One of the more intriguing free agents, to me, is Marco Scutaro. After years of solidly below-average production, he was traded to the Jays and in 2008 had a good year last year (WAR 2.7) and then busted out this year with a WAR of 4.5 (making him one of the top 35 position players).

The big change came at the plate. Prior to this year, he had always been a below-average offensive player (negative wRAA every year), but this year he posted a wOBA of .354 over 680 PAs to provide 14 runs above average at the plate. Doing that while playing average defense at short will result in huge value, as seen by his 4.5 WAR.

The increase in offensive value came, largely, from an increased walk rate, 13.6%, a career high for him and in the top 25 of all of baseball. He coupled that with a low strikeout rate; he was one of the few players in the game to have more walks than strikeouts. This led to a jump in his OBP, and thus offensive value.

A big drop in his swing rate and increase in his contact rate caused to the increase in walks. He was the second best at not swinging at pitches out of the zone (12.3%), had the third lowest overall swing rate (34.5%, behind only Bobby Abreu and Luis Castillo), and he tied Castillo for the highest contact percentage (93.3%). His offensive game is very similar to Castillo’s, which I described in this post.

Here is what it looks like to swing at almost nothing. I mapped out his swing probability by pitch location and then drew the contour line where it switches from greater than 50% to less than 50%. So he is more likely than not to swing at pitches inside the contour line, and less likely than not to swing at those outside. I broke it up based on the number of strikes and, for the zero-strike case, also plotted the 25% contour. I plotted Scutaro’s contours and the average for all right handed batters.

When there are zero strikes Scutaro’s 50% contour is non-existent. On average he takes a pitch even if it is right down the middle when he has no strikes. Generally, he swings at fewer pitches out of the zone, but he is also taking lots of pitches in the zone compared to average. By swinging, Scutaro has a chance to end the at-bat; instead, he will take pitches in hopes of continuing the at-bat and getting enough balls to earn a walk. He will take some strikes, but that is ok, because once he gets two strikes, his contact skills are so good he will rarely strike out swinging.

Here are the same graphs as above but for contact rate, and the contours are for the 90% contact rate. So on pitches inside the contour Scutaro has a greater than 90% contact rate.

Scutaro’s are, not surprisingly, much larger than average, and they get bigger as the number of strikes increases. So he is able to swing defensively at two strikes and rarely miss a pitch. This means he can take pitches freely up to that point, hope they are balls to get a walk, but even if they are strikes, he will be ok.

As I noted, Scutaro’s approach is very simliar to Castillo’s. The difference is that Scutaro hit only 37% of his balls in play on the ground compared to 59% for Castillo. So when Scutaro puts the ball in play, he actually has some chance at extra base hits (ISO of .127 compared to Castillo’s .043). Scutaro has Castillo’s excellent plate discipline and contact skills, coupled with at least a modicum of power, making him a solidly above average hitter.

Scutaro is due for some serious regression to his offensive level, as is anyone who posts 2400 PAs at wOBA of .311 and then 680 at .354. But I think that, because the change is supported by the per-pitch level data, which is not immune from regression itself, we can temper that regression somewhat.

Scutaro can play average defense at second or slightly below average at short, is 34 coming off far and away a career year at the plate, and is a type A free agent. It will be interesting to see what kind of deal he gets.