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Full Contact Drills

Lessons from three analytically inclined teams

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St Louis Cardinals v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Everyone wants to talk about launch angle these days, both pro and con. It’s a good thing in a lot of ways, but we’re reaching the point where there’s pushback from the average fan who either a) doesn’t understand it, or b) doesn’t care. If there’s one thing you should know about it, it’s not entirely about hitting the ball in the air. You’re probably better off thinking about it as a hitter trying to find ways to barrel up as many pitches as they can, and create maximum value with their swing. Hitters today have more tools than ever before to help them barrel up pitches and hit them to maximum effect. That brings me to what I really want to talk about- contact rates.

Here’s the logic. Hitters are collecting more barrels than ever before. Teams increasingly have the ability to help hitters use analytics to hit the ball harder. As such, teams can get blood out of a turnip. A guy who might have been a fourth outfielder or a generic middle infielder a generation ago can now maximize his swing and raise his results closer to average or even above average. If all of that’s true (and it is), why not load up your roster with players who have higher contact rates? If the quality of contact is improving, why not pack more contact into your lineup?

That’s precisely what three of the most analytically-inclined teams in the game have done in recent years. Boston executed that plan with eye-popping efficiency in 2016 and, to a lesser degree, 2018. Houston was equally amazing at it in 2017, with a very good encore in 2018. Cleveland hasn’t had a single season as effective as the Astros in 2017 or the Red Sox in 2016 and 2018, but they’ve been well above average in contact measures over the last three seasons. Boston led baseball in runs scored in 2016 and 2018, while Houston did the same in 2017. Cleveland has finished 5th, 6th, and 3rd, respectively, from 2016 to 2018 in runs scored.

I’ve excluded the Royals from this list, but it’s worth noting that they also pushed the contact agenda in their 2014 pennant-winning season and especially on their 2015 World Series team. In combination with the Astros and Red Sox, three of the last four World Series winners have placed:

  • 1st in overall contact rate (contact%)
  • 1st or 2nd in contact within the strike zone (z-contact%)
  • 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in swinging strike % (SwStr%)
  • 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in contact outside the strike zone (o-contact%)

Before going too much further, I should establish that it’s not simply a matter of making a lot of contact. Correlation does not (entirely) equal causation. Running regressions on these statistics and overall production (wRC+, team runs) is a fruitless exercise, both at the team and the individual level. That said, as an anecdote, it’s very loud. It’s almost impossible to ignore, particularly considering the recent reputation of these franchises as league-wide models of success.

What about the Cardinals?

Recent editions of the Cardinals have been acceptable in the contact measures, but far from great. From 2016 to 2018, they ranked 21st, 14th, and 13th in contact percentage; 21st, 14th, and 11th in swinging strike percentage; 15th, 17th, and 8th in contact percentage within the strike zone; and 21st, 13th, and 22nd in contact percentage outside the strike zone.

The franchise clearly understands the value of higher contact rates. From 2011 to 2014, they ranked in the top 10 in each of the four categories mentioned during each individual season. In 2013, they were first league-wide in SwStr %, Z-Contact %, and overall Contact %. In 2014, they were 3rd, 2nd, and 2nd in those categories, respectively. Then from 2015 to 2018, things changed and they floated around the middle of the league.

This past season, they made improvements in the 2nd half under the tutelage of hitting coaches Mark Budaska and George Greer. Area writers have mentioned the desire to cut down on strikeouts. Coupled with the way the team performed after the mid-season house cleaning, it seems like it’s going to be a point of emphasis for the Cardinals in the coming seasons.

Here are some rough ideas to help in the coming season.

1. Hire a hitting coach with an understanding of contact rates and maximizing barrels, and some success overseeing higher contact rates

The good news is that the Cardinals have checked off the first item on the list. Budaska is still on board, having shifted to an assistant hitting coach role. Replacing him as the full-time hitting coach is Jeff Albert. The Cardinals poached Albert from the Astros.

Albert was a minor league hitting instructor for the Cardinals from 2008-2012 in Batavia and Palm Beach. In other words, he taught a lot of the players who made up the backbone of those 2011-2014 high contact Cardinals. He moved on to Houston for a similar role, eventually landing in Houston as their Assistant Hitting Coach last season. Again, many of the players he helped teach in the Astros farm system would eventually become the backbone of a perennial post-season team. Everywhere Albert has coached, high contact rates follow. Correlation, causation, etc., but it’s a good sign.

