Swing and Miss: Early Season Whiffers

One of my favorite stats provided by the incomparable fangraphs.com is contact rate. Contact rate is simply the percentage of swings by a batter that induce some type of contact. For pitchers, it is the percentage of swings by the batter that produce a contact result off of that pitcher’s pitches. It’s such a simple concept when applying this stat toward evaluations: the more a hitter swings and misses, the less likely they are to maintain a high AVG. On the pitching side, less is more. The more swings an misses generated by a pitcher, the better. It is an indication of the raw dominance (or lack thereof) of a pitcher’s “stuff”.

Today, we’ll take a look at the worst contact hitters through the first week in May. Some of these names are obvious (Mark Reynolds), but some may surprise a bit. The sample size is still small enough that big turnarounds are possible. Who will turn things around and who destined to remain the same?

As a guideline, 80 percent is about league average, between 79 and 76 percent is not good, anything under 75 percent is bad and anything under 70 percent is very bad.

Mark Reynolds, 59.9 percent contact rate – This is to be expected. Reynolds basically tries to hit a home run every time up and has one of the longest swings in the big leagues.

Kyle Blanks, 63 percent contact rate - When I first saw Blanks’ swing, I was surprised how compact it looked given his immense power. The problem lies in his struggles with pitches outside the strike-zone or “pitcher’s pitches”. When Blanks swings at a bad pitch he only makes contact around 35 percent of the time (about his MLB career average). Until he learns to lay off these pitches, his AVG should continue to suffer. That would be OK if he were hitting home runs at a 35-plus pace, but that’s just not happening right now.

Justin Upton, 68.2 percent contact rate - Upton has never been a high contact guy. Last season a .360 BABIP inflated his AVG to .300, which gave fantasy owners some false hopes about his ability to produce consistently at that level. There is not doubting Upton’s top-shelf power, but he’s not likely to be a player that will hit for high AVG’s over his career (think .275-ish).

Josh Hamilton, 70.1 percent contact rate – If this were to hold, it would mark the third consecutive season in which Hamilton’s contact rate has regressed. I touched on this a bit in this article back in January.

Drew Stubbs, 70.6 percent contact rate - Strikeouts have always been a problem for Stubbs. In any season, at any level that Stubbs has accrued more than 200 at-bats, he has never has a strikeout rate under 25 percent. Until he can lower those strikeout totals, he’s not going to hit for a high AVG at the big league level, which means he’ll have to hit for power and steal a ton of bases to have much fantasy value going forward. That is, actually, still a possibility.

Matt Kemp, 70.6 percent contact rate – While Kemp has never been an elite contact hitter, he has been at least “not bad” in the past. The thing that separates Kemp from others is that when he does make contact he hits the ball harder than most. He also hits for power and has a history of solid line-drive rates. There is a chance that Kemp makes some adjustments going forward (he is walking more this year), but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a few seasons here and there hitting in the upper .280’s as opposed to .290-.300.

Jason Bay, 71.1 percent contact rate - Bay has never been a high contact hitter. Only in his prime seasons did he raise his contact rate to over 75 percent. Last season with the Red Sox, Bay had a 71.7 percent contact rate, pretty much where he is sitting right now. I don’t expect this to improve much, which is one of the big reasons I didn’t like Bay heading into the 2010 season.