Power > Contact. Sorry ARod, Smoltz.

Having seen four games this season that either ARod or John Smoltz have called, I’ve noticed – hell, Helen Keller would’ve noticed – that they are still sticking to this notion of contact hitting being superior to the swing hard, all or nothing, it’s all about the home runs type of baseball. That players and teams that are better at simply just making contact are giving themselves a better chance to succeed.

ARod continually mentions that the past few World Series contestants have proved him correct and Smoltz is always referencing power hitters having holes, and it’s the guys who make more contact who are the better offensive players.

Now, those of you who have heard ARod and Smoltz call games before will not be surprised in the least, to learn that their general and repetitive assertions about contact hitting being superior to power-hitting can be demonstratively proven as incorrect.

Here’s the thing: Contact, in the absence of power, is pretty useless. Thanks to Statcast, we know that hitting a ball weakly isn’t quite an automatic out, but it’s pretty close. Only when contact is accompanied by power – hard contact – does making contact have any value. This is true on both an individual level and a team level.

For example,  we know the following hitters were the best at making contact in MLB since we’ve been able to track such things (minimum 4,000 plate appearances):

Juan Pierre, Marco Scutaro, Luis Castillo, David Eckstein and Placido Polanco.

Below are their career contact rates along with their career wRC+. If you’re new to wRC+ all you need to know for today’s purposes is that it’s a comprehensive statistic using multiple factors to grade a player’s performance in the batter’s box – league average is 100 (so 110 is 10% better than league average, 90 is 10% worse than league average).

  Contact % wRC+
1. Juan Pierre 93.7% 86
2. Marco Scutaro 92.8% 96
3. Luis Castillo 92.7% 97
4. David Eckstein 92.4% 92
5. Placido Polanco 91.9% 97

So we are not exaggerating when we write that the literal best contact hitters ever are all also all below league average hitters for their careers.

Let’s move down – way down – the contact % leaderboard. Among 249 players with at least 4,000 AB, here are some notable names who are absolutely horrible contact hitters and their wRC+:

224. Bryce Harper 74.1% 138
238. Nelson Cruz 72.3% 132
244. Jim Thome 69.7% 145
246. Giancarlo Stanton 68.2% 143
248. Ryan Howard 67.4% 121

If you’re following ARod’s and Smoltz’ logic, you’d rather have the five guys on the first list in your lineup than the guys on the second list. And quite ironically, ARod was quite the crappy contact hitter himself – he came in at number 218 out of 249 on that list with a career 75% contact rate (career 141 wRC+, 696 HR).

If you’re curious, Barry Bonds’ contact rate was 82.7%, Mike Trout’s is 81.8%.

So we know it’s silly to think that contact hitters are better for your offense than players who hit with power. But what about teams? Are teams with many contact hitters and high contact rates more likely to compete for and win championships than the swing from the heels teams?

Again, we find the same thing: Contact in and of itself, is pretty useless. But contact combined with power? That’s when you can start thinking about your ring size.

As ARod always (always) mentions recent World Series’ winners as examples of teams who win because of contact, let’s take a look at the last three World Series’ and the contestants:

2019 – Houston vs. Washington.

Both teams did in fact have the best two contact percentages in MLB. However, the Angels and the Pirates had the 3rd and 4th best respectively, with almost the exact same contact percentage as Washington. Both the Angels and Pirates were below league average in runs scored in 2019.

So what gives? Both the Angels and the Pirates were also below league average in slugging %. They made contact, but not very hard contact, so the high contact rate was useless.

Conversely, the 2019 Astros posted the highest SLG% of all time. Washington was 3rd in the NL in SLG%. Again, it wasn’t the high contact % that helped, it was high contact % with power.

2018 – Boston vs. LA Dodgers:

Boston was 3rd in the AL in contact % in 2018, the Dodgers were 6th in the NL. Fifth in the NL in 2018 were the Miami Marlins, who finished dead last in MLB in runs scored because (wait for it…) they also finished dead last in SLG% in MLB as well.

Meanwhile, the 2018 Red Sox led MLB in SLG while the Dodgers led the NL. It wasn’t that they made frequent contact, it was that they made frequent hard contact (unlike the Marlins).

2017 – Houston vs. LA Dodgers.

The championship-winning Houston Astros finished first in MLB in contact % in 2017, just ahead of the Pirates (81.2% to 79.6%). The Pirates finished 28th in MLB in runs scored because they (…again wait for it…) did not hit with any power. The Pirates finished 29th in MLB in SLG% in 2017.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers were 9th in contact % in the NL in 2017.

 

We can go back further if you’d like but it gets worse for the just make contact crowd. The 2016 World Series-winning Chicago Cubs finished 12th in the NL in contact %.

ARod using the Astros, Nationals, and Red Sox recent successes as proof that high contact % teams win is like seeing a red Ferrari and a red Porsche and telling people to paint their cars red if they want to go fast.

Of course, players who can make consistent hard contact are your best bet. If you have an opportunity to add a Barry Bonds or a Mike Trout to your team, do it. (He wrote, sarcastically…)

But if you have a choice between having Stanton, Cruz, or Harper in your lineup – you know, those short-sighted all or nothing guys – instead of David Fletcher (2019’s best contact hitter) remember:

Chicks dig the long ball.

So do teams that want to win games.

Did I miss something? Let me know.

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