Several weeks ago, there was some concern over Edwin Encarnacion. He was having a somewhat strikeout-prone April, and he was having an under-powered April, and Jays fans weren’t sure what to make of the guy going forward. He’s since hit 13 home runs in May, all in a span of 20 games, and now he basically seems like himself, and on a hot streak to boot. All concern has been erased.
Similarly, people were very worried about George Springer after an underwhelming first couple weeks. Of course, Springer didn’t have Encarnacion’s track record, and of course, Springer was a rookie getting exposed to the majors for the first time, but I’d field questions in my chats about whether or not Springer might get demoted since his power was totally absent. In April, Springer batted .182 without a single dinger. In May, he’s batted .325 with eight dingers, and he’s homered in four games in a row. Springer has been one of the best hitters in baseball lately, and the initial overreaction now seems silly and absurd. Give rookies time. Especially the really good ones.
One thing Springer hasn’t done in May is cut down on the strikeouts. In April, he struck out just under a third of the time. In May, he’s struck out just under a third of the time. And anyone who knows anything about George Springer knows that the strikeouts will forever be a huge part of the equation. That was the big issue for him as he rose through the minor leagues, and issues like this tend not to resolve themselves simply. Springer has always swung and missed a lot, and he probably always will. He’s running one of baseball’s lowest contact rates, and he’s lately been succeeding despite that.
So, let’s talk a little about how. A league-average strikeout rate is about 20%. Springer’s is north of 30%. A league-average contact rate is about 80%. Springer’s is closer to 60% than 70%. Less than two-thirds of the time that Springer has swung so far has he made contact with the baseball. What some people might suggest is that there’s a line beyond which a player simply misses too much to be good, and Springer might be close to that line. Springer might be beyond that line. Springer skeptics have always been first and foremost skeptical about the future of a guy who whiffs so much.
A whiff is, basically, an empty swing. A strikeout is, basically, an empty plate appearance. Every additional whiff is a missed opportunity to do damage, and at some point a player might be reduced to having too few remaining opportunities to compensate. So the key for a guy like Springer is to maximize the contact that he does make. If we take it as a given that Springer will make contact a below-average amount of the time, then he will need for his contact to be above-average in terms of value. If Springer makes a lot out of his contact, then he can effectively cram the value of X contacts into Y/X contacts (where Y < X) (sorry about this).
So let’s make up a statistic. Let’s look at run value per time making contact, using plate-discipline statistics available here and also using information from the FanGraphs Guts page. We’ll look at singles, doubles, triples, and homers, all over times having made contact. So far in 2014, the league-average number is .140. Here’s the top 20, in value over average.
|Player||Runs/contact, over avg.|
This isn’t park-adjusted, but we’ll deal with that for now. Yasiel Puig leads the way, at almost a tenth of a run better than average for every time he’s made contact. Right behind him is Troy Tulowitzki. You see George Springer in the table, too, and the table shows 20 names out of 267. So Springer is in the top six percent, in terms of maximizing his contact.
And what if we just look at May? Here’s the top five, this time in bullet-point form for a change of pace:
- Yasiel Puig, .141 runs/contact, over avg.
- Giancarlo Stanton, .129
- Troy Tulowitzki, .123
- George Springer, .121
- Brandon Moss, .087
In May, Springer comes out ranking fourth. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that Springer has been making good contact when he’s made contact, but this goes to show that’s been true to an extreme. Springer actually made more frequent contact in April, but he’s made better contact in May, when he’s made it. He’s been up with the top hitters in baseball in that regard.
If you’re curious, the top five over the last three calendar years: Tulowitzki, Stanton, Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, and Mike Trout. Naturally, you should then park-adjust to make this a little better, but Springer, at his current rate, would rank among the very best. Some regression to the mean ought to be factored in, but it’s a question of how much, and there’s good reason to believe that Springer just knows how to make excellent contact when he does put the bat on the ball.
Even just looking at his swing, you get a good and accurate sense that Springer hits baseballs harder than the average player hits baseballs:
His career minor-league BABIP is .379, in part because he can run, in part because minor-league defense is worse, and in part because he hits the ball really hard. Springer, probably, is a guy who’s going to run above-average BABIPs, and that’s one means of maximizing contact. Jose Bautista hits homers instead of hitting for a high BABIP. Springer could be capable of both.
There’s also something else to point out. Dave just wrote about Mike Moustakas making terrible contact. Moustakas is among the league leaders in out-of-zone contact rate. Springer is in last, at 29%, separated from the runner-up by a full five percentage points. To repeat: for every ten swings Springer has attempted at balls, seven of them have missed. It’s interesting to look at his Brooks Baseball profile — Springer has attempted 47 swings at pitches below the zone, and 41 times, he’s missed. That’s fairly extreme, but what falls out of this is that Springer hasn’t put balls in play too often.
Just about 80% of his balls hit fair have been against pitches in the PITCHf/x strike zone. That ranks Springer near the very top of the league, and while the league is also populated by a number of bad-ball hitters, Springer isn’t one of them, and for hitters of his ilk, it’s better to make contact on strikes, because contact on balls results in easier outs. Springer hasn’t hit those balls. He’s completely missed those balls, oftentimes giving him another opportunity to maybe hit a strike. If Springer had a higher rate of contact on pitches out of the zone, his strikeouts would be lower, but he’d also make worse contact on average, so it probably wouldn’t be a benefit. And Springer hasn’t shown himself to be an over-aggressive hacker, so it’s not like he chases too often.
What I’m not quite sure of is where this goes — pitchers will notice that Springer doesn’t make contact on pitches down, and then there will have to be adjustments. Just as it was too early to overreact three weeks ago, it’s still too early to overreact now, to declare that Springer has arrived and is here to stay. Pitchers will keep on trying new things, and these are the good ones, the best ones he’s ever faced. But Springer has a track record of succeeding while whiffing, and now he’s carried that into the majors over a quarter of a year. He’s managed this because when he does make contact, he makes dangerous contact. That much you can get from his swing.
Some of the numbers are alarming, yeah. Springer’s made 65% contact. But then, over the past year, Chris Davis is at 67%. Giancarlo Stanton is at 69%. Yasiel Puig is at 70%. Springer, so far, has struck out 32% of the time. Over the past year, Davis is at 30%, and Mike Napoli is also at 30%. You can succeed with weird numbers, if you’re a freak. We don’t know yet if George Springer is sufficiently freaky, but I think we have an inkling.
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