Three, two, one… contact!

Last month, I looked at players who put the ball in play at historic rates. A bizarro Three True Outcomes, if you will.

After tackling the historic rates, I decided to shine the light at those players who have the lowest True Outcome percentage this season—those who are insisting on making the defense get them out by minimizing stikeouts, walks and home runs. In my previous articles, one thing I discovered was that the days of the player posting a sub-10 percent True Outcome rate were disappearing. In fact, it’s been done only 14 times since the end of the 1970s. While no players in 2008 are posting a historically low percentage, a handful who have their eyes on a single-digit percentage.

Warning: This list is not for the faint of heart.

Bengie Molina: 6 HR, 8 BB, 15 SO in 233 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 12.4%

It’s kind of surprising that a player who has averaged almost 18 home runs over the last three seasons could be in the bottom five of this list, but Molina is a notorious free swinger with above-average contact skills.

Molina abhors the walk. Since his rookie season in 1999, he’s drawn a grand total of 160 base on balls. Setting aside his eight free passes this year (three of which were intentional!) Molina has averaged just under 17 walks a year. The result is a career walk rate of 4.2 percent. He’s outperforming that rate this season, currently 3.5 percent.

In 2006, Molina had 19 home runs and 19 walks. Last year, he again hit 19 home runs, but walked only 15 times. This season, thanks to those intentional walks he’s plus-two in the walk to home run race. Some sports book should open a bet on this.

The interesting thing about Molina is that while he swings at everything and has modest power, he doesn’t strike out much. His career strikeout rate is 9.5 percent, and this season, he’s shaved that rate to 6.9 percent.

He’s cut down on his strikeouts despite swinging at more pitches out of the zone. According to the data collected by Fangraphs, Molina is swinging at a whopping 35.2 percent of all pitches outside of the strike zone. That’s almost 12 percent above major league average and is the ninth highest rate among hitters this season. Yet his strikeouts are down.

To get an idea of how unusual Molina’s season is, here are the top 10 hitters ranked by percentage of swings outside the zone followed by their current strikeout rate.

      Name      O-Swing %     K%
Vladimir Guerrero    44.5%     17.2%
Alfonso Soriano      39.6%     21.7%
Delmon Young         37.7%     17.1%
Ivan Rodriguez       36.6%     18.9%
Carlos Gomez         36.6%     24.5%
Garrett Anderson     36.4%     14.8%
AJ Pierzynski        36.0%     10.6%
Jeff Francoeur       35.3%     16.5%
Bengie Molina        35.2%      6.9%
Miguel Tejada        35.2%     11.9%

Interesting that a pair of catchers have the lowest strikeout rates of the group.

Because of his power potential, it’s doubtful Molina will find his name still in the bottom four at the end of the season. And there’s no way he finishes below 10 percent.

Juan Pierre: 0 HR, 17 BB, 10 SO
True Outcome percentage: 11.8%

With a career True Outcome percentage of 11.3 percent, Pierre is a mainstay on a list like this. Since 2000, a player posted a True Outcome percentage lower than 10 percent three times. Pierre owns two of them.

The five lowest Three True Outcome percentages since 2000:

          Name      Year      TTO%
Juan Pierre         2007      9.6%
Placido Polanco     2006      9.7%
Juan Pierre         2006      9.7%
David Eckstein      2007     10.1%
Juan Pierre         2001     10.5%

It’s worth noting that if he maintains his current pace, Pierre will challenge his previous career high for walks, which he set in 2003, when he had 55 free passes. If that happens, maybe they’ll set off some fireworks in Chavez Ravine. It will also undoubtedly cost him any chance of a third consecutive sub-10 percent Three True Outcomes finish.

Currently hitting .283/.347/.322, with an OPS+ of 75, he moved into the leadoff spot for the Dodgers when Rafael Furcal hit the disabled list. Furcal is likely out until the All-Star break, giving Pierre another 30 games to try to lower his True Outcome percentage while sabotaging any chances of the Dodgers playing in October.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

His new-found patience will prevent him from sinking below 10 percent.

Christian Guzman: 5 HR, 9 BB, 20 SO in 293 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 11.6%

Like Molina, Guzman usually doesn’t make a discussion like this, but he’s somehow managed to slice his strikeout rate in half.

For his career, Guzman whiffs 14.5 percent of the time and his previous low for a season was 11.1 percent. This year, he’s down to 7.1 percent.

The question: Is that rate sustainable? Consider he’s making contact on 90 percent of his swings this year. Compare that to 2005, when his strikeout rate was 16.7 percent and he was making contact 84 percent of the time. If he continues to put the bat on the ball, there’s no reason to doubt his reduction in strikeouts is very real.

And with a BABIP of .314, Guzman’s increased contact rate means he’s more productive than ever. But when you’re talking about a hitter with a career line of .266/.303/.383, that’s not exactly high praise.

Kidding aside, he’s hitting .309/.329/.450 on the year. With 21 doubles and five home runs, he’s on pace for career highs in both categories. And since the Nationals are hitting him first or second in their lineup, he’ll have ample opportunity to reach those “heights.” Unfortunately, that won’t help the team.

With Guzman’s strikeout rate already at an all-time low, it’s unlikely he can force his Three True Outcomes percentage any lower. While he certainly can sustain his current levels, he’s not a candidate.

Yuniesky Betancourt: 3 HR, 4 BB, 16 SO in 236 plate appearances
True Outcome percentage: 9.7%

Four walks? Four?

That translates to a current walk rate of 1.7 percent. If Betancourt keeps that up, he’ll finish with the lowest walk rate since Shawon Dunston‘s 1.6 percent rate in 1997 playing for the Cubs and Pirates.

Since breaking into the majors in 2005 and taking a free pass in 5 percent of his plate appearances, his walk rates have declined every year.

2005: 5.0%
2006: 3.0%
2007: 2.7%
2008: 1.7%

The decline occurs hand in hand with an increase of swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone. Again, according to Fangraphs, here are his O-Swing percentages:

2005: 26.7%
2006: 28.4%
2007: 29.5%
2008: 33.3%

That’s quite a feat. And an indictment of his discipline as well.

But what’s odd is that while he’s swinging more and at more bad pitches, his strikeout rate has fallen:

2005: 11.4%
2006: 9.7%
2007: 9.0%
2008: 7.0%

Combine all of this with his lack of power (his career ISO is .122) and you have a perfect storm of sorts.

Currently, Betancourt is hitting .284/.294/.415 and he stands the best chance of the four at finishing below 10 percent. That is, if he can keep his job for the entire season.

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