MLB Skill Rankings: Juan Soto and Baseball's Best Contact Hitters

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2022

MLB Skill Rankings: Juan Soto and Baseball's Best Contact Hitters

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    Rob Leiter/Getty Images

    The task is simple enough: Who was baseball's best contact hitter in 2021?

    However, rather than simply looking at batting average, I decided to take a more analytical approach to compile my list.

    The first step was to decide which statistics best quantify contact ability.

    After some digging and debating, I landed on these four:

    • Strikeout Rate (K%): What percent of a player's plate appearances end in a strikeout.
    • Contact Rate (Contact%): The percent of swings that result in contact.
    • Hard-Hit Rate (HardHit%): How frequently a ball in play travels 90 mph or more off the bat. This was included to reward quality of contact, which is an important component of contact ability.
    • Hit/Swing Percentage (Hit/Swing%): The percentage of a player's swings that result in a base hit. This is a homemade stat courtesy of Baseball Savant and a suggestion from fellow B/R writer Zachary Rymer.

    The question was how to use those statistics to best demonstrate the difference between Player A and Player B in terms of contact ability.

    My methodology and scoring system is outlined on the following slide.

Methodology

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    The only requirement for inclusion in these rankings was that a player had to have amassed at least 300 plate appearances during the 2021 season. That served as a cutoff point to help eliminate small-sample-size data skew.

    From there, a point system was implemented that awarded points as follows:

    • 1 point for every 0.1 percent below the 25 percent benchmark in K%
    • 1 point for every 0.1 percent above the 70 percent benchmark in Contact%
    • 1 point for every 0.1 percent above the 40 percent benchmark in Hard%

    The point total from those three categories was then multiplied by each player's Hit/Swing% to give us our final total for each player. The idea was to make the advanced metrics the foundation of the formula while still rewarding actual production in the form of the Hit/Swing% stat.

    No bias. No preconceived notions. Just a set of statistical parameters and a straightforward point system to determine the 25 best contact hitters in baseball.

    The full data can be found here.

    Let's kick things off with a rundown of the 10 players who fell just outside our rankings and make up our honorable mention list.

Next 10

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    Jose Altuve
    Jose AltuveIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    These 10 players came up just short of earning a spot in our rankings:

    • Paul Goldschmidt, STL (144.6 points)
    • Eric Hosmer, SD (143.8 points)
    • Jose Altuve, HOU (140.7 points)
    • Pavin Smith, ARI (140.2 points)
    • Jake Cronenworth, SD (140.1 points)
    • Manuel Margot, TB (139.9 points)
    • Mookie Betts, LAD (139.7 points)
    • Ty France, SEA (139.4 points)
    • Matt Olson, OAK (138.6 points)
    • Kevin Newman, PIT (135.4 points)

    Notable players who did not have enough plate appearances (300+) to qualify:

    • Willians Astudillo, FA (216 PA, 264.0 points)
    • Willie Calhoun, TEX (284 PA, 191.4 points)
    • Nick Madrigal, CHC (215 PA, 162.8 points)
    • Frank Schwindel, CHC (259 PA, 146.2 points)
    • Byron Buxton, MIN (254 PA, 123.2 points)
    • Anthony Rendon, LAA (249 PA, 121.6 points)
    • Luis Robert, CWS (296 PA, 120.3 points)
    • Mike Trout, LAA (146 PA, 85.1 points)

Nos. 25-21

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    Tommy Edman
    Tommy EdmanJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

    25. DH Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros (147.6 points)

    Metrics: 24.2 K%, 78.8 Contact%, 54.2 HardHit%, 6.2 Hit/Swing%

    After checking in at No. 10 in our ranking of the best power hitters, Alvarez makes an appearance on our best contact hitters list as well. He has a short, quick left-handed stroke that allows him to spray line drives to all fields, and that was on full display when he went 12-for-23 in the 2021 ALCS.

         

    24. 2B Tommy Edman, St. Louis Cardinals (147.8 points)

    Metrics: 13.7 K%, 86.5 Contact%, 35.3 HardHit%, 6.4 Hit/Swing%

    Tasked with replacing Kolten Wong at second base and atop the St. Louis lineup, Edman was a contact machine, putting the ball in play in more than 80 percent of his 691 plate appearances. He went 3-for-5 in the NL Wild Card Game to cap off a strong first season as an everyday player.