Fangraphs interviewed Albert last week and he had a lot of interesting things to say. You can read the full interview here. The quote he gave that jumped out at me the most was about helping hitters become more well-rounded, not just capitalizing on certain pitches or parts of the strike zone.

Hitting coaches aren’t magicians who can make chicken salad out of chicken scratch, but they can certainly help refine a hitter’s approach. And those adjustments have all sorts of minor reverberations across a player’s profile.

2. Internal Improvements

The second part of this equation goes hand in hand with the first. The hope is that Albert and Budaska can unlock more well-rounded approaches from key Cardinal hitters already on the roster. Here’s a list of every Cardinal with over 100 plate appearances last season, along with their league-relative performance in the four contact categories. Since it’s league-relative, think of it the same way you would OPS+. 100 is average, and above 100 is above average. The lone exception is swinging strike percentage. A lower swinging strike percentage is better. In that case, a lower SwStr+ is better, although 100 is still average.

2018 Cardinals: League-Relative Contact Rates

Player O-Contact+ Z-Contact+ Contact+ SwStr+
Player O-Contact+ Z-Contact+ Contact+ SwStr+
Carpenter 92.0 101.3 100.7 80.0
G. Garcia 117.3 104.7 110.5 59.0
Pham 91.7 103.3 102.0 84.8
Wong 116.1 103.3 108.1 67.6
Fowler 99.0 97.0 98.2 98.1
J. Martinez 111.7 102.6 104.6 81.9
DeJong 90.1 102.2 98.8 104.8
Gyorko 98.7 97.8 98.0 108.6
Bader 96.9 97.0 96.5 111.4
Ozuna 99.8 101.2 99.7 107.6
O'Neill 67.1 76.5 73.3 217.1
Molina 125.1 103.7 109.5 80.0
Munoz 93.2 101.6 96.6 129.5
Pena 97.9 100.5 96.9 144.8

I included Tommy Pham, Greg Garcia, and Francisco Peña to give context about what will need to replaced. We can see there’s a lot of room for growth with Tyler O’Neill. Harrison Bader and Yairo Muñoz also offer opportunities for growth. Beyond those two, there are probably some marginal gains that can be made with Marcell Ozuna, Paul DeJong, and Jedd Gyorko, although Gyorko at this stage in his career may just be whatever he’s going to be.

3. More playing time for Carson Kelly

I didn’t discuss Peña too much above because I was saving it. There’s a ready-made replacement on the roster in Carson Kelly, who makes plenty of sense as a replacement before taking contact rates into consideration. It just so happens that Kelly has performed very well in the contact metrics through his small sample of 131 MLB plate appearances thus far. It also tracks well with what we know about this minor league performance. Minor league contact rates are unavailable, but swinging strike percentages for the minors can be found. In that measure, Kelly has consistently ranked in the upper quartile amongst AA and AAA hitters.

He’s also replacing Peña, who was below average in most contact categories, most notably a dreadful swinging strike percentage. Kelly replacing Peña will only help across 100 or so plate appearances, but every marginal gain counts.

4. Replace Greg Garcia

This is where it gets interesting. Whatever Greg Garcia was in 2018, his contact info was tremendous. It didn’t translate to more productivity because, well, he’s Greg Garcia, with limited other skills. But his contact rates were a thing of beauty. There’s another 200 plate appearances that will have to be replaced effectively.

If contact is truly imperative for the front office, there are two minor leaguers with the potential to approximate Garcia’s contact rates. Max Schrock, aka Nosferatu, and Tommy Edman both excelled in minimizing their swinging strike rates last season. Schrock boasted a 98th percentile swinging strike rate among all AA and AAA hitters. Neither were ready to contribute at the MLB level at the end of 2018, and both will need to develop to reach the point that they could be considered Garcia’s heir to the high contact throne. But both have the potential to be a high-contact bench bat.

5. Give John Nogowski a chance

The Cardinals have three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Mike Laga to Nick Stavinoha, of giving 50 to 100 plate appearances to a generic quad-A first baseman. In recent years, it was Luke Voit. This past season, 73 plate appearances went to Voit and Matt Adams. In 2019, those plate appearances could easily go to quad-A first baseman Jon Nogowski. In September, the Baron gave him the Matt Carpenter award and touted his bat to ball skills and a splendid batting eye. It shows up in his swinging strike rate, which was amazingly just as good as Max Schrock- the 98th percentile. He isn’t exactly a well-rounded prospect, or even a prospect, for that matter. But he doesn’t throw away at-bats and he would be a cheap, easy way to beef up team-wide contact rates for 50 plate appearances.

