The Remarkable Marco Scutaro

Marco Scutaro made his Major League debut at age-26. It took him two years to get regular playing time, and at age-28, given his first real chance as a big leaguer, he hit .273/.297/.393, good for a 77 wRC+ and an exactly replacement level performance. Undeterred, the A’s stuck with him, and he eventually turned into something pretty close to a league average hitter. From 2005 to 2012 — his age-29 to age-36 seasons — Scutaro posted a 98 wRC+, which isn’t bad at all for a middle infielder. He wasn’t anything special, but through hard work, a no-tools non-prospect turned himself into an average player. That’s a pretty big accomplishment.

But that’s not the amazing thing about Marco Scutaro. Well, not the most amazing thing anyway. The real remarkable story here is how he’s just continuing to get better.

Take a look at his strikeout trends over each year of his career.

ScutaroK

We know strikeout rate has really taken off the last five years or so, but during the time that no one else has been able to make contact, an aging Marco Scutaro has improved his K% every single season. If you prefer numbers to charts, here are his strikeout rates since 2009: 11.0%, 10.1%, 8.1%, 7.2%, 6.7%. At age-28, Scutaro struck out 25% less often than the average position player in the American League. 10 years later, he’s striking out 65% less often than the average position player in the National League.

This transformation into an elite contact wizard hasn’t just caused Scutaro to trade strikeouts for in play outs either, as both his ISO and his BABIPs have remained steady or even increased over this period. This isn’t a trade-off; it’s just an improvement.

And while super high contact numbers aren’t always a great thing for hitters — they often can be combined with a complete lack of power or plate discipline — Scutaro has basically refined his approach to maximize performance. Over the last calendar year, he’s posted the third lowest rate of swings on pitches out of the strike zone, and he owns the highest contact rate on pitches in the strike zone. In other words, Scutaro won’t swing at balls and he doesn’t miss strikes. Even with modest power, that approach can be highly effective.

Over that same past 365 day window, Scutaro has hit .327/.370/.422, good for a 120 wRC+. For comparison, that puts him just ahead of guys like Howie Kendrick and Chase Utley, who we profiled as still an excellent player yesterday. Among qualified second baseman, Scutaro ranks fifth in wRC+ over the last year, and he’s not that far behind guys like Dustin Pedroia (127 wRC+).

At a point in his career where most players are a shell of their prior selves, Scutaro is better than he’s ever been, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Over the last year, he’s been worth +3.5 WAR while hitting five home runs and stealing three bases. He might be the least toolsy player in the entire sport, but he has learned to completely own the strike zone, and that single skill alone has made him one of the best second baseman in baseball.

Tools are great. Yasiel Puig is probably going to become a terrific player even if he never learns the nuances of the strike zone simply because of the athletic gifts he has. It is a lot of fun to watch guys like Puig, who can do things that you just don’t think any human should be able to do on a baseball field.

But baseball, at its heart, is a conflict of the batter and pitcher fighting to control the strike zone. All the tools in the world are useless if you can’t win that battle, and as Scutaro as showing, you can be a good big league player without any superior physical skills if you win that battle almost every time you go up to the plate. No player in baseball wins the battle of the strike zone more often than a 37-year-old underpowered middle infielder. He doesn’t draw walks because pitchers are scared of him; he draws walks because pitchers can’t get him out.

Every fringe prospect, every bench player, every undersized guy in the minors should look to Marco Scutaro as their inspiration. They don’t have to become Marco Scutaro 2.0, but he’s the example of what you can be if you learn how to completely take over the batter/pitcher conflict. Learn the strike zone, study pitchers, swing only at strikes, and good things will happen.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Eric W.
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Eric W.
3 years 26 days ago

I thought it was a pretty interesting article actually.

Shankbone
Guest
3 years 26 days ago

The 27th best Front Office in baseball took a look at the back of his baseball card and decided it was time to have another old vet on the payroll.

Eminor3rd
Member
Eminor3rd
3 years 26 days ago

NUH UH STEROIDS

Al Dimond
Guest
3 years 26 days ago

The sad thing is that Scutaro had already established a legacy as definitively one of the players in his generation to play Major League Baseball before his late-career surge.

Brian
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Brian
3 years 26 days ago

Couldn’t the headline have been “The ReMARCOble Marco Scutaro”?

