As the Royals prepare for a double-header this evening against the White Sox (if the weather holds of course), I began doing research into Kansas City hitters this year in an effort to see what performances are sustainable, and which ones may not be. After all, it’s common to see hitters ride a hot start to fame early on, only to fade as the Summer season transitions to early Fall. So, I wanted to see through advanced statistical analysis (via Fangraphs) what hitters have done so far, and try to make some detailed (i.e. amateur) forecasting based on that data.
As per the usual sabermetrics-inclined baseball fan (i.e. “NERRRRRRDDDD!!!), I didn’t use traditional numbers for my analysis. Rather, I decided to focus on one category of Fangraphs’ statistical sections: plate discipline.
For those who are unfamiliar, the plate discipline table on Fangraphs lists a lot of categories that are related to…you guessed it…a hitter’s discipline at the plate. How often does a hitter swing outside the strike zone (O-Strike %)? How often do they swing in their at-bats (Swing %)? How often do they swing at pitches in the strike zone (Z-Strike %)? These are all questions answered by plate discipline numbers, and are important to know when judging any hitter. A hitter can have all the tools (hit for average, hit for power, bat speed), but if they have poor plate discipline, they usually will be susceptible to bad stretches during the season and/or fail to live up to their promise.
However, in addition to measuring “how much” a hitter swings, Fangraphs’ plate discipline also measures contact rates, another important measurable skill of a hitter. How often does a hitter make contact (contact %)? How much does a hitter make contact in the strike zone (Z-Contact %)? How much does a hitter make contact OUTSIDE the strike zone (O-Contact %)? How much does a hitter swing and miss? (Swing Strike %). If a hitter doesn’t make contact or swings and misses a lot, it’s going to be hard to imagine that hitter have a bright future at the Major League level.
So, let’s take a look at this spreadsheet below, with contact percentage highlighted for Royals hitters who have accumulated 30 or more plate appearances this year. As you can see, those highlighted green have “good” contact rate numbers, those who are yellow are around “league average”, and those who are red have “poor” contact rates.
Hitters with “good” contact rates
Cam Gallagher (88.5 percent), Nicky Lopez (85.9 percent), Martin Maldonado (83.7 percent), Whit Merrifield (83.6 percent), Hunter Dozier (80.5 percent), Alex Gordon (80.2 percent).
Now, not this list in some cases is a prime example of contact rates not telling the whole story. Nobody will claim that Gallagher nor Maldonado are the Royals’ best hitters, even though they are No.1 and No. 3 in highest contact rate for the club. However, the hitters who stick out the most are Merrifield, Dozier and Gordon, who not only have “good” contact rates, but also are some of the Royals’ top producers this year at the plate. So for those who may be pessimists and think that bottom will drop on those three Royals leaders soon, the contact rates show that what these three are doing at the dish has a strong chance to maintain throughout the 2019 season.
Hitters with “average” contact rates
Billy Hamilton (76.9 percent), Terrance Gore (75.5 percent), Ryan O’Hearn (75.3 percent), Lucas Duda (74.6 percent).
This list is a bit more underwhelming than the previous one. It’s not that these hitters contact rates are alarming (either in a good or bad way), but really, none of these hitters have or are expected to make much of a major impact on the Royals lineup. Hamilton and O’Hearn are really the only regular players, and their contact rates have demonstrated that they may be a bit better than what their numbers are at the plate currently (Hamilton is hitting .231 and O’Hearn is hitting .186). But, even though Hamilton and O’Hearn may be not as bad as the batting averages may imply according to contact rate, they pretty much are what their contact rates demonstrate, which is average hitters.
Hitters with “poor” contact rates
Kelvin Gutierrez (72 percent), Jorge Soler (69 percent), Chris Owings (68.7 percent), and Adalberto Mondesi (68 percent).
This is where the analysis gets fun. With Gutierrez and Owings, you could argue that their “poor” contact rates make them suspect hitters at the Major League level, and that strictly on a hitting end, the Royals may be better suited at looking at other options in their place. For Soler, while the contact rate is discouraging, he is a power hitter (he leads the team with 12 home runs this year). As long as he can produce a decent walk rate and BB/K ratio (he hasn’t this year unfortunately, but he demonstrated improvement in those categories a year ago, so it’s possible), then the “dinger” totals will make up for the lackluster contact rates.
The most interesting case is Mondesi. Mondesi is known for his speed, especially on the basepaths, as he leads the team in stolen bases with 18. However, his contact rates profile as someone who is a power hitter, not a speed demon. To make matters worse, not only does he not make contact well, but he also has one of the highest swing rates on the team (56.9 percent), meaning that he swings and misses a lot (which is true, at 18.2 percent, a team high). For a guy whose best tool now (and maybe going forward) is his speed, this kind of free-swinging approach is counter intuitive to his strengths as a ballplayer. He needs to be the kind of player that puts the ball in play and get on base, and right now, he’s not really doing either of those things (0.20 BB/K ratio, which is almost 18 points below league average). That makes Mondesi a tough player to project, not just going forward in 2019, but even beyond. He’s doing well now (.290/.322/.490 slash), but his plate discipline and contact skills this year foreshadow that a sharp regression may be due on the horizon.
What can we take away from contact rates going forward?
Overall, the Royals hitters’ contact rates and plate discipline for the most part correlate with the players’ production: Merrifield, Gordon and Dozier make good contact, and thus, have been great at producing runs for the Royals. Owings has a poor rate, and thus, he hasn’t done diddly for the Royals offensively. But, of course, there are discrepancy cases with contact and production this year, with Mondesi being the most glaring (and important) one.
A poor contact rate may not sink a player’s season completely or immediately (as one can see in Mondesi’s case), but it is a warning sign, especially if the hitter profiles a certain way that contrasts with their contact rate (i.e. a speed hitter who has a low contact rate). If a hitter can’t make contact at a passing rate, then it will only be a matter of time before the BABIP (Batting Average of Balls put in Play) fairies correct the situation. Currently, Mondesi is sporting a BABIP of .373, which is nearly 73 points above league average. What will happen if that BABIP falls to league average or even worse? Well, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mondesi go from potential All-Star to another fringe MLB player, which many Royals fans were clamoring he was going into the 2018 season as he had failed to live up to the hype at the plate (I credit it to him being young; at 23 years old, he still is 3 years away from his “peak” season, so the contact rate has a chance to improve with more at-bats).
It’s important to look at a players “whole” profile, and not just cherry pick at certain stats. That is one of the biggest beefs with those who use sabermetrics to support their opinion and analysis. But to project an offensive players’ future, I do believe contact rate is an important skill to pay close attention to. Luckily for the Royals, they have a lot of high contact hitters (only four are below average contact wise, and one is currently in Omaha), which bodes well that the Royals batters will be the strength of this team going forward in 2019.