        

    23. 3B Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers (150.6 points)

    Metrics: 16.0 K%, 83.9 Contact%, 42.2 HardHit%, 6.0 Hit/Swing%

    With a 14.8 percent strikeout rate for his career, Turner has always made contact at a high rate. He has struck out more than 100 times in a season just once and carries a .290 career batting average into his age-37 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

        

    22. 2B Jean Segura, Philadelphia Phillies (153.7 points)

    Metrics: 13.8 K%, 84.0 Contact%, 37.4 HardHit%, 6.8 Hit/Swing%

    No longer the stolen base threat he was in his prime, Segura is still a solid top-of-the-order table-setter thanks to his ability to put the ball in play. The 31-year-old has never logged a strikeout rate above 16 percent in any season during which he has tallied at least 250 plate appearances.

        

    21. 1B Josh Bell, Washington Nationals (156.6 points)

    Metrics: 17.8 K%, 77.4 Contact%, 51.5 HardHit%, 6.0 Hit/Swing%

    Bell has never fit the prototypical all-or-nothing profile that has often defined the first base position, despite possessing 30-homer power. His 18.8 percent career strikeout rate speaks to a more contact-oriented game that just happens to come from a middle-of-the-order run producer.

Nos. 20-16

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    Bo Bichette
    Bo BichetteRon Schwane/Getty Images

    20. LF AJ Pollock, Los Angeles Dodgers (156.8 points)

    Metrics: 19.0 K%, 77.0 Contact%, 47.1 HardHit%, 7.8 Hit/Swing%

    Pollock had a disappointing first season with the Dodgers in 2019 after signing a four-year, $55 million deal, but he has produced a 135 OPS+ and 4.0 WAR in 172 games since the start of the 2020 campaign. The .281 hitter has always made a lot of quality contact, with a career high of just 100 strikeouts in 2018.

         

    19. 3B Alex Bregman, Houston Astros (163.4 points)

    Metrics: 13.3 K%, 87.9 Contact%, 38.1 HardHit%, 5.9 Hit/Swing%

    Bregman has multiple seasons with more walks than strikeouts, including a 119-walk, 83-strikeout performance in 2019 when he finished runner-up in AL MVP voting. His numbers have dipped from that peak-level performance, but he still possesses a rare mix of power, contact ability and plate discipline.

        

    18. SS Bo Bichette, Toronto Blue Jays (163.5 points)

    Metrics: 19.9 K%, 79.8 Contact%, 47.5 HardHit%, 7.3 Hit/Swing%

    Despite one of the higher strikeout rates among players ranked in the top 25, Bichette earns the No. 18 spot thanks to his quality of contact and a terrific HitSwing% that shows his free-swinging approach often pays dividends. The 23-year-old led the American League with 191 hits in 2021.

        

    16 (tie). SS Corey Seager, Texas Rangers (165.6 points)

    Metrics: 16.1 K%, 73.6 Contact%, 49.0 HardHit%, 7.7 Hit/Swing%

    Seager has been an elite contact hitter since he hit .308/.365/.512 with 193 hits to win NL Rookie of the Year honors as a 22-year-old in 2016. With a freshly inked $325 million contract, he'll be counted on to anchor the Texas Rangers offensive attack for the next decade.

        

    16 (tie). 3B Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Guardians (165.6 points)

    Metrics: 13.7 K%, 86.5 Contact%, 42.3 HardHit%, 5.5 Hit/Swing%

    With a 12.2 percent strikeout rate for his career, Ramirez is often overlooked as one of the game's premier contact hitters. He had almost as many extra-base hits (73) as he did strikeouts (87) in 2021, despite being the focal point of opposing pitchers' game plans in a thin Cleveland lineup.

Nos. 15-11

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    Freddie Freeman
    Freddie FreemanKevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    15. UT Luis Arraez, Minnesota Twins (165.8 points)

    Metrics: 10.0 K%, 90.3 Contact%, 30.6 HardHit%, 6.4 Hit/Swing%

    Arraez claimed the No. 1 spot in our contact hitter rankings last year, so it's no surprise to see him comfortably inside the top 25 once again. With a .376 slugging percentage and just 25 extra-base hits in 479 plate appearances, his power is non-existent, but few players put the ball in play more frequently.

         

    14. OF Harold Ramirez, Chicago Cubs (168.6 points)

    Metrics: 15.5 K%, 78.4 Contact%, 46.9 HardHit%, 6.8 Hit/Swing%

    With an unassuming .268/.305/.398 line in 361 plate appearances last season, Ramirez is the biggest surprise on this list. A lack of plate discipline drags down his offensive value, but his contact metrics are excellent. The Cubs saw enough to acquire him from Cleveland for cash considerations in November.