6. Free agent contact profiles

If the pursuit of a high profile free agent comes up empty, the Cardinals could use free agency to go all-in on a high contact lineup. Here are the percentile rankings, from 2016 to 2018, for this year’s batch of free agent infielders and outfielders.

Free Agent Contact Profiles

Name O-Ctct Pctile Z-Ctct Pctile Ctct Pctile SwStr Pctile
Name O-Ctct Pctile Z-Ctct Pctile Ctct Pctile SwStr Pctile
Michael Brantley 95.24% 100.00% 99.50% 99.12%
DJ LeMahieu 95.99% 98.75% 98.87% 98.62%
Nick Markakis 98.50% 91.48% 96.74% 97.49%
Denard Span 92.23% 97.37% 96.74% 96.49%
Jose Iglesias 98.25% 99.00% 98.00% 96.12%
Daniel Murphy 96.74% 98.37% 97.74% 94.74%
Ian Kinsler 86.59% 95.87% 94.11% 92.98%
Logan Forsythe 59.77% 51.25% 70.18% 87.47%
Jordy Mercer 73.68% 86.97% 82.08% 86.47%
Cameron Maybin 39.10% 75.82% 63.03% 76.57%
Jed Lowrie 77.95% 66.29% 79.70% 76.57%
Chris Young 48.75% 43.36% 55.14% 68.67%
A.J. Pollock 44.24% 88.72% 67.04% 68.67%
Neil Walker 68.55% 60.40% 64.29% 67.92%
Brian Dozier 61.53% 37.85% 55.14% 67.17%
Andrew McCutchen 56.27% 33.96% 55.89% 64.04%
Brandon Guyer 64.16% 53.89% 64.29% 64.04%
Asdrubal Cabrera 67.54% 62.91% 65.16% 59.02%
Jon Jay 66.79% 79.32% 72.18% 59.02%
Gerardo Parra 66.17% 80.20% 73.43% 57.02%
Lonnie Chisenhall 84.46% 72.56% 75.56% 57.02%
Adeiny Hechavarria 79.20% 74.19% 76.19% 57.02%
Steve Pearce 24.56% 62.91% 50.25% 53.63%
Marwin Gonzalez 51.38% 61.91% 48.50% 53.63%
Manny Machado 62.66% 64.16% 60.90% 53.63%
Freddy Galvis 77.95% 60.40% 64.29% 53.63%
Mike Moustakas 70.55% 74.19% 69.17% 51.25%
Austin Jackson 26.19% 30.58% 38.97% 48.50%
Josh Donaldson 36.34% 18.80% 27.82% 43.36%
Matt Joyce 26.57% 12.41% 25.19% 41.73%
Josh Harrison 88.97% 27.69% 63.03% 41.73%
Lucas Duda 17.67% 40.10% 21.68% 39.72%
Bryce Harper 31.45% 28.70% 27.82% 36.09%
Rajai Davis 37.34% 56.39% 46.87% 33.71%
Matt Adams 41.23% 38.85% 28.45% 20.05%
Mark Reynolds 6.27% 8.15% 8.77% 15.04%
Carlos Gonzalez 19.80% 19.93% 12.91% 10.28%
Carlos Gomez 24.94% 13.91% 13.53% 5.14%

There are a lot of these we can dismiss out of hand. The bonanza of second basemen (LeMahieu, Kinsler, Forsythe, Dozier, Lowrie), for instance, is unnecessary. Daniel Murphy could be interesting as long as you limit him strictly to first base. The bonus is that he adds the left-handed punch the Cardinals have wanted. In that same vein, Brantley is left-handed, a contact pest to opposing pitchers, and could eat up an outfield slot, complete with the requisite safety net of depth to cover him should he deal with injuries.

Jordy Mercer is an intriguing potential replacement for Greg Garcia, albeit an unlikely one. He’s liable to find a more reliable job somewhere else offering more playing time. But he certainly fills the bill as a middle infielder who will foul pitch after pitch away and annoy the piss out of opposing team fans late in a game. Iglesias would serve the dual purpose of upgrading the defense while adding contact to the lineup. (note: I am not advocating for this)

None of these are obvious fits, and a few of them would require some roster reconstruction. The Cardinals would have to go all-in on the high contact strategy to commit to, say, Murphy, Iglesias, or even a bench version of Mercer. It’s out there, though, if they so desire.