At some point in your baseball fanhood, you probably start formulating your ideal player. And if you’re here, that formulation includes statistics. Maybe you like the old OPS benchmark of .300/.400/.500 with steals and homers to boot. Or maybe it’s all about weighted runs created above average. In my case, I was fascinated with plate discipline. Give him a walk rate that’s higher than his strikeout rate — first and foremost — and you’re well on your way to building my perfect player.
This sort of thing might happen on an organizational level, too. Dave Hudgens was the minor league hitting coordinator for the Indians, and he helped shepherd an organization-wide rise in walk rate. The Mets’ new GM took a liking to that and installed him with their big league team. And the team has since swung less at pitches outside the zone, so he’s been deemed a success. And, as the team was drawn to a coach that coaxes walks, the organization probably prefer players that do the same. To the point where they might ignore flaws to do so (Lucas Duda?).
The flip side of this process might be that players that don’t fit your profile of an ideal slip through the cracks. Take Brandon Phillips.
Brandon Phillips reaches. Brandon Phillips whiffs. Brandon Phillips doesn’t walk. Brandon Phillips is still a very good player. And two organizations passed him up, perhaps because they were looking for him to do things he can’t do.
In recent years, Phillips has begun making more contact, but contact is not the best part of his game. He’s never once put up a swinging strike rate that was better than the league average. He’s also consistently struck out less than the league average. These things can be linked — Albert Lyu and I went on a mini-tangent about these players two years ago — so this isn’t about the fact that Phillips’ aggressiveness helps him avoid the strikeout.
Even if we showed that some players can use aggressiveness to avoid the strikeout despite some contact issues, we didn’t take the next step to show how this might affect a player’s overall value. Because if you are being aggressive and avoiding the strikeout, you’re also avoiding the walk.
Let’s look at some other players that profile like Phillips at the plate. Phillips has had a swinging strike rate over ten percent for his career, so let’s clip qualified players since 2002 there. Phillips has never struck out as much 20% of the time, so let’s cut the group around the league-average strikeout rate. He has average-ish power, so let’s cull those over a .200 isolated slugging percentage, and those under .130. He also swings at pitches outside the zone more than average, so let’s get rid of those with a better eye for the zone. So far we’re far from describing an ideal player, but we are describing a Phillipsian dude. Here they are:
There would have been a time in my life where I would have automatically denigrated everyone on this list. There’s not an average walk rate here, and the strikeout rates are not elite, just not terrible. That version of myself would have pointed to the group’s mediocre offense as evidence of my correctness. As a group, they produce on a level that is three percent worse than the league! Their average on base percentage is .317! No thanks.
For some of these players, the denigration is perhaps warranted. If you pair this sort of offense with bad fielding and suspect baserunning, as Delmon Young, Brennan Boesch, Matt Diaz and Xavier Nady have, then it’s going to be tough to add value to your team. Even if you aren’t striking out as much as you ‘should’ be, given your tools.
But you can’t ignore the rest of the package. Sort the group by fielding, and Phillips zooms to the top. Sort it by baserunning, and he’s number one. And so he’s the best of the bunch by wins, too. And the other positive contributors are also at premium defensive positions, showing good defense. Or in Adam Jones‘ case, good baserunning.
Sort the list by power, and you get Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval at the top — the two best wRC+ scores in the group. With a different power cutoff, you might find Adrian Beltre here. In a way, they might be even more ideal versions of this player — ugly at the plate when it comes to discerning balls and strikes, but with enough power and defense to be good players.
Not every player should be told to swing less and focus on drawing walks. Some should be told to be aggressive and get out in front of those strikeouts. Not every player will use great plate discipline to add value to their team. Sometimes you have to focus on what that player does correctly, and work to emphasize those parts of their game. Not every player has to live up to an ideal, cookie-cutter approach in order to be a star.
Take Brandon Phillips. The Reds did.