Hitting for power and making contact

Mike Ehrmann

Baseball's best power hitters rarely possess elite contact ability. Over the past 40 years, which hitters have best paired power with the ability to not strike out?

Just a couple weeks ago, I wrote here at Beyond the Box Score about Edwin Encarnacion and how he is an unusual commodity in Major League Baseball—a power hitter who rarely strikes out. Indeed, Encarnacion posted a .534 slugging percentage in 2013, while striking out in just 10.0% of his plate appearances, a mark that ranked eighth-lowest in baseball.

A quick search on Baseball-Reference’s Play Index revealed that such an accomplishment (an MLB hitter slugging greater than .500 and striking out less than 10% of the time over a full season) had only happened 25 times in the past 10 years. In the comments section of that article, however, fellow BtBS writer Ryan Romano presented an idea that got me thinking:

What’s even more impressive is that [Encarnacion] has done this in a year with the highest league-wide K% ever. Perhaps, as a follow up, you could look at players with a K% that’s 50% lower than league average and that have a .500 slugging percentage.

Immediately I knew Ryan had come up with a great idea, so I enlisted the help of our research team, who gave me a list of all the players dating back 40 years that have finished a season with a strikeout percentage 50% lower than league average and slugged over .500. The study yielded a 38-player list with numerous different hitter types and players from five different decades. Here is the list, sorted by how a player’s K% compares to the league-average K% for that season (I’ve also included each player’s ISO and OBP as reference points):

Player Year PA K% SLG% LgAvg-K% Player-K%/LgAvg-K% ISO OBP
Tony Gwynn 1998 505 3.5644 0.501 16.65 0.21 0.18 0.371
Tony Gwynn 1997 651 4.3011 0.547 16.69 0.26 0.176 0.414
Tony Gwynn 1994 466 4.0773 0.571 15.48 0.26 0.178 0.46
George Brett 1977 627 3.8278 0.532 13.24 0.29 0.22 0.38
Don Mattingly 1986 742 4.717 0.573 15.06 0.31 0.222 0.401
Paul Lo Duca 2001 519 5.7803 0.544 17.3 0.33 0.224 0.372
Sean Casey 2004 633 5.6872 0.534 16.8 0.34 0.21 0.386
Tony Gwynn 1987 680 5.1471 0.511 15.11 0.34 0.141 0.456
Nomar Garciaparra 2006 523 5.7361 0.505 16.67 0.34 0.203 0.369
George Brett 1980 515 4.2718 0.664 12.18 0.35 0.274 0.46
Don Mattingly 1984 662 4.9849 0.537 13.39 0.37 0.194 0.383
Bill Madlock 1976 588 4.5918 0.5 12.26 0.37 0.162 0.417
Mike Greenwell 1988 693 5.4834 0.531 14.41 0.38 0.205 0.421
Barry Bonds 2004 617 6.6451 0.812 16.8 0.4 0.45 0.616
Don Mattingly 1987 630 6.0317 0.559 15.11 0.4 0.232 0.383
Nomar Garciaparra 1999 595 6.5546 0.603 16.12 0.41 0.246 0.426
Don Mattingly 1985 727 5.6396 0.568 13.6 0.41 0.244 0.378
George Brett 1979 701 5.1355 0.563 11.94 0.43 0.234 0.381
Cal Ripken 1991 717 6.4156 0.566 14.82 0.43 0.243 0.386
Gary Sheffield 1992 618 6.4725 0.58 14.55 0.44 0.25 0.389
Albert Pujols 2004 692 7.5145 0.657 16.8 0.45 0.326 0.424
Hal McRae 1977 720 5.9722 0.515 13.24 0.45 0.217 0.374
Barry Bonds 2002 612 7.6797 0.799 16.7 0.46 0.429 0.586
Mark Grace 1995 627 7.3365 0.516 15.9 0.46 0.19 0.398
Mike Sweeney 1999 643 7.465 0.52 16.12 0.46 0.198 0.393
Ted Simmons 1977 601 6.1564 0.5 13.24 0.46 0.182 0.413
Alan Trammell 1987 668 7.0359 0.551 15.11 0.47 0.208 0.408
Carl Yastrzemski 1977 643 6.2208 0.505 13.24 0.47 0.21 0.375
Albert Pujols 2006 634 7.8864 0.671 16.67 0.47 0.34 0.434
Wade Boggs 1987 667 7.1964 0.588 15.11 0.48 0.225 0.462
Albert Pujols 2011 651 8.9094 0.541 18.21 0.49 0.242 0.368
Moises Alou 2006 378 8.2011 0.571 16.67 0.49 0.27 0.359
Gary Sheffield 2003 678 8.1121 0.604 16.48 0.49 0.274 0.426
Albert Pujols 2008 641 8.4243 0.653 16.96 0.5 0.296 0.463
Vladimir Guerrero 2005 594 8.0808 0.565 16.14 0.5 0.248 0.399
Yadier Molina 2012 563 9.7691 0.501 19.51 0.5 0.186 0.377
Gary Sheffield 1998 549 8.3789 0.524 16.65 0.5 0.222 0.432

The oldest season from our data set dates back to 1976 when Bill Madlock struck out 63% less than league average, while slugging exactly .500 and belting 51 extra-base hits for the Cubs. Four more players (including George Brett twice) would achieve this feat in the 1970s, and such a season occurred nine times in the 1980’s, nine times again in the 1990’s, 11 times in the 2000’s, and has happened twice since 2010.

As the top of the table demonstrates, Tony Gwynn achieved the lowest K% compared with league average among this group (striking out 79% less than the league-average rate in 1998!) and finished with just such a season four different times. Albert Pujols and Don Mattingly appear on the list four times as well, with George Brett and Gary Sheffield each showing up on three occasions.

There is little denying the prevalence of hitters like Gwynn and Brett, who paired tremendous contact skills with power that was less tied up in home runs than in bundles of extra-base hits. Gwynn himself never hit more than 17 home runs in one season, but did lead the league in hits on seven different occasions and is ranked 28th all-time in doubles. Brett places sixth on the all-time doubles list with 665 and led MLB in that category twice during his career.

For me the biggest surprise on the list is Paul Lo Duca, who had quite an impressive season for the Dodgers back in 2001. The former catcher batted .320/.374/.543 and struck out in just 5.8% of his plate appearances in what would be a career year.

Beyond these names, the only great home run hitters in this group are Pujols, Sheffields, and Barry Bonds, which came as something of a surprise to me. But as fellow BtBS contributor Evan Kendall demonstrated recently, power and strikeouts are positively correlated, even if more power doesn’t always mean more strikeouts.

Of course, one name not on this list is Encarnacion, whose 10.0% K% missed the cut-off by .1%. The league average strikeout rate for hitters in 2013 was 19.9%, according to FanGraphs, which is significantly greater than the league’s K% just 10 years ago in 2003 (16.4%). The fact Encarnacion didn’t qualify for this group, then, doesn’t diminish his accomplishments in any way. Rather Encarnacion has been able to make contact and hit for legitimate power in an era when hitters are both striking out more and hitting home runs less.

Special thanks to John Choiniere for research assistance and Ryan Romano for his smart comment in my original article on Encarnacion.

All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

Alex Skillin is a writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score and also works as a Web Editor for SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.

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