        

    13. 1B Freddie Freeman, Free Agent (174.9 points)

    Metrics: 15.4 K%, 80.8 Contact%, 45.7 HardHit%, 6.7 Hit/Swing%

    A .302 hitter over the past nine seasons, Freeman made a run at the batting title during the shortened 2020 campaign with a .341 average en route to NL MVP honors. His 15.4 percent strikeout rate in 2021 was a career low over a full season, and he is unquestionably one of baseball's best all-around hitters.

        

    12. OF Alex Verdugo, Boston Red Sox (175.5 points)

    Metrics: 15.9 K%, 83.8 Contact%, 43.3 HardHit%, 6.7 Hit/Swing%

    With a smooth left-handed stroke and a hit-over-power approach, Verdugo has the tools to contend for a batting title down the road. He finished the 2021 season on a high note, hitting .328 in 193 plate appearances over the final two months.

        

    11. SS Trea Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers (180.2 points)

    Metrics: 17.0 K%, 79.1 Contact%, 46.0 HardHit%, 7.8 Hit/Swing%

    Thanks to his top-of-the-scale speed, Turner tallied 21 infield hits during the 2021 season on his way to an MLB-leading 195 hits overall. None of his contact metrics are truly elite, but he is above average across the board, and his 7.8 Hit/Swing% trailed only Tim Anderson's (8.1) among qualified hitters.

10. SS Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays (187.2 Points)

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    Wander Franco
    Wander FrancoDiamond Images/Getty Images

    Metrics: 12.0 K%, 84.7 Contact%, 37.6 HardHit%, 7.4 Hit/Swing%

    After a slow start to his rookie season, Wander Franco eventually looked right at home in the big leagues, ripping off a 43-game on-base streak to tie Hall of Famer Frank Robinson for the longest such streak by a player 20 years old or younger.

    He hit .323/.383/.506 in 180 plate appearances over the final two months of the season, and he has the offensive tools to maintain that level of production over a full 162 games.

    In his final full season in the minors in 2019, he batted .327/.398/.487 with more walks (56) than strikeouts (35) in 114 games.

9. RF Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros (188.4 Points)

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    Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

    Metrics: 15.9 K%, 81.6 Contact%, 47.0 HardHit%, 6.8 Hit/Swing%

    Kyle Tucker was one of the breakout stars of 2021, and he displayed the sort of all-around offensive skill set to be a superstar for the Houston Astros for years to come.

    The 25-year-old hit .290/.359/.557 with 70 extra-base hits and just 90 strikeouts in 567 plate appearances, actually showing better contact skills than he did during his time in the minors.

    At the Triple-A level in 2019, he hit .266 and struck out 116 times in 534 trips to the plate, so he has made clear progress in his bat-to-ball skills while also making the jump from the minors to the majors.

8. 2B DJ LeMahieu, New York Yankees (190.2 Points)

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Metrics: 13.8 K%, 87.4 Contact%, 43.1 HardHit%, 6.0 Hit/Swing%

    DJ LeMahieu struggled through a down season by his own lofty standards, hitting .268/.349/.362 a year after he won his second batting title with a stellar .364/.421/.590 line to finish third in AL MVP balloting.

    The 33-year-old was a career .305 hitter entering the 2021 season, and his .268 average was largely the result of some bad batted-ball luck. While his .301 BABIP was roughly league average, it was well below his .340 career mark, which accounted for some of his batting average dip.

    He also showed a more patient approach with a career-high 10.8 percent walk rate. That should benefit him in the long run, but it also takes some adjustment.

7. LF Jesse Winker, Cincinnati Reds (193.1 Points)

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    Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

    Metrics: 15.5 K%, 82.1 Contact%, 46.8 HardHit%, 6.8 Hit/Swing%

    Jesse Winker was widely regarded as one of the best pure hitters in the minors while he climbed the ranks of the Cincinnati Reds farm system, and he has lived up to the hype since settling in as an everyday player.

    The 28-year-old hit .305/.394/.556 with 53 walks and 75 strikeouts in 485 plate appearances in 2021, and had he not missed the bulk of the final two months of the season with an intercostal strain, he might have received some down-ballot NL MVP support.

    His willingness to work a walk and his high contract rate make him an extremely tough at-bat, which coupled with his above-average hard contact rate gives him a well-rounded offensive profile.

6. RF Juan Soto, Washington Nationals (210.0 Points)

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Metrics: 14.2 K%, 81.8 Contact%, 52.4 HardHit%, 6.0 Hit/Swing%

    On the rare occasion Juan Soto actually got to swing the bat, he did as much damage as any hitter in baseball.

