Journal's Matthew Futterman in 2013. 

    "He can stride, do the leg kick, do the no-stride swing, and even stand real tall, straight up, while putting his hands low or holding them high."

    And yet, the results are the same. Miggy sees ball, Miggy hits ball and the opposition wishes it had intentionally walked him. Though even that can't stop him from putting the bat on the ball.

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. All contract information courtesy of Cot's Contracts (via Baseball Prospectus).

    Hit me up on Twitter to talk all things baseball: @RickWeinerBR.