See the ball, hit the ball

At this time last year, I looked at a group of players who were adept at putting the ball in play, forcing the defense to work for the out. It was an interesting mix that yielded a catcher (Bengie Molina), a light hitting outfielder who is always putting the ball in play (Juan Pierre) and a pair of shortstops (Cristian Guzman and Yuniesky Betancourt.)

Do any of the above four make a return engagement? Using the reverse Three True Outcomes, read on for the 2009 version of the top four players at putting the ball in play this year.

Placido Polanco: 1 HR, 14 BB, 16 SO in 244 plate appearances
True Outcome Percentage: 12.7 percent

Although he didn’t make the list at this time last season, Polanco’s ability to make contact at such a high rate means he’s a mainstay on lists like these. He makes contact when he swings at a ball in the strike zone an astonishing 98 percent of the time. Wow. Overall, he’s swung and missed on just 5 percent of all strikes he’s seen this year.

Now if he could only get some of that contact to fall. His BABIP is .263 which is the lowest rate of his career.

What made Polanco a successful hitter in the past was the fact he could handle falling behind in the count. For his career, he’s hit .283/.313/.375 after falling behind with a first pitch strike. This season, he sees a first pitch strike around 57 percent of the time which is slightly better than league average, but in those 95 plate appearances that start with a strike, he’s hitting a meager .193/.253/.284. That’s well off his career numbers and a huge change from last year’s .301/.323/.383 he hit following a 0-1 count.

The silver lining is, if pitchers fall behind, watch out. In 87 plate appearances this season where he’s started with ball one, Polanco is hitting .342/.391/.456. It appears to be feast or famine for Polanco.

Yuniesky Betancourt: 2 HR, 8 BB, 14 SO in 196 plate appearances
True Outcome Percentage: 12.2 percent

Betancourt is the only repeat player from last summer’s list. This time last year, he was the contact leader, putting the ball in play 90.3 percent of the time. That was on the strength of just four walks (along with 16 strikeouts and three home runs) in his first 236 plate appearances.

This season, not much has changed as far as the amount of contact. Rather the change has come in the type of contact.

Simply put, Betancourt has become a fly ball hitter this year. His 0.9 GB/FB ratio is the most fly ball skewed (outside of a 0.82 GB/FB ratio in 211 at-bats as a rookie in 2005) of his career. The increase in fly balls has led to a decrease in batting average; he’s currently hitting just .248. And since base hits is usually the only way for him to actually get on base, the lack of knocks has suppressed his OBP to .277, which would be a career low.

Perhaps it has something to do with his contact rates on balls outside of the zone. Betancourt has always been a free swinger taking a rip at anything close to the strike zone. His career O-Swing percentage (the percentage of balls swung at that are outside the zone) of 30.9 percent attests to this. However this year, he’s actually making contact on a higher percentage of those “bad” swings.

O-Contact %
2007: 68.2%
2008: 77.7%
2009: 85.1%

As his O-Contact rate has increased, his performance has decreased.

2007: .289/.308/.418 OPS+ 93
2008: .279/.300/.392 OPS+ 85
2009: .243/.271/.322 OPS+ 59

Betancourt is going to swing and he’s going to make contact. That’s what he does. With 27 career home runs and a slugging percentage of .394, let’s just say it would behoove Betancourt to change his contact approach and try to keep the ball on the ground. Maybe then he could inch his OBP back to around .300.

Cesar Izturis: 1 HR, 5 BB, 12 SO in 159 plate appearances
True Outcome Percent: 11.3 percent

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

Setting our minimum plate appearances at 150, Izturis ducks just under the bar to qualify for inclusion.

Izturis is truly a pitcher’s best friend. Nearly 70 percent of all pitches thrown to him are strikes. Seventy percent! That’s because he’s up there swinging, taking a hack at at least half the pitches he sees in an at bat. What makes him different from the others on this list is he will actually take a strike. For the season, he’s kept the bat on his shoulder for 27 percent of the strikes he’s seen.