    The 23-year-old led the majors in walks (145), intentional walks (23) and on-base percentage (.465), and despite teams routinely pitching around him, he still hit .313 with a 175 OPS+ in 654 plate appearances.

    He has more walks (373) than strikeouts (352) in his four years in the majors, and his approach in the batter's box and the way opposing pitchers handle him is the closest thing we've seen to peak Barry Bonds since he was only seeing a few pitches to hit each series and still breaking records.

    It's scary to think Soto could still improve in the years to come.

5. 3B Manny Machado, San Diego Padres (210.7 Points)

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    Metrics: 15.9 K%, 79.0 Contact%, 52.0 HardHit%, 7.0 Hit/Swing%

    One of just six players to find his way into the top 25 in both our contact hitter and power hitter rankings, Manny Machado checked in No. 23 among the game's top sluggers.

    His contact skills garner a significant higher ranking, and rightfully so as he has never posted a strikeout rate north of 20 percent, despite five 30-homer seasons and a middle-of-the-order profile that is often associated with big power numbers and also big strikeout totals.

    With 1,425 hits entering his age-29 season, he's a sneaky threat for 3,000 hits if he can stay healthy, especially considering his current contract has him locked up through the 2028 season.

4. 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays (212.3 Points)

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    Mark Blinch/Getty Images

    Metrics: 15.8 K%, 73.9 Contact%, 55.2 HardHit%, 7.5 Hit/Swing%

    The only player to crack the top 10 in both our power hitting and contact hitting skill rankings, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has a strong case for the title of best all-around hitter in baseball.

    After hitting .311/.401/.601 with 188 hits, 48 home runs and 111 RBI in a season that would have ended in MVP honors almost any other year, Guerrero was No. 1 in our power hitter rankings by a narrow margin over Shohei Ohtani, and the next highest finisher in those rankings to also appear here was Yordan Alvarez.

    The first prospect to receive an 80-grade hit tool from MLB.com, he took some time to find his footing in the majors, but with a breakout performance under his belt, he is poised to be one of the game's elite offensive players for years to come.

3. 1B Yuli Gurriel, Houston Astros (245.7 Points)

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    Yuli Gurriel
    Yuli GurrielIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Metrics: 11.2 K%, 88.0 Contact%, 41.4 HardHit%, 7.4 Hit/Swing%

    Yuli Gurriel is making the most of an abridged MLB career after spending more than a decade playing professionally in Cuba and Japan.

    He hit .319/.383/.462 with 169 hits in 143 games in 2021, narrowly beating out teammate Michael Brantley (.311), Vladimir Guerrero (.311) and Tim Anderson (.309) to win the AL batting title in his age-37 season.

    Gurriel also walked a career-best 59 times against only 68 strikeouts, and while he did see a dip in his power production from his 31-homer, 104-RBI peak in 2019, he was a far more complete hitter, and his career-high 131 OPS+ reflects that.

2. 2B/CF Ketel Marte, Arizona Diamondbacks (246.4 Points)

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Metrics: 16.0 K%, 84.6 Contact%, 48.4 HardHit%, 7.7 Hit/Swing%

    With 374 plate appearances during an injury-plagued season, Ketel Marte just barely qualified for inclusion in our rankings. That said, when he was healthy, there is little question he was one of baseball's most productive hitters.

    The 28-year-old hit .318/.377/.532 with 108 hits in 90 games, and nearly half of his knocks were of the extra-base variety, with 29 doubles, one triple and 14 home runs for an impressive 44 extra-base hits in his limited action.

    A career-high HardHit% and an elite Hit/Swing% helped propel him into the No. 2 spot in these rankings, and if the rebuilding Arizona Diamondbacks decide to make him available on the trade block, he could be the prize of the 2022 trade deadline.

1. LF Michael Brantley, Houston Astros (290.9 Points)

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    Metrics: 10.4 K%, 89.8 Contact%, 42.9 HardHit%, 7.8 Hit/Swing%

    I went into this exercise last year expecting Michael Brantley to come away with the No. 1 ranking, but he ultimately finished No. 3 behind Luis Arraez and Tommy La Stella.

    One year later, the top spot is his.

    The 34-year-old has long been one of the best pure hitters in the sport, and he has hit over .300 in each of the past four seasons while continually posting strong batted-ball numbers and a minuscule strikeout rate.

    He carries a 10.8 percent career strikeout rate with just 626 strikeouts in 1,366 games, and he has never struck out more than 76 times in a season, with that total coming in 2011 in his first year as an everyday player.

            

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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