Ruki Motomiya
Member
Ruki Motomiya
3 years 26 days ago

I wish it was.

Nivra
Guest
Nivra
3 years 22 days ago

Better, IMO: “The ReMARCOble Scutaro”?

thirteenthirteen
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thirteenthirteen
3 years 26 days ago

Nice piece. I just love Scutaro. His plate approach is a joy to watch. And it’s amazing that it is clearly a learned skill, not a natural ability. I have to think that when he retires he will be in high demand as a coach.

MLBanalyst34432
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MLBanalyst34432
3 years 26 days ago

I hope the Giants do.

siggian
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siggian
3 years 26 days ago

This is sort of how Munenori Kawasaki operates too, but with less ability.

Basil Ganglia
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Basil Ganglia
3 years 26 days ago

I remember when the Mets put him on waivers, and he was exactly the utility infielder the Mariners needed. But no, they wanted Jolbert Cabrera instead!!

Neil Weinberg
Editor
3 years 26 days ago

“But baseball, at its heart, is a conflict of the batter and pitcher fighting to control the strike zone.”

Often forgotten, very well said. Good stuff.

Shlum
Guest
Shlum
3 years 26 days ago

A day after the NBA draft, where players are eyeballed mostly for their height and natural freakish abilities to leap into the air, it is refreshing to see Marco Scutaro, a man of likely modest natural athleticism, achieve at the highest level, through the sweat of his brow.

That’s ‘Merica.

rusty
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rusty
3 years 26 days ago

I remain baffled as to how he put up the numbers he has since the start of 2012:
Rockies (415 PAs): .271/.324/.361
Giants (566 PAs): .342/.381/.447

Josh M
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Josh M
3 years 25 days ago

Its amazing that it looked like he was done as far as being a useful player in Colorado before being traded to the Giants.

BalkingHeads
Member
BalkingHeads
3 years 26 days ago

Good thing the Red Sox traded him for Clayton Mortensen.

Brian Gerson
Guest
3 years 26 days ago

Great article! I’m a huge fan of Scutaro and is uniquely remarkable—and often unremarked-upon—ability to get the bat on the ball. Whether its no outs in the first inning or two in the ninth with the tying runner on base, I don’t know if there’s another batter on the squad that I’d put in the box to make a play happen.

Tom
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Tom
3 years 26 days ago
Jon L.
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Jon L.
3 years 26 days ago

Apparent contradiction notwithstanding, he may not have been too far off:

“Assuming his body holds up, Scutaro has a really nice chance to be a +2 win player in 2013, so giving him $8 million for next year is perfectly acceptable. But, unless Scutaro has some kind of age-defying magical powers, expecting him to still be an average player at 38/39 is probably a stretch.”

“It’s not going to be a huge waste of cash. If Scutaro gives the Giants four wins over the next three years, then the contract will be close to fair. And there’s a decent chance that Scutaro gives them four wins.”

Jonathan Sher
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Jonathan Sher
3 years 24 days ago

Dave’s biggest mistake in the linked article was make an outlandish claim in the headline that wasn’t at all supported by what followed – the quote you refer somehow came in a piece entitled, “Marco Scutaro and Irrational Exuberance.” There was never anything irrational about the contract.

Dave’s lesser mistake was to let his hypothesis color his use of stats:

“Scutaro is the exact same kind of player he was a year ago – an extremely high contact hitter who looks good when his balls in play go for singles and pretty meh when they don’t. There’s real value in having a guy who almost never strikes out, and Scutaro hasn’t really shown too many signs that he’s getting worse as he gets older. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that anything Scutaro did in the second half represented a real improvement on his behalf.”

The best Dave would say them was that Scutaro hadn’t gotten worse over time. He was so determined to show that Marco’s surge the end of 2012 was unsustainable — which clearly it was — he missed the evidence of less obvious but clear improvement. That’s no biggie in my book — Dave write a ton, most of it is excellent and missing the incremental improvement in Scutaro is hardly a wild swing and miss. It just wasn’t one of his better at-bats.

kazinski
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kazinski
3 years 25 days ago

Dustin Ackley thought he had this figured out too, until it turned out he knew the strikezone better than the umpires.

Not only do you need to know the strikezone better than everybody else, you need to know everybody else’s strikezone.

Rogers Hornsby
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Rogers Hornsby
3 years 25 days ago

I agree. Those bastards couldn’t see the edges of the zone if it had posts.

