George Springer and Maximizing Contact

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.
Yasiel Puig 0.092
Troy Tulowitzki 0.089
Giancarlo Stanton 0.086
Drew Stubbs 0.078
Juan Francisco 0.077
Derek Norris 0.061
Chase Utley 0.056
Seth Smith 0.052
Michael Brantley 0.050
Nelson Cruz 0.050
Paul Goldschmidt 0.050
Ryan Braun 0.050
A.J. Pollock 0.049
Carlos Gomez 0.048
George Springer 0.048
Justin Upton 0.048
Junior Lake 0.047
Adam LaRoche 0.046
Jose Bautista 0.045
Alexei Ramirez 0.044

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:

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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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Nick Kitson
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Nick Kitson
2 years 30 days ago

Awesome read.

Scoko
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Scoko
2 years 30 days ago

Yea his Ks in May are the same as his Ks in April, but he was on pace to shatter his april Ks until recently. 1 K last 4 games, 1 multi K game since may 18th.

Nick Kitson
Member
Nick Kitson
2 years 30 days ago

1 K in last 16AB, 8 hits and 5 HR. Pretty awesome stretch..

Scoko
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Scoko
2 years 30 days ago

Yup. Makes you dream about a world where he does not K, and the hilarity of his numbers in such a world.

Jason
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Jason
2 years 30 days ago

I think the most important thing here is that he’s on my fantasy team. JK. Good article.

Joe
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Joe
2 years 30 days ago

This was a great read. I know there are extreme scenarios here, but I probably wouldn’t sell this guy for anything less than someone from the first four rounds. That crazy?

grandbranyan
Member
grandbranyan
2 years 30 days ago

I don’t see Springer getting traded for a guy from the first four rounds personally. Numero uno, the draft hasn’t even happened yet & newly drafted players cannot be traded for one year after being drafted. El segundo, if the Astros like a draft eligible player enough that they would hypothetically trade Springer for him, why not just take that player with the first overall pick and keep Springer?

RunTeddyRun
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RunTeddyRun
2 years 30 days ago

I think he was speaking from a fantasy perspective, as a player in an opponent’s Top 4 should be a really good player. Springer was likely undrafted in most non-keeper formats. Otherwise, all your points are completely correct!

chase_bronstein
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chase_bronstein
2 years 27 days ago

I just traded Springer for Braun in a 12-team head to head league. And yes, the other guy is an Astros fan.

Ballfan
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Ballfan
2 years 30 days ago

so, it’s good he swings and misses so much?

not really, but that is a way to analyze the analysis

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 30 days ago

This, paired with the Moustakas article, suggests that if you’re going to swing at a pitch out of the zone, it very well may be better to miss than to make contact. Here we have a case study on the two primary outcomes of a swing at a “bad” pitch.

Springer just lets it go when he thinks he can hit a ball, and so there’s no point in adjusting his swing to hit a ball out of the zone. After all, if he didn’t think the ball was going to be in the zone, he probably wouldn’t have swung. The upshot of this is that he probably swings harder, considering he isn’t going to bother to try to adjust his swing in the middle. If there are less than two strikes, he’s just turned a ball into a strike, which isn’t the worst thing.

Moustakas may be losing power on his swing by making whatever adjustment is required that allows him to hit so many pitches out of the zone. On top of that, when he hits them, it’s quite likely he won’t hit it squarely, meaning it will likely be an out, both because his swing may lose power and because those pitches are just inherently harder to square up. That means he may be ending his at bat no matter the count.

Of course, the best thing to do is just not swing at pitches out of the zone (or hit them well, like Pablo Sandoval or Vlad Guerrero), but this is like an illustration of the lesser of two evils.

August Fagerstrom
Editor
Member
2 years 30 days ago

Think you might have blown this one by not naming it “George Springer: Sufficiently Freaky.”

James Alesi
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James Alesi
2 years 29 days ago

To get a better idea of Springer’s potential career arc, we’d have to compare k-rate over time to other players when they first came up. For example, what was Bo Jackson’s k-rate when he entered the league? How about Mike Schmidt? does Springer’s more closely resemble theirs, or perhaps Kevin Maas and Steve Balboni? Of course, it’s all about making adjustments. Guys like Jackson and Schmidt were able to. Others, not so much. How do we predict a player’s ability to make adjustments? Scouts?

jim fetterolf
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jim fetterolf
2 years 29 days ago

Springer’s whiffs are a natural result of an uppercut swing and swinging from his heels. He’ll launch a swing early and the uppercut limits intersection of arcs with the pitch, so he’ll get fooled by off speed and late motion will miss the bat, sort of like Tulo’s swing. But when they contact the ball is crushed. Pretty much the opposite of the Royals’ hitting philosophy. It’s a good swing for a guy with legitimate power in a park that allows it. We’ll see how he does when the pitchers get him booked.

Thanks, Comcast
Guest
Thanks, Comcast
2 years 29 days ago

“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.”

If I had to guess? Pitchers will start to nibble and they’ll find out that Springer doesn’t really chase. His O-Swing % is four points below the league average, and I think he’ll probably improve a few more points over the next couple years. If pitchers are unwilling to attack the strike zone, he’s going to draw free passes at an elite rate.

moosh
Member
moosh
2 years 29 days ago

I would pay to see Springer vs. Danny Worth’s knuckle ball.

Swingdoc
Member
Swingdoc
2 years 29 days ago

Been following Springer’s swing. I believe he made a swing change that began showing up mid month. He was swinging through middle/middle to slightly elevated fastballs before and seems to have corrected crunching his right shoulder under. Granted it is definitely SSS but May strikeout second half is down to 18% and he is connecting on the middle/middle fastball. Low pitch vulnerability however, is still there IMO due to a separate issue that he hasn’t fixed.

XanderFan
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XanderFan
2 years 29 days ago

Great article, Jeff. I think what a lot of analysts are missing is Springer’s strike zone judgment, which from what I’ve seen is quite good. As I write this, his OBP with the Astros is .350. Look at his minors stats (leaving out the 8 games he played at A- in 2011) — .383 OBP in 2012 between A+ and AA, .411 OBP in 2013 between AA and AAA.

He might not make contact much on pitches outside the strike zone, as you said, but unlike so many flash-in-the-pan power hitters, he has some idea of when NOT to swing at a pitch outside the zone. The guy I’ve heard him compared to most is Mike Cameron — another power/speed hitter who could draw a walk but usually struck out a ton. The Springer nay-sayers like Rob Nyer and Chris Cwik don’t even bother to mention his proven ability to get on base. Apparently they consider OBP irrelevant.

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