Last week I wrote an article about plate discipline. It included the graph below, which shows where various Pirates hitters fall on a continuum of hitter aggressiveness and passivity.
The graph illustrates an uncontroversial truth: Starling Marte is among the most aggressive hitters in the game. He swings at pitches in the zone. He swings at pitches out of the zone. He swings at low-flying clouds. Sometimes, he swings at pitches like this.
Clearly, Marte's swing-profligacy hasn't prevented him from being a productive player--he's hitting a robust .283/.337/.439 this year, and has yet to post a below-average offensive season in the big leagues. Given his relative success, characterizing his free-swinging ways as a fatal flaw would, perhaps, be hyperbole. But the extent to which Marte's aggression helps or hinders him is certainly a matter worthy of debate.
To address this question in any meaningful way, we need to move beyond looking at swing percentages--several users correctly noted that looking at only whether a pitch was in the strike zone is overly simplistic. I agree. A comment from the user BurgherKing neatly sums up this stance:
it would be nice to a see a similar chart that took contact into account (perhaps O-Swing x (1.0 – O-contact), same for Z). I’d like to understand which hitters swing at pitches they can actually make contact with and which ones can’t. For instance, I’d expect Pedro to grade out badly there, but JHay to grade a bit better.
This is an intuitive, compelling point. Andrew McCutchen has what would generally appear to be fantastic plate discipline. He doesn't swing at many pitches outside the zone; he swings at most of the pitches within the zone. I was an admittedly horrific Little League player, but from the coaching that managed to penetrate the fog of my Capri Sun-fueled eight-year-old brain, I seem to remember McCutchen-esque plate discipline being the Platonic ideal to which we collectively aspired. But there are plenty of successful hitters who don't have conventionally attractive plate discipline profiles, and as we established last week, the correlation between O-Swing % and productivity is surprisingly weak.
Put another way, every hitter has pitches he's capable of hitting with authority, and pitches he isn't. Or at least, he has pitches he perceives himself as being able to hit with authority. And those pitches don't necessarily overlap perfectly with the strike zone. When the two conflict, hitters are usually going to err on the side of trying to put the barrel on the ball over trying to draw a walk.
Does it make sense, then, for guys like Marte or Adam Jones to swing at everything? Does the fact that they're capable of making contact with pitches outside the strike zone mean that they're justified in swinging at pretty much anything?
In order to shed some light on this, we need to look at quality of contact.
People seem to view 'contact' as an unambiguously good thing. If you're capable of getting the bat on the ball, it's forgivable to swing. I used to think something similar. At the very least, I thought that players with exceptional contact and/or raw power tools could be forgiven for the occasional eye-level misadventure. After all, I grew up watching Vladimir Guerrero's magical plate discipline journey.
I had a dim awareness that it was probably harder to make good contact on pitches outside the strike zone, but I didn't have any sort of concept of how much harder, nor any real knowledge of the explicit relationship between pitch location and contact quality.
Then I read an interview with Marco Scutaro where he responded to a question about his excellent contact hitting skills with a self-deprecating quote about leading the league in weak contact. Later, Joe Panik would reference the same concept--see the exact quote below.
“I’ve been learning to continue my fastball mentality and swing as if it’s a fastball — if it’s a breaking ball, say with no strikes or one strike, just keep that fastball mentality and swing through it."--Joe Panik
Both Scutaro and Panik apparently believe that there are some pitches you don't want to hit, even if you swing.
Is all contact good contact? Let's look at the contact Starling Marte has made thus far this season. The table below shows his production on contact through 08/12 (I know, I know--it took me an embarrassingly long time to write this article) on pitches both inside and outside the strike zone:
You don't need a PhD to see that Marte struggles to make high-quality contact on pitches out of the zone--he rarely hits the ball hard (the 78 MPH average exit velocity), rarely elevates it (FB and LD rates half of those in the zone), and only runs a .315 SLG on the pitches he hits. His batting average on contact is reasonable (we'll talk more about that later), but in general his production craters when the pitch he's hitting is out of the zone.
But, hey, maybe you think that in zone/out of zone is too blunt a dichotomy. We can look at the same thing by the pitch's distance from the center of the strike zone:
This is the same story, just with a bit more granularity. The further the pitch is from the heart of the plate, the more likely it is to be a weak ground ball. If you're more of a visual person, here's a graph illustrating how Marte's batted ball velocity changes based on pitch location:
Marte's been able to make reasonably hard contact on some of the borderline pitches, but when he hunts up and in or low and away the results haven't been pretty. The ensuing batted balls are displayed below.
There's a bit of a "he can hit those" fallacy going on here. Marte is indeed capable of making contact with pitches out of the strike zone--it's just that the contact he makes tends to be overwhelmingly of the 'soft grounder' variety.
Soft ground balls aren't necessarily a horrible thing. For most players, they're something like an automatic out, but Marte has the best infield hit percentage in baseball. And soft grounders tend to be quite infield hit-conducive.
All of this, however, reflects Marte's production when he makes contact--but as the chart below shows, he's also more likely to swing and miss at pitches the further away they are from the zone's center:
I think this pretty much answers the question of whether Marte would be a better offensive player if he could magically excise some of the more ill-conceived swings from his offensive game. He doesn't make high-quality contact on pitches outside the zone, and while his propensity for legging out infield hits masks some of this issue, the whiffs and soft grounders don't end up generating much production.
Starling Marte is a star, and thanks to his team-friendly extension he'll be manning left field for the Pirates for a very long time. He's already been a large part of the organization's turnaround. He's a legitimate five-tool player who can make catches like this and throws like this.
But if he wants to elevate his game to an MVP-candidate level, it might be worthwhile to take a second look at whether swinging at everything is really worth it.