Astro Villain
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Astro Villain
3 years 25 days ago

I remember watching him in Norfolk when I was a kid and I also remember him as one of the better players I’ve seen play there. Just checked his stats and I wasn’t wrong as an 11 and 12 year old. It’s awesome to see him continue on like this. Definitely one of my favorite players.

james wilson
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james wilson
3 years 25 days ago

The Red Sox loved Scutaro, who played hurt most of his last year there, but everyone knew his shoulder could not handle another season at SS.

Hank
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Hank
3 years 25 days ago

and second base in Boston is pretty well locked up for the foreseeable future.

B N
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B N
3 years 25 days ago

While people may refer to players like Scutaro as being not “toolsy” I think that is primarily a reflection of the lack of advancement in our concepts of “tools” over the last 50+ years. I’m still quite surprised that we don’t report on things like fast-twitch reflexes, reaction time, visual skills, and other “head tools” that are obviously essential to baseball. While we mention them when guys like McCann struggle (and revive) after correcting vision issues, it’s somehow like we still don’t consider the ability to predict where a 90+ MPH ball will hit a “tool.”

Personally, I think that someday we will recognize that guys like Scutaro possess some additional tools we haven’t been looking at as closely. There’s simply no way you can do what he does without exceptional vision, path prediction/recognition, contextual memory (to know pitchers), and other talents in addition to practice. I simply do not believe that most middle infielders, regardless of how much training or practice they put in, could do what Scutaro does.

Synovia
Guest
Synovia
3 years 23 days ago

Exactly. Marco Scutaro has some of the best hand-eye coordination in baseball.

He’s learned to use it better, but what he has absolutely cannot be learned. It’s an innate skill.

RY
Guest
RY
3 years 25 days ago

We may need to create a separate subset of “tools in baseball”. One being a brain. The Giants would not have won the ring in 2012 without Scutaro’s Baseball IQ on the field.

chief00
Guest
chief00
3 years 24 days ago

Scutaro’s strike zone mastery and the offense that emerged from it essentially replaced Melky’s bat after he was caught doing something bad.

I watched Marco in Toronto and was sorry they didn’t make a better effort to re-sign him. It was already becoming more obvious that he was improving every year. Losing him to a divisional rival, though? Ouch.

Great article. I’m glad to see him thriving and being a key contributor for a WS team.

Misfit
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Misfit
3 years 23 days ago

Part of the fun of watching Red Sox games during Scutaro’s first season with the club was watching to see when he would swing and miss for the first time. If he didn’t make it through April he came very close.

Synovia
Guest
Synovia
3 years 23 days ago

“Every fringe prospect, every bench player, every undersized guy in the minors should look to Marco Scutaro as their inspiration. They don’t have to become Marco Scutaro 2.0, but he’s the example of what you can be if you learn how to completely take over the batter/pitcher conflict. Learn the strike zone, study pitchers, swing only at strikes, and good things will happen.”

There’s nothing I hate more than comments like this. The fact that what Scutaro does isn’t flashy or doesn’t involve running incredibly fast doesn’t mean that its something people can learn, or that its a product of hard work, and other guys could do it if they just stopped being lazy.

Scutaro has absolutely fantastic, even among MLB players, hand-eye coordination. Its a tool, not a learned behavior.

rageon
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rageon
3 years 23 days ago

Marco!

Nivra
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Nivra
3 years 22 days ago

Polo!

fergie348
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fergie348
3 years 23 days ago

I think the thing that Marco Scutaro has done completely is built the perfect swing path for contact. He’s got essentially no back swing and he drives his hips forward and pulls his hands through the zone so quickly you can barely see it. An amazing ability to make contact is built from the ground up, and with Scutaro you can see it in his lower body when he gets ready to swing. So quick to the ball..

fergie348
Guest
fergie348
3 years 23 days ago

Oh, and he goes the opposite way better than almost anyone in the sport. You can’t get him to try to pull the ball on a pitch on the outer half. He just stays back and tries to drive the ball between the 2nd and 1st baseman.

Offseasonblues
Guest
Offseasonblues
3 years 23 days ago

Daniel Nava is demonstrating the value of Cameron’s concluding advice. Now that he’s made himself too valuable to leave on the bench, it will be interesting to see if he keeps getting better.

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