During the coverage of the World Series, there’s been much discussion of contact rate. As in, it’s bad to strike out and you’re better off putting the ball in play. Normally I ignore straw men such as these. Nobody, and I mean nobody – argues that a strikeout is superior to a ball in play. But this “the Red Sox are good because contact” narrative has reached depths and lengths that it can no longer be ignored. (Looks sideways at you, FOX broadcast…)
I know that MLB will always generate a backlash toward facts, but let’s start there anyway.
In game 1, the Red Sox struck out 12 times. The Dodgers struck out 12 times. The Red Sox won.
In game 2, the Red Sox struck out eight times. The Dodgers struck out eight times. The Red Sox won.
If you said that red cars are faster than black cars and your evidence was that you saw a red Ferrari beat a black Prius in a race, you wouldn’t sound any sillier than when you say the Red Sox win because of “contact”.
But for the sake of discussion, let’s look at the Red Sox a little more closely:
The 2018 Red Sox led the American League in runs scored with 876. That’s 91 more than they scored in 2017 when they were sixth in the league. Their strikeout percentage must’ve dropped, correct?
Nope. It actually went up 1.6% from ’17 to ’18.
What about their overall contact rate, that must’ve improved right?
Wrong again. Their contact percentage dropped slightly.
Their walk rate was exactly the same from 2017 to 2018 and their chase rate was only .04% different.
So what accounted for the drastic increase in offensive output from last season to this? What could turn an average offensive team into an offensive powerhouse?
As always, check the OBP and SLG. Again, ALWAYS check the OBP and SLG first. The Sawx OBP went from .329 to .339 and their SLG went from .407 to .453 from last season to this. So they get on base more and they advance the runners way more efficiently. Pretty simple.
But if we want to know what led to that, we can look a little closer. (Now that we know it is certainly not a “contact” approach…)
We do know that that Red Sox batting average on balls in play went from .300 to .309 from last season to this one. That may be a little bit of good fortune but it’s more likely that’s due to the fact they hit the ball harder in 2018 than they did in 2017. Since nothing else shows that their approach changed, I’m going to attribute this to marked improvement in some players over the year (like Mookie Betts and Xander Boegarts, both of whom had massive increases in their percentage of balls hit hard) and the fact that J.D. Martinez got 649 plate appearances for the 2018 Sox.
Issue, meet crux. The Red Sox aren’t better than other teams because they make contact. They’re better than other teams because they make HARD contact.
Soft ground balls and infield pop-ups aren’t quite automatic outs, but they’re pretty close.
However, the difference between hitting the weakly and hitting it hard is a massive difference. See Tom Tango’s work on this, but essentially what he found was that batted balls with an exit velocity of between 70 and 90 mph had essentially no difference in results – luck basically decided the outcome. But balls hit at 95 mph or greater were very likely to be hits, usually extra-base hits (the league batting average on those balls was about .750).
Stop building your straw men. As I said, nobody is arguing that a strikeout is inconsequential. But it’s obvious (if you’re following the conversation) that how often a team or player strikes out doesn’t have as much to do with scoring runs, and therefore winning games as most Luddite ex-jocks will tell you.
The goal should never be to make contact. The goal should be to make hard contact.
I want to hear John Smoltz or anyone on FOX punch a hole in that logic.
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