Making More Contact Isn't Always A Good Thing

PEORIA, AZ - MARCH 12: Chone Figgins #9 of the Seattle Mariners hits a RBI single against the Oakland Athletics during the second inning of the spring training game at Peoria Stadium on March 12, 2011 in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

There are few things more demoralizing than watching a hitter swing right through a pitch. That said, making more contact isn't always an improvement.

A hitter's job, when boiled down to its simplest level, is to produce runs and avoid making outs. As far as the latter is concerned, drawing walks is important, but much of the run production is the result of hits and balls in play. It stands to reason, then, that if a hitter suddenly becomes able to hit more pitches, he'll be more productive, right?

It sounds good in theory. Swings and misses never help anyone, so more contact should always be a good thing. But in reality, we see that this isn't the case. To illustrate the point, here are a few examples from the 2011 season, where Contact% = times a hitter hits the ball / swings:

Successes

 

Prince Fielder

Career Contact%: 77%
2011 Contact%: 85%

Career OPS: .927
2011 OPS: 1.022

David Ortiz

Career Contact%: 78%
2011 Contact%: 85%

Career OPS: .923
2011 OPS: .994

Jose Reyes

Career Contact%: 87%
2011 Contact%: 90%

Career OPS: .779
2011 OPS: .921

*****

Non-Successes

 

Adrian Beltre

Career Contact%: 80%
2011 Contact%: 86%

Career OPS: .790
2011 OPS: .775

Chone Figgins

Career Contact%: 87%
2011 Contact%: 90%

Career OPS: .724
2011 OPS: .514

Ian Kinsler

Career Contact%: 87%
2011 Contact%: 92%

Career OPS: .816
2011 OPS: .758

James Loney

Career Contact%: 88%
2011 Contact%: 91%

Career OPS: .769
2011 OPS: .631

*****

In Fielder, Ortiz, and Reyes we have three of the more important hitters in baseball to date. These are players without whom their teams wouldn't be close to where they are, and these are players who have managed to hit the baseball more often than they have in the past.

But on the other side of the coin, we have disappointments in Figgins and Loney. We have underachievers in Kinsler and Beltre. Casey McGehee's in here as well, and this is hardly the whole group. Here we have hitters who have been making more contact, but finding worse results.

The conclusion here is very simple - so simple, in fact, that maybe I didn't need to write this up in the first place. It isn't about the frequency of contact so much as it's about the quality of contact, and while the two can be related, it isn't always the case. If a hitter can improve his contact without sacrificing quality, he'll be more productive. If he can't, though, he won't help. Balls in play are not the goal.

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