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Contact Rate Surgers

We here at FanGraphs University always preach patience and to now allow small sample performance weigh too highly on our panicky brains. For the most part, this is a strong principle to adhere to, but not every metric requires hundreds of plate appearances to stabilize. In fact only 100 plate appearances are needed before Contact Rate, or Contact% in the Plate Discipline section, becomes reliable. That makes the metric the second quickest to stabilize, following Swing%. Obviously, all else being equal, the more contact a hitter makes, the better. All things aren’t always equal though, and sometimes more contact could lead to lesser power. So let’s check in on the hitters whose contact rates have surged the most this season compared to last and figure out if we can glean anything.

Name 2013 Contact% 2012 Contact% Diff 2013 K% 2012 K% Diff 2013 ISO 2012 ISO Diff
Matt Carpenter 91.5% 83.0% 8.5% 15.1% 18.5% -3.4% 0.177 0.169 0.008
Torii Hunter 82.9% 74.9% 8.0% 14.1% 22.8% -8.7% 0.118 0.139 -0.021
Alfonso Soriano 79.4% 71.7% 7.7% 18.1% 24.9% -6.8% 0.135 0.237 -0.102
Donovan Solano 89.3% 83.0% 6.3% 12.7% 18.4% -5.7% 0.046 0.081 -0.035
Russell Martin 85.9% 79.6% 6.3% 9.9% 19.6% -9.7% 0.270 0.192 0.078
Kelly Johnson 77.2% 71.4% 5.8% 26.7% 27.4% -0.7% 0.192 0.140 0.052
Pablo Sandoval 86.3% 80.5% 5.8% 10.2% 13.3% -3.1% 0.153 0.164 -0.011
Robinson Cano 87.9% 82.8% 5.1% 13.3% 13.8% -0.5% 0.286 0.238 0.048
Andrew McCutchen 82.8% 77.8% 5.0% 13.4% 19.6% -6.2% 0.185 0.226 -0.041
Shin-Soo Choo 80.9% 76.1% 4.8% 16.8% 21.9% -5.1% 0.230 0.159 0.071

As one would expect, every single one of these hitters has seen his strikeout rate decline this year. When it comes to ISO changes, five are up and five are down. Of course, since ISO itself doesn’t stabilize until 550 plate appearances, which is nearly a full season, it’s far too early to discern any pattern involving improved contact rates and power. Now let’s talk about the individual players.

Matt Carpenter‘s strikeout rate has bounced around in the minors, but he has posted marks at several stops that would suggest his current rate is sustainable. Unfortunately, his strong walk rates of past seasons hasn’t yet manifested this year, which oddly enough, may be a side effect of making more contact.

Torii Hunter‘s more contact-oriented approach has directly translated into fewer strikeouts. His power continues its free fall, however, which may have been the motivation behind his change at the plate. If a veteran hitter knows his power is in decline, it would make sense for him shorten up his stroke to make better contact, rather than hit harmless fly balls that fall into outfielder’s gloves. This is also the second straight season his ground ball rate has increased to a new career high, which is yet another check mark in the box of Hunter knowing who he is now and making the necessary changes to remain productive at the plate.

Alfonso Soriano is having a rather bizarre season to date, as his strikeout rate sits at the best mark since 2003, but he has also walked just four times, good for his worst walk rate since 2002. While he may be afflicted with the same issue Carpenter is dealing with, he is also hitting the lowest rate of fly balls in his career…by far. That is one reason why his ISO is down significantly, but his HR/FB rate is also down, so even when he is getting the ball in the air, it’s not getting over the wall at historical rates. I’m not sure we could explain a whole lot based on some of the oddities in his current numbers, but the man is 37 years old, so any year now he could completely flop without warning. Of course, the better contact is a good sign that this is not that year.

Russell Martin was a hot pickup in fantasy leagues recently after a four game stretch in which he clubbed four homers, and his strikeout rate sits at what is easily the best rate of his career. But once again, we find that his walk rate is down a bit. Martin has also enjoyed the largest ISO spike of the hitters on this list. Of course, that’s supported by an unsustainable 26% HR/FB rate. While that will come down, it does provide optimism that last year’s HR/FB rate spike, of which itself followed a HR/FB rate jump in 2011, wasn’t a complete fluke. Martin still has some speed, which is gold for a catcher, and given his always solid walk rates, he is worth even more in OBP leagues.

Despite a big jump in Contact%, Kelly Johnson‘s strikeout rate has barely budged. His Swing% has declined to its lowest mark since 2007, while he is seeing more pitches in the zone than he has over the past three seasons. Perhaps he is getting caught looking more frequently, which explains the lack of movement in his strikeout rate. Aside from a bunch of fly balls having replaced line drives so far, this looks like the same Johnson as always.

Pablo Sandoval‘s improved contact rate has helped him strike out less frequently after displaying amazing consistency over the previous four years when his K% ranged between 13% and 14% every season. But continuing the theme I have noticed, Sandoval is walking less often as well. I still worry about that elbow though and if I were a fantasy owner, fear that one day I wake up and find out that Sandoval suddenly has to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Like Kelly Johnson, Robinson Cano is the other hitter here who hasn’t seen much of a change in strikeout percentage despite the improved contact. Before the season, Bill Petti introduced an interesting metric to try to identify collapse candidates. Robinson Cano‘s name was included as one of the five, with one of the main reasons being a large decline in Z-Contact& last year. Well, good news Cano owners — his Z-Contact% has fully rebounded making last year look like the fluke rather than the beginning of a performance decline. Though I still don’t believe Cano can continue to post HR/FB rates around 25%, all systems are go.

Though Andrew McCutchen is making better contact this year, he has shown this skill level before, back in 2009 and 2010. In addition, his strikeout rate has rebounded back to 2010 levels, so this isn’t unprecedented. We all know that he was going to experience regression in his BABIP, perhaps a significant one, but if he can maintain the improved contact, the drop in batting average won’t sting as much as we may have expected. It’s still very, very early, but so far it looks like last year’s 19% HR/FB rate was the fluke, which again, shouldn’t really be a surprise.

Man Shin-Soo Choo has been ridiculous for the Reds. Not only is he making the best contact — and posting the best strikeout rate — of his career, but walking at the highest rate as well. The only time he has come close to making contact this frequently was in 2010, which just so happens to rank as his current career best strikeout rate, excluding his season to date. Fewer ground balls and more fly balls would be nice, and really help him sustain the increased power, but even if not, he’s a reasonable bet to lead the National League in runs scored.

Here are the rest of the hitters who have seen their Contact% increase.