Izturis won’t be swinging at anything for awhile as he’s out for an unspecified amount of time after undergoing an appendectomy.

Miguel Tejada: 6 HR, 6 BB, 15 SO in 246 plate appearances
True Outcome Percent: 11 percent

This is a huge surprise. Tejada has always had plenty of power (and the walks and strikeouts) to avoid a list like this. To be named here is shocking enough, but at the bottom?

For his career, Tejada’s strikeout rate remains above 13 percent. That’s due to some free swinging at the beginning of his career when he whiffed around 22 percent of the time. After that rocky start, Tejada went to work on improving his contact and subsequently sliced several points off his percentage. The graph from FanGraphs neatly illustrates how he bottomed out in 2003 for the A’s at 10.2 percent and has been – for the most part – holding steady ever since.

This season however, Tejada has cut his strikeouts like never before. Through Wednesday, he’s struck out just 15 times in 230 at bats. At 6.5 percent, he’s whiffing at the lowest rate of his career. And his 15.6 AB/K ratio is the best in the league.

And while he’s not striking out, he’s not taking the free pass, either. Tejada has drawn just six walks (one intentional) in his 242 plate appearances. Patience hasn’t been his strength over his career – his highest walk rate was in 2000 when he drew a career high 66 walks and strolled to first 9.8 percent of the time.

This year, Tejada is swinging as aggressive as ever. He’s seeing just 3.3 pitches per plate appearance – the 12th lowest total among all players with at least 150 plate appearances. He’s hacking right out of the box. Tejada is swinging at the first pitch 27 percent of the time.

What is most intriguing is that a (former?) power hitter like Tejada is anywhere near a list like this. At the bottom is just downright shocking. For the year he’s hit just six home runs and that follows his 2008 season where he left the yard only 13 times, his lowest total since hitting 11 in 365 at-bats in 1998. He went 86 plate appearances this year before he hit his first home run on May 7. He then went on a tear where he hit six (his total for the year) in his next 85 plate appearances, slugging .800. Since then, he’s cooled off a bit. Over his last 27 plate appearances, he hasn’t left the yard and has just one double while slugging a mere .333. It’s his longest homerless stretch since the beginning of the season.

While his home run numbers are down, Tejada’s ISO is up. At .170, it’s at it’s highest level since he was at .211 for the Orioles in 2005. The ISO is so high because he’s hitting doubles like crazy. With 21 on the year, he’s tied for the league lead with Freddy Sanchez and appears poised to take aim at his career high of 50.

When someone like Tejada suddenly makes an appearance on a list like this and is backing it up with an outstanding performance, the question quickly turns from, “How did he get here?” to, “Can he keep going?”

In Tejada’s case his .358 BABIP is certainly lofty, which would point to a return to the mean. His recent performance—he wrapped up a 17 game hitting streak last week (.444/.467/.736) and has hit in his last four contests since taking the collar in that game—points to the tremendous roll he’s been on of late. Overall, he’s hit in 21 of his last 22 games, a span of .415/.433/.649 over 96 plate appearances.

That’s a great run, but he’s walked twice since April 21. He’s actually reached base more by being hit by a pitch since then, having been plunked three times.

He’s certainly performing at a high level and it’s been going on for most of the season. But at some point, he’ll have to tone things down or his free swinging ways catch up. Pitchers are undoubtedly aware of this. As the season continues, look for Tejada to see fewer strikes, forcing him to be patient. He’s been around the block a few times, so it will be interesting to see how he adjusts. He’s also in the final year of a contract and will almost certainly see his name floated in trade rumors and it would be wise for the Astros to sell high—or as high as they can. On Thursday, he was linked to the Cardinals. It could be an interesting second half.

References & Resources
The new (and improved) Baseball Reference provided most of the statistical heavy lifting for this article.

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