Fun With Swing Rates

Rob Carr

Do hitters who swing less often exhibit better contact ability, and are free-swingers worse off?

"You can’t hit the ball without swinging the bat, meat!"

That quote has stuck with me ever since it was repeated ad nauseum in MVP Baseball 2005, which might still be my favorite video game of all time. But as I was repeating it to myself the other day when reading Part 4 of Matt Swartz' five-part series on game theory in baseball, I found myself wondering if it was actually true.

I mean, I know it has to be true, since you can’t HIT the ball without swinging.

But what about being a productive player without swinging the bat often? To answer that question I created a Fangraphs custom leaderboard for the 143 qualified batters from this past season showing various performance metrics and plate discipline metrics.

Can I Help You? No, Just Looking.

The chart below shows the league’s most infrequent swingers, as determined by Zone Swing %, which I decided to use instead of just Swing % because you can’t fault patient hitters for watching bad pitches.

Name Team Age Z-Swing% BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP O-Swing% Contact%
Martin Prado Braves 28 48.90% 8.40% 10.00% 0.301 0.359 0.438 0.796 0.136 0.322 28.70% 90.40%
Jamey Carroll Twins 38 52.20% 9.70% 12.10% 0.268 0.343 0.317 0.66 0.049 0.306 24.10% 90.20%
Joe Mauer Twins 29 52.50% 14.00% 13.70% 0.319 0.416 0.446 0.861 0.127 0.364 22.50% 87.80%
J.J. Hardy Orioles 29 53.00% 5.30% 14.90% 0.238 0.282 0.389 0.671 0.151 0.253 30.20% 87.80%
Ben Revere Twins 24 54.00% 5.20% 9.80% 0.294 0.333 0.342 0.675 0.049 0.325 27.60% 92.60%
Elvis Andrus Rangers 23 54.50% 8.00% 13.50% 0.286 0.349 0.378 0.727 0.092 0.332 23.10% 87.70%
A.J. Ellis Dodgers 31 54.60% 12.90% 21.20% 0.27 0.373 0.414 0.786 0.144 0.329 22.40% 83.00%
Mike Trout Angels 20 55.10% 10.50% 21.80% 0.326 0.399 0.564 0.963 0.238 0.383 26.50% 81.80%
Kevin Youkilis - - - 33 55.30% 10.00% 21.20% 0.235 0.336 0.409 0.745 0.174 0.268 20.60% 81.60%
Jemile Weeks Athletics 25 56.40% 9.80% 13.70% 0.221 0.305 0.304 0.609 0.083 0.256 23.10% 87.30%
Dustin Ackley Mariners 24 56.80% 8.80% 18.60% 0.226 0.294 0.328 0.622 0.102 0.265 25.80% 86.10%

The list has some surprises and some, umm, not-so-surprises. At the top are guys like Carroll, Revere, Andrus and Weeks, who are all low-power hitters who likely try to work walks or look for certain pitches to put into play. While their OBP’s aren’t that high, all but Weeks had above-average BABIPs and they all had below-average K-rates, indicating this is likely a strategic element more than a flaw.

Then there’s Youkilis, Prado, Mauer, Ellis and even Trout, who are all higher-OBP players with some moderate power. While some of them strikeout a fair amount, Prado and Mauer don’t. This is also probably the group that would have the best reputation as being "good" players relative to the others on the list.

And then there’s J.J. Hardy, whose .282 OBP doesn’t really fit on the list. Dustin Ackley and Weeks are the only other players near the top with poor on-base performance, and I found it weird to see a pretty notorious power-only guy among the least free-swinging batters in the league.

Does It Matter?

To try and make some generalized conclusions, I split the player list into buckets based on Zone Swing % and compared the average in certain metrics. The point was to see if players who take more strikes perform worse or if it makes no tangible difference. My hypothesis was that the overall value of the players probably wouldn’t change much, but we’d see the free swingers sacrifice average and on-base ability for increased power. Let’s have a look.

Zone Swing % # of Players BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP O-Swing% Contact%
<60 20 8.98 14.86 0.274 0.343 0.409 0.135 0.307 26.2 86.7
60-65 43 8.68 16.65 0.271 0.338 0.438 0.166 0.302 28.2 82.9
65-70 46 8.52 20.15 0.268 0.335 0.444 0.176 0.309 31.8 77.9
>70 34 7.7 19.31 0.276 0.336 0.469 0.193 0.311 35.2 78.2
League Average - 64.7% 8 19.8 0.255 0.319 0.405 0.151 0.297 30.8 79.7

This is where things get a bit more interesting. In our first three buckets, we see the trend that I outlined as our kind of "expected outcome," where OBP is sacrificed for SLG.

It also makes sense that we see Contact % decline as Zone Swing % increases, as it confirms that these players are actually displaying a strategy here rather than a flaw. That is, because the players who swing less often also have high contact rates, it appears they are exhibiting a desire to wait for their pitch, so to speak. The fact that O-Swing % trends with Zone Swing % also makes sense, as they are related in a fairly logical manner.

What I found most interesting, perhaps, was that the "super-swingers" in the highest bucket kind of bucked the trend, showing higher averages, BABIP and ISO than any other group. It seems, based on OPS, that the best players happened to move to this group.

Perhaps success begets confidence, which begets a more free-swinging attitude? Or maybe swinging early in the count is beneficial to hitter success? More follow-up research is required, of course, but I thought the result was interesting nonetheless.

What are your thoughts, meat – can you, in fact, hit the ball without swinging the bat, so to